Forget about fourth and 1 with two ticks on the clock, or getting yourself into foul trouble in the Sweet 16.

If you want to make college athletes really sweat, put them in a room full of people with a podium and a request to say a few words.

Its not surprising that young athletes might be nervous in front of a camera and a news reporter. But what surprised a West Virginia University professor was the way they shed their nervousness when asked to talk about the most influential person in their lives.

These athletes started talking about growing up in impoverished neighborhoods with not enough food,said Carolyn Peluso Atkins, a speech pathology professor who teaches a course called Speaking to Communities at WVU .Others talked about coming home from school and finding their aunts and cousins in the kitchen to tell them that a parent was dead.

The course has picked up so much momentum that she wrote a book chronicling its history,Great Unexpectations: Lessons from the Hearts of College Athletes.

They talked about losing their best friends to drugs and violence, and the coaches who wouldnt give up on them because they had athletic ability and that could mean a college scholarship,Atkins said.And sometimes they talked about being blessed with two loving parents who sacrificed for their kids and pushed them to get good grades, no matter how the team was doing that season.

With honesty like that, dealing with the occasionalumoruhas they do in a typical public speaking class wasnt as critical, Atkins said.

But the stories, she said, were more important than ever. Thats why, for the final exam, her students write 5-minute motivational speeches that they deliver to youngsters in area schools and then to their coaches. (WVU star quarterback Pat White did a rundown of his favorite TV show,Meerkat Manor,to illustrate the importance of teamwork).

I want our athletes to be well-spoken,said Atkins, who has long been known for her creativity and innovations in the classroom.Theyre among the most visible students on our campus, and I want them to be among the most articulate.

Its working. Shes had a winning record with her athletes for almost two decades now.

Two years ago, Atkins used the course to illustrate character education lesson plans she created for middle schools across West Virginia.

The lesson plan includes a DVD with a cross section of student-athletes talking about the importance of study habits, showing respect for their parents, teachers and coaches, and not giving in to peer pressure.

Thats where the title of her bookGreat Unexpectationscomes in.

I wasnt just playing off Dickens,she said.The title relates to me. Before this class, I have to confess that I had this image of the self-centered, shallow, pampered athlete. I couldnt have been more wrong, and Ive never been happier to admit Im wrong.

And like a coach, she teases and generally mixes it up with her students (many of whom tower over her) so theyll do the absolute best they can doin her class and for their others, too.

I learned that my expectations of them influence their expectations of themselves,she said.

In 2005, Atkins was named West Virginia Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Atkins earned four degrees from WVU . Shes a Morgantown native who grew up rooting for the Mountaineers.

To order a copy of her book, go to http://www.msnsportsnet.com/greatUnexpectations/index.html .

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