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A life spent in orange

Wayne Coffman’s athletic abilities brought him to Clemson, but his desire to affect young lives has kept him there.

Wayne Coffman (right) poses with Miguel Chavis, who graduated from Clemson University in May 2014 with a degree in political science. Chavis returned to Clemson after a short stint in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Work feels more like play for Clemson University academic advisor Wayne Coffman. Thirty-seven years after he first set foot on campus, Coffman, a graduate – twice over – and former Tigers track and field coach, still bleeds orange.

The former student-athlete and coach now spends his days making sure football student-athletes understand their time in the classroom is just as important as their time on the field.

Coffman took up running for his high school track and cross country teams as a way to stay in shape after his junior season of football. As a senior, the track coach persuaded him to concentrate only on running because of his natural ability.

During his single competitive running season in high school, Coffman finished third in the state of Virginia in cross country and broke the state record for the indoor and outdoor two-mile race. His impressive performances garnered the attention of numerous college head coaches.

At that point, college wasn’t even on Coffman’s radar – no one in his family had completed any education beyond high school, some not even that far.

Not only did Clemson give him the chance to become a first-generation college graduate and Atlantic Coast Conference champion in cross country, he also went on to earn a master’s degree from the school in education counseling.

As his undergraduate career wound to a close, the school created a women’s track and field program. He was able to capitalize on his time as a student-athlete by becoming a graduate assistant with the new program and, eventually, the head coach at the age of 27.

He would go on to coach for the next 12 years, leading the team to the first ever ACC women’s track and field and women’s cross country championships. He was a five-time ACC Coach of the Year.

Although a dedicated and successful coach, Coffman eventually decided to commit more time to his family and begin the next phase of his career in academic advising.

“I wasn’t always just concerned about how good of athletes they were,” he said. “I had always been really involved with the young ladies on the team (regarding) their academics so it wasn’t really an accident that I ended up over at Vickery Hall, our academic center.”

Now the director of football academic advising, Coffman says he has worked with student-athletes from almost every sport on campus during his career. Currently, Coffman leads a small staff that works to ensure all players on the Clemson football team are on a path to graduation.

“I think a lot of people’s mindset with football and basketball is: ‘Let’s see if we can get at least half of them graduated or let’s see if we can get 60 percent graduated.’ We have the mindset that we want to get them all graduated,” Coffman said.

He and his staff work with every member of the Clemson football team on their day-to-day schedules, including classes, tutoring sessions and a mandatory one-on-one meeting with Coffman. These meetings allow him to focus on academics, but he is not afraid to talk about anything that may help the student-athletes in other aspects of their lives.

Coffman, who plans to retire in May of 2015, said getting the student-athletes to put their phones down and show up to tutoring sessions on time have proven to be his biggest challenges. Knowing that everyone comes in with a different level of discipline and standards, he takes the time to get to know every student-athlete in order to ensure they reach their potential.

“A coach is going to practice with you all week to try and get you to make a play on Saturday,” he tells his student-athletes. “I’m going to set you up with all of the resources you need so you can make an academic play.”  

It would be difficult to argue against that claim. This fall, eight members of the Clemson football team will obtain their degrees before they finish their last season of eligibility. And, of the 20 seniors on the roster, more than 75 percent either have their degree or will receive it by December 2014. Plus, Clemson student-athletes have finished in the top 10 nationally in graduation rates four years running.

Not bad for a life’s work.