West Virginia University football coach Bill Stewart has been part of Big East championships, history-making seasons and BCS bowl wins but where does he rank the Mountaineers’ recent academic success?
“At the top of the list,” he said.
When seven student-athletes receive their diplomas this weekend (May 15-16), it will mark a 100 percent graduation rate for the 23 seniors from Stewart’s 2009 team; 16 graduated in December. (That doesn’t include kicker Josh Lider, who transferred into the program as a junior.).
The academic success is the second phase of an eye-opening trend for the third-year coach of the Mountaineers. Eighteen of 20 of Stewart’s seniors from 2008 graduated. Two who didn’t – Ellis Lankster and Pat McAfee – are playing in the NFL.
“Bill Stewart stands for the right things, teaches student-athletes how to do things the right way and is passionate about preparing young men for the next phase of their lives. That’s why he’s our coach,” WVU Athletic Director Ed Pastilong said. “What he and these young men have accomplished is remarkable.”
How far ahead of the curve is WVU?
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Although it’s calculated slightly differently from Stewart’s 100 percent rate, the “NCAA’s “Graduation Success Rate for the incoming class of 2002 at NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision institutions like WVU is 66 percent.
About 58 percent of all first-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent and attending a four-year institution full time in 2000-01 obtained those degrees within six years, according to a 2009 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Stewart says as a coach of a visible college football program, he’s used to being judged by victories and losses.
“But there’s also another side _ you’ve got to prepare these young men for life. First and foremost they came in as student-athletes so they better leave as qualified students.”
Like any winning program, the football team’s academic accomplishments are made up of a variety of components, many occurring behind the scenes. Stewart is quick to deflect credit to WVU’s academic support system.
Associate Athletic Director Garrett Ford started what is now called Academic Support Services more than three decades ago and over the years it has expanded to include counselors Sandy Cole-DeMent and Donnie Tucker, who help student-athletes plan and reach their academic goals. In recent years, a mentoring system and a newly renovated tutoring and study space within the Milan Puskar Facilities Building called the Reynolds Family Academic Performance Center, have been added.
The Mountaineer Mentors program, modeled after a similar program at the University of Kentucky, uses retired educators who help student-athletes learn time management, study skills and organization and give advice on how to approach class assignments and projects.
“The mentoring system is absolutely second to none,” Stewart said. “These are people who get our guys tutorial help or they help by tutoring the student-athlete themselves. It’s like your own high school guidance counselor following you around here on campus.”
Once on campus, freshmen attend mandatory study halls and begin exploring their degree programs. During the semester class and study hall attendance are regularly checked, periodic grade reports are obtained from instructors and parents, coaches and players are kept up to date on their academic progress.
Attending class, Stewart says, is more than just showing up. It’s being involved. It’s being engaged.
“I don’t want to see guys sitting there in class with earphones on. I don’t want to see guys with their cell phones on. I don’t want to see guys sitting in the back of the class with their hat pulled down over their head or some hat on sideways with that hoodie up over their head trying to sleep or not paying attention,” he said.
“Just sit from the middle of the class up and try to be attentive. Put your hand up, ask questions, let the teacher know who you are. And don’t walk in there like you’re some tough guy with a scowl on your face. Be pleasant. Treat people right. Teachers will say this guy has an interest. And they will help you. We preach this over and over and over.”
Stewart and his assistant coaches use these brag points to their advantage when recruiting prospective Mountaineers, but diploma-earning and dedication to class attendance are only part of the academic picture.
During the first semester, 75 of Stewart’s 105 players had grade-point averages of 3.0 or better; 43 are carrying a 3.0 or better for their academic career.
When senior linebacker Reed Williams earned the 2009 Big East Conference Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year it marked the third time in the past five years a Mountaineer has received the honor. Former Mountaineer offensive tackle Garin Justice won in 2005 and linebacker Jay Henry was the 2006 winner.
Williams, a second-team all-Big East linebacker who was also one of 16 finalists for the national 2009 William V. Campbell Trophy for a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Class Award, graduated with two degrees from WVU’s College of Business and Economics – one in finance and one in marketing.
“I’m so proud of Reed but he’s just one of many. We’ve got some tremendous student-athletes here,” Stewart said. “We’ve got guys in engineering, we’ve got guys in criminal justice, we’ve got guys in communication, we have guys that aspire to be in medicine, physical therapy. We really have some good, sharp youngsters in our program. School is important to them. You find that out in the recruiting process.”
Stewart said the focus on academic success is usually a big hit with the recruit’s family.
“They love it. When I can go into a home, look a parent in the eye and say we have 75 guys on this football team with a 3.0 and 43 guys with a cumulative 3.0. It tells you everything is going well here,” Stewart said.
And if that were not enough, Stewart has one more tool in his arsenal. He says the fact that All-America candidate Noel Devine and slot receiver Jock Sanders decided to return for their senior year, rather than leave a year early to pursue an NFL career, has caught the attention of many recruits’ families.
“To see those two guys come back speaks volumes about what’s going on in our program,” Stewart said. “They want to be the first to graduate in their family, that’s important to them. When I take that into a home people absolutely go, ‘Wow.’ They know what these young men can make in the NFL.”
By Dan Shrensky
WVU News and Information Services
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