Wiedmer: Befitting fathers, Huesman, Jones embrace academics

Wiedmer: Befitting fathers, Huesman, Jones embrace academics

June 16th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC football coach Russ Huesman watches a recent practice.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Butch Jones is Tennessee's head football coach.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

To those who know them only through our state's sports pages, Russ Huesman and Butch Jones are the football coaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Tennessee, respectively.

But on this Sunday above all others, they should also be recognized as far more than temporary fathers to dozens of young men in occasional need of strong guidance and leadership. They are also real-life pops: Huesman a doting dad to two daughters and two sons, including UTC sophomore quarterback Jacob; Jones the proud papa of three boys.

And befitting fathers, they thankfully take the education of all their children -- offspring and players -- very seriously.

"When you sit in front of a mom or dad or both and tell them their son will get a degree, it's your obligation to do everything humanly possible to make that happen," Huesman said. "Academics are always the most important thing."

Said Jones on the day he was hired to guide the Volunteers: "We want our players to graduate with a meaningful degree."

This "meaningful degree" stuff is surely a new concept in Knoxville -- at least within the football program, given its recent football Academic Progress Rate for the 2011-12 school year.

Though Jones had nothing to do with the troublesome score, the Vols' football APR of 909 was the worst in the Southeastern Conference. Beyond that, the program's 924 average for the last four years prior to this one under former coaches Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley leave it shy of the 930 the NCAA will require this time next year to be in compliance.

If UT can't dramatically raise its cumulative score, it could face a bowl ban at the close of the 2014 season, assuming Jones can return the Big Orange to bowl eligibility, something Dooley failed to do the final two of his three seasons on the job.

Keri Thoman, the University of Cincinnati assistant athletic director for student-athlete support services, believes Jones never will have an academic performance issue under his watch.

"I was with Butch the whole time he was here," she said last week. "A lot of times these big-time coaches preach academics but there's no action behind it. Butch was never like that. The first goal listed in the locker room was to graduate. He constantly talked about graduating with a meaningful degree. And he backed it up, both for those who did well and those who didn't."

Though Thoman avoided naming names for those who fell short, she was adamant that there were severe consequences for those who repeatedly "failed classes and dropped classes. He suspended players. And those suspensions usually led to much better academic performance."

Then there were players such as strong safety Drew Frye, who was in the college of engineering.

"If a lab or class interfered with football practice, Butch made sure he understood class came first," Thoman said. "He didn't want Drew to feel any stress about class conflicting with football."

Another player was majoring in construction management. His family owned a construction company, so it was reasonable for the coaches to push him into an easier major, figuring he'd have a good career regardless.

"But Butch supported his dream," she said. "We found a way to make it all work for the young man. When Butch talks about meaningful degrees, it's not just a line. He means it. That's what his program is about."

She also has strong praise for UT associate head coach Steve Stripling, who followed Jones from Cincinnati.

"Best academic liaison I've ever worked with," Thoman said. "He'll make a huge difference, too."

Huesman has overseen a huge difference in UTC's APR since he arrived at his alma mater in the winter of 2009. The football team's APR for that 2008-09 school year was a horrific 872, which prompted a 2009 ban from postseason play.

The lowest score for the three years Huesman could be held responsible for was a 942 -- well above the NCAA's previously accepted line of 900 -- with a 966 score for the 2011-12 year.

"At first, I didn't think [the penalty] was fair," he said. "We're not Alabama or Tennessee. We have a very limited support staff. Our coaches leave staff meetings to go check on whether or not our players went to class.

"But I believe in [the APR] now. It's made a huge difference across the country. It's making coaches much more accountable to do everything possible to help their players earn a degree."

It shouldn't all be on the coaches, any more than an average student's failings should all fall back on teachers. Parents are crucial. The students themselves must ultimately do the work, regardless of how many or few adults are around to encourage them.

Yet on the only day of the year devoted solely to fathers, a sports writer (and dad) couldn't resist asking Huesman what made him prouder -- an average athlete working his tail off to eventually play a big role on the football field or a struggling student-athlete eventually earning a degree the coach thought might never happen.

"They both make you so proud," he said. "And we're paid to win games. But to see the kid who maybe didn't have the best academic skills fight to earn a degree, well, those are the kids who really touch your heart."

As every father everywhere would no doubt agree.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com