By Ronnie Ramos
Katie Parry, the learning specialist for the San Jose State football team, knows the exact moment the players became really, truly committed to academics. “We beat Navy and we’re flying back and we’re all excited,” she said of a late September game earlier this year. “Our starting quarterback comes up to me and says, ‘I’m ready to do my paper.’ That is a sign of true turnaround to me. We’ve got student-athletes who want to do school work on the plane after a road win.”
It has been a long road back.
On the football field, the San Jose State football team finished 11-2, its first 11-win season since 1940. The Spartans defeated Bowling Green, 29-20, in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27. It was their first bowl game since 2006.
In the classroom, the turnaround has been even more impressive. The football program has improved its Academic Progress Rate – the NCAA’s team-based metric that measures how well a school retains students and keeps them on track to graduate – by more than 100 points.
“The way it works is you can’t have success in one area and not in the other – everything has to go hand in hand,” said senior offensive tackle David Quessenberry “Academics come first. You have to take care of business in the classroom in order to be successful on the football field.”
That wasn’t always the case.
The school’s APR was so dismal seven years ago that the school had been penalized with the loss of scholarships, faced the real possibility of being banned from bowl games, and even forced the new football coach to ask if he was going to have a team.
The program was in such disarray that six players had to be pulled off the bus before a game against Stanford because they were juniors and had not declared their majors, a requirement to remain eligible for competition. “That was mortifying,” said Eileen Daley who was hired as the lead academic athletics advisor soon after that incident.
The school also hired a new athletics director, Tom Bowen, and a new football coach, Dick Tomey, before the 2005 season. Neither knew the extent of the academic woes until they got to campus.
It was so bad in the fall of 2005 that Tomey asked Daley: Are we going to have a team? I don’t know, she told him. “The biggest reason we struggled so much was our students weren’t going to class,” Daley said. “And those that exhausted their eligibility weren’t going to class and not graduating.”
That is a deadly combination for a school’s APR. In 2004, the football team’s APR was 837. At the time, a score of 925 roughly equated to a 50 percent graduation rate. Today, a team with an APR below 930 cannot compete for a championship or play in a bowl game. San Jose State’s football team had an APR of 959 in 2011, the latest year available.
So how did San Jose State turn things around? The school unequivocally adopted an academics-first priority. Led by the new triumvirate of the school president, the athletics director and football coach, standards were raised, student-athletes were held accountable and resources were added for academic support.
In short, focusing on academics took precedence over winning football games. The road back to academic success started in early 2005 when Interim President Don Kassing was permanently named to the position. He hired Bowen as his athletics director, who then hired Tomey.
The three came aboard together. That was the good news.
The bad news was none of them knew much about the APR – and the dismal academic performance of its student-athletes. “None of us were familiar with the APR,” said Kassing, who was president until 2008. “I was aware but did not pay attention to it. We were six or seven months into our jobs and Tom (Bowen) said we were behind on dealing with APR.”
Said Bowen: “It was a mess. There was no academic support. The academic culture among students was one of disarray and nonperformance.” Across the university, student-athletes were not well regarded. “We were in such dire situation with credibility among the deans, faculty senate,” Bowen said. “We needed to show it was important to me, to the coaches.”
Tomey was not happy. “My mindset was very defensive,” he said. “I wasn’t up to date on APR. I admit that.” After six months of trying to appeal the NCAA sanctions of scholarship reductions, Tomey had a self-realization. “I needed to get myself together and understand that it was a new day in terms of academic accountability and I needed to get on board with it and take a different approach.
“At that point threw myself completely into learning all I could about the history of the APR. I got on every committee I could get on (at the NCAA) having to do with that.”
Kassing, Bowen, and Tomey made a formidable team to ignite the turnaround. “We needed to do it for the right reasons – for the kids,” Kassing said. “I wanted the kids to have respect on campus. We wanted good, strong academic students, not just athletes.”
Tomey’s effort was dubbed “Operation Graduation.” The focus was changed from getting players eligible to getting them to graduate.
“We changed our recruiting practices,” Tomey said. “We changed the way we did almost everything. We had to recruit players we were convinced could graduate.”
Bowen spearheaded the effort to acquire additional resources to help student-athletes with academics. San Jose State, though in Division I, has limited resources. But President Kassing was determined to make improvements. “We had to fund it because we felt it was very important to do,’ he said.
Bowen hired a learning specialist to work with the student-athletes and instituted mandatory study hall. They tried different things. Student-athletes on scholarships were held responsible for their performance. “If you got an F, you had to pay the class back,” Bowen said. “And it worked.”
Coaches checked classrooms to make sure the players were attending class. Tomey left in 2009 and his successor Mike McIntyre picked up what Tomey had started.
McIntyre hired Parry as a full-time learning specialist for the football team and placed her front and center. “My job is only as good as the head coach’s commitment,” Parry said. “If the head coach isn’t supportive of academics, my role doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose. Academics are front and center for him. It’s really first.”
Every day, as football practice ends, Parry is on the field. “As soon as practice is over, coach calls everyone up,” she said. “I am the first person to speak. Every day. I make academic announcements. He told me, even if you don’t really have any announcements, say something. I need to be a presence. They need to know I come first.”
Parry travels with the team on road games and hosts mandatory study hall in the hotel for at least three hours every Friday night before the game. On the plane to and from the games, the seat next to Parry is left open so students can sit with her and do their work.
“The first year we did that, I faced a little resistance,” Parry said. “Guys were like, ‘I don’t want to do it now.’ This year, I have more guys than I can handle. I had 10 to 15 players per trip, wanting to do work with me. I had to create a schedule. Kids were arguing over who was going to sit next to me so we could talk about their paper, talk about what they had coming up.”
For incoming freshmen, McIntyre started a summer bridge program, which is common at many large Division I schools. “It has made huge inroads in getting kids to learn how to be students,” Parry said. “It’s a five-week program: two classes, three hours a day. They learn study skills, life skills, how to do a presentation, how to do research, how to use the library, how to talk to a professor.
“When they start school in the fall as freshman, they know. They know how to be a student.”
Many of the architects of San Jose State’s turnaround are gone. Kassing and Tomey have retired. Bowen is now the athletics director at Memphis. McIntyre, who replaced Tomey, just left for the head coaching job at Colorado.
But the commitment remains.
Current AD Gene Blaymaier hired a new coach, Ron Caragher, last week. Maintaining the current academic success was “the number one priority,” he said. “I had to have a coach that was going to stress academics. The student-athletes are here first and foremost to graduate.”
Moments after being introduced as the new coach, Caragher said he knew about the past problems and what is expected going forward. “I knew some of the difficulties they have gone through and that came up with the leadership as we went through this process,” he said. “There is a good solid plan in place so we can keep our APR high.”
Today, the torch for academic excellence is carried by Liz Jarnigan, the associate athletic director for student services and a passionate advocate for student-athlete success. A former student-athlete and a former coach, Jarnigan seeks to take that competitive zeal the players embrace on the field and carry it into the classroom.
And unlike eight years ago, there is help. There are three academic advisors – Jose Macias, Gina Archimede and Marwa Abbas – who help all the student-athletes, not just the football players. Learning specialist Nick Mazur rounds out the team. It’s a small unit compared to what large Division I schools have.
At San Jose State, the study hall also serves as the meeting room for the football team. Jarnigan works out of an office barely larger than a closet and talks passionately about setting high standards. “The goal is to go for a 4.0,” she said. “Why shoot for a 2.0, the minimum needed to remain eligible?
“On the field, you don’t go into the season shooting for third place in the conference. You play to win. We should do the same in the classroom. We encourage them to be true to their competitive nature. Don’t change the mindset from the field to the classroom.”
Many of the players, especially the seniors, have embraced the academic part of being a student-athlete. “School has to come first because you can’t predict what is going to happen with football, said senior defensive end Travis Johnson. “But if you have a degree, you are set for life.”