Saturday, March 03, 2007

Michigan Football program achieves on and off the field

The Ohio State University athletic program was the subject of the cover story article in the March 5, 2007 print edition of Sports Illustrated. In the excellent piece by L. Jon Wertheim, one of the issues that was examined was how the Buckeyes balance academic versus athletic success. Overall, the Ohio State University came out (unfortunately some may say) looking rather favorably as the Buckeyes have put a new emphasis on support services for their student-athletes in the post-Maurice Clarett years. One of the profile features in the SI article was of David Graham, the Director of the Student-Athlete Support Services Office (SASSO), the athletic department's tutoring and academic counseling division. The 37-year-old Graham has been on the job for just more than a year as he came over from Miami (OH) in January, 2006. Graham is the Ohio State University's answer to the job Shari Acho (Associate A.D./Academic Football Counselor/Co-Director Academic Success Program) performs for the University of Michigan. At Ohio State, the athletic support program has been relocated from the athletic complex to the the new Younkin Success Center which is located in the middle of campus. The unofficial motto apparently is "Get to the Younkin or you'll be flunkin' ". The Younkin Success Center has a full-time staff of 17 and a roster of nearly 100 tutors according to the article. Mr. Graham's direction seems to be helping as more than half the Buckeyes football team members had a grade-point average of 3.0 or better during the '06 fall quarter. All of this made me wonder how this compares to what is going on at the University of Michigan.

As previously mentioned, Shari Acho is the person in charge of academics for the University of Michigan Football team. She is entering her eighth year with the school. While OSU has the new Younkin Success Center, Michigan has the 38,000 square foot Stephen M. Ross Academic Center which opened January 5, 2006. The University of Michigan runs its Academic Success Program for its 700 student-athletes out of the building which is located on State Street next to Yost Ice Arena. The building cost $12 million to construct and the cost of the building was covered entirely by donations. The single largest benefactor was Stephen M. Ross who contributed $5 million to the project. Operating costs for the Center are about $400,000 annually with the funds coming from the Athletic Department's budget. This expense is in addition to the nearly $700,000 the athletic department spends annually to fund the Academic Success Program. These expenses incurred by the Athletic Department for academic support for the athletes are on top of the more than $12 million in tuition that the Athletic Department pays to the University each year for the student-athletes. Eschewing any budgetary concerns, Athletic Director Bill Martin has been a major proponent of both the Center and the Academic Success Program. The Academic Success Program has ten full-time staff members who work in the Center and it also employs tutors at the rate of $8 to $12 per hour.

The Center is outfitted with a 71-station computing lab, classrooms and casual study areas. There is a fireplace, comfortable chairs and flat screen TVs in the lounge area. Freshman athletes are required to log a minimum of eight hours of study per week at the Center during their first semester. Second semester is not as structured depending on how the student-athlete is faring in class. After their freshmen year, student-athletes are not required to attend the Center unless they are deemed to be "struggling." Each team sets its own standard. In football, its a GPA below 2.3 whereas for women's basketball it's anything below 3.0.

In order to stay eligible for NCAA competition, athletes around the nation must keep up with the academic standards set by their conference. The Big Ten standards change based on how many years a student athlete has been at the school, but they are lowest after the first semester - when just a 1.65 GPA is required. At Michigan, athletes, like all students, need to keep their GPA above a 2.0 or risk being put on academic probation or even being kicked out of school.

Until five years ago, the football players- like most other students- were put on a four-year graduation plan meaning they would be set to graduate in April of their senior year. However, it was determined that many of the players were not finishing the final semester of school after the bowl game. Therefore, Mrs. Acho and Sue Shand (the Co-Directors of the Academic Success Program) reorganized the way football players make their school schedules. Mrs. Acho and Ms. Shand wanted to make sure as many of the players as possible were graduating in December before the bowl game. They developed two different programs: one for players who redshirt and one for those who don't. If they play their first year and don't redshirt - like Chad Henne and Mike Hart, for instance - then they're on a three-and-a-half year program. They go to school year round, averaging about 37 credits a year. If they redshirt, they're on a four and a half year program. During their fifth year at the University, they can choose to start working towards a master's degree or save a class or two to take during their final football season. Either way, football players started graduating almost exclusively in December because of the plan that Mrs. Acho and Ms. Shand devised. Consequently, graduation rates went up. It is the goal of Athletic Director Bill Martin to have the graduation rate of student-athletes surpass that of the general student population at the University of Michigan. It has not happened yet but it was close a few years ago when student-athletes graduated the year at a rate of 82% while the general student population graduation rate was just 2% higher. With Mrs. Acho and the football team leading the way, A.D. Martin may realize his goal in the near future. Go Blue!

*Note 1: Sports Illustrated cover photo by Al Tielemans/SI
* Inset Photos: Peter Read Miller (Sosa); Todd Rosenberg (Quinn and Russell); Damian Strohmeyer (Northwestern); John Rieger/US Presswire (Missouri); Larry Levanti (College of New Jersey)
*Note 2: Photo of Stephen M. Ross Center by Ali Olsen/ The Michigan Daily

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