When University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Russ Huesman leaves his house on Signal Mountain each morning, he’s not thinking primarily about ways to beat Appalachian State or how to get the Mocs into the playoffs.
“I’ve never gotten in my car in the morning and left my garage and driven to the office without thinking about grades and academics,” he said.
Huesman took over a program in December 2008 that not only was losing on the field but also was in trouble with the NCAA for poor Academic Progress Rate performance.
And football isn’t the only UTC program that has been penalized by the NCAA for multiyear APR scores below the benchmark of 925 (out of 1,000). Wrestling and women’s soccer have been hit as well.
When the latest multiyear and single-year scores are released Tuesday, signs of the Mocs’ academic turnaround will be evident, athletic director Rick Hart said. For the first time since the APR was instituted six years ago, all 17 of UTC’s sports will have a single-year (2009-10) score of 933 or higher.
“It’s something we’ll never get complacent with, but it is nice to finally see the level of achievement that is expected and that we’re capable of,” Hart said. “It needs to become more of the norm.”
The good academic news coming from the athletic department in the past year, which includes a record overall grade point average of 2.97 for the spring semester, is the result of a “culture” change, Hart said.
“It takes everybody — the student-athletes, the coaches, support staff, the administration — they all have to be aware, educated and focused,” he said.
Perhaps nobody in the athletic department embodies that culture change more than second-year wrestling coach Heath Eslinger, who continually preaches academics to his wrestlers. Last Thursday, the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s all-academic teams were announced and Eslinger’s program ranked No. 7 in the country, one spot behind Princeton.
“You can’t be a top-tier program athletically if your kids are ineligible,” Eslinger said.
Soccer coach J.D. Kyzer praised Hart, senior associate AD Laura Herron and UTC’s academic support staff for getting that “culture in place.” The reason for soccer’s poor scores has not been so much about poor grades, however. Player retention has been the primary issue.
Until recently, Kyzer’s program had just four scholarships, which were broken up and distributed. The program now has eight, which is still well below the maximum of 14.
“When you have four scholarships and a team with 20-25 kids, they don’t stick around a lot,” he said.
The football program, which has been penalized every year since the APR began, is now free of historical penalties. Wrestling is penalty-free as well.
The soccer team’s four-year average remains below 925, but it received some penalty relief from the NCAA because its 2009-10 score was so high, said Herron, who oversees compliance and is the department’s senior woman administrator. Herron said soccer should be out of the penalty phase next year.
Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said the APR has affected how all coaches do their jobs. He said it has changed recruiting and roster management and is “definitely a statistic and a metric that no coach can afford to ignore.”
Eslinger, a former UTC wrestler, said it’s the athlete’s job to “pull your weight” in the classroom and on the mat. It’s his job, he said, to make sure he’s bringing in wrestlers capable of doing that.
“Every year when you bring in 12 and five years later only three graduate, that is your fault,” he said. “You’re recruiting the wrong kids or you’re not growing them like they should be grown. I want kids to come, stay, graduate and be alumni of this university.”
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...