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Game-Changing Faculty Programs

Athletics, academics come together through efforts to reach out to professors

Gretchen Kreahling McKay (above), faculty mentor for the McDaniel football team, cheers on the Green Terror as they enter Kenneth R. Gill Stadium. McDaniel College photo

Faculty involvement in college sports was part of the enterprise from its very beginning. Before there were national championships, athletics directors — even before there was an NCAA — college professors were working to ensure college athletes were students first.

Yet on many campuses today, athletics operations can be isolated from the rest of the campus, fraying relationships with professors and leading to distrust and misunderstanding. According to the 2016 NCAA Social Environments Study, for instance, more than one-fifth of male student-athletes surveyed report their professors assume they are not good students because they are college athletes.

Here are some schools that are working to build bridges with campus faculty through programs that honor teaching while exposing professors to student-athlete life.

McDaniel — Faculty Mentor

McDaniel football was in the midst of a losing season — one that would, in the end, be winless.

But what art history professor Gretchen Kreahling McKay saw in the team one fall day in 2015 made her think differently about her Roman art and architecture class. “I grabbed the program and circled all the guys that were in my class,” she recalls. “This team hadn’t had a winning season in five seasons. But I saw such passion and such excitement and such engagement, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to get me some of that. They signed up for my class for some reason.’ ”

The reason, it turned out, was to fulfill an international studies requirement. But McKay was so struck by the players’ commitment that she made a commitment, too, pledging to bring active learning or role-playing exercises to each of her class sessions. “I had already been experimenting,” McKay says. “But I decided, every single class period, I’m going to come up with something.’”

Her class and referrals from other players drew more members of the football team, despite McKay’s high standards. She says: “This is not ‘Raise the GPA of the football team.’ This is work.” The next year, McDaniel faculty athletics representative Jim Kunz invited McKay to be the team’s faculty mentor.

These days, she comes to away games, occasionally addresses the team at practice and offers office hours for football players. She mentors the men about how to represent themselves as students. “You’re not doing yourself any favors when you sit in the back and you snicker,” she says. “You are representing the team, so when you are in class with your buddies, you need to sit in the front.”

And she now spreads the word to other faculty: If you’re concerned that today’s young people lack grit and resilience, you should spend more time with student-athletes.

Mansfield — Guest Coach

Even the campus geography at Mansfield seems to separate athletics — located in a facility at the highest point on campus — from the rest of the university. “There was a disconnect,” says Pat Zipfel, who joined Mansfield as men’s basketball coach in 2015. “I was looking for a way to integrate the two and change the culture. I sensed there wasn’t a lot of communication between academics and athletics.”

Zipfel turned to his team, asking basketball players to tell him about their professors. He then selected a faculty guest coach for each home game, inviting the professor to take part in an entire game day: the shoot-around, the scouting report, the preparation, the pregame, the bench, the huddle, the halftime.

“They see it’s like a lesson plan, similar to what they do,” Zipfel says. “It’s a teaching moment. Then, after the game, they celebrate victory, or they experience defeat.”

The Mountaineers even have experienced rising attendance rates at men’s basketball games, a fact Zipfel attributes to professors who tell their students and department colleagues to come watch them “coach.”

One guest coach — professor Joshua Battin, the chair of the criminal justice department — has even joined the program as an assistant men’s basketball coach this year.

“The people Coach has chosen as a guest coach, including a music professor who had never been to an athletic event, have kind of expanded some people’s horizons,” Battin says. “We’re all Mansfield. We’re not just academics. We’re not just athletics. We are part of this whole thing.”

East Carolina — Most Valuable Professor

The first time Whitney Marks presented student-athletes with her idea for a Most Valuable Professor program, the women’s soccer team laughed. “You laugh, but they’re going to love it,” Marks, associate director of marketing and fan engagement at East Carolina, told the women.

“This is an honor, and they’re going to be excited. And this is going to be great.”

Each woman on the roster selected a professor to recognize. The faculty members joined the team during pregame warmups and were announced with the starting lineup. “Professors were over the moon to see that they’re impacting students’ lives,” Marks says. “They know that, but it was nice to be recognized for it.”

Since the introduction of the program during the women’s soccer season in fall 2016, nearly every East Carolina team with ticketed events — baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, softball and women’s volleyball — has invited each team member to honor a Most Valuable Professor at one home game of the season. So far, the roster size of the football team has been an impediment, but Marks hopes to include football soon.

“This has been a great opportunity for student-athletes to engage with their professors beyond the classroom,” Marks says. “And the professors get to see a little bit of what these athletes do on game day. It’s been a great touch point.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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