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July 6, 2009

More To Life Than Sports

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It's a good time for WKU athletics.

WKU has made itself known very well in college athletics with a move to Division I in football, a Sweet 16 appearance in men's basketball and an appearance in the NCAA regional finals in baseball. In the Sun Belt Conference, the school has won four Bubas Cups since 2002, which are awarded annually to the university that comes in first in the Sun Belt's all-sports standings.

But WKU has let it be known that it holds academics at a high standard as well.

This spring, the school released its Academic Progress Rate, like every other NCAA school is required to. The APR monitors a school's academic success, by tracking the progress of each student-athlete.

The minimal requirement by the NCAA is an APR of 925. In the Sun Belt, WKU was one of only three schools, along with Denver and Troy to have a qualifying APR for each sponsored sport. WKU has 19 sponsored sports.

And while the numbers look great on paper, few know the work that goes into getting those numbers where they are.

WKU has an academic support system set up to provide assistance to each of its student athletes. At the head of the department is academic coordinator Dixie Mahurin, who works with a staff of four to help student-athletes fulfill degree programs, schedule classes, hire tutors and monitor study halls.

"I try to open doors to different areas for them, so they're not just pigeonholed into math, science, English, social studies and foreign language," Mahurin said. "In high school, those are the basics. I try to get them to take classes that they may not have thought about, just to open a door. I want everybody that graduates to be well-rounded. I want them to have had a taste of fine arts. They don't have to be Jeremy Evans, but to just feel it a little bit. I mean to have everybody well-rounded and well-educated, well-spoken and employable."

Evans, a senior to be, is an art minor who is known around Bowling Green for his pastel artwork that's been displayed around the town.

Mahurin and her staff might be the biggest assets to the athletic program. Many student -athletes, like any other student, are faced with a set of challenges for the first time in their young lives. One of the biggest challenges may happen soon in their college careers. It's also one that happens for student-athletes from different backgrounds or different youth settings from the one they now see as a college student by themselves.

"Coming from a whole different cultural background and then being from a big city, yeah, I was homesick for a while," said Orlando Mendez-Valdez, recently graduated Sun Belt Conference MVP. "But the coaches really help out. They really help you get from all that. Being around good people, which we are in this community, makes it even much easier with how friendly people are and how caring and how they just lend out their hand. It was tough, but I got through it and it made me a stronger person."

Another big road-block comes when the student-athlete is away from school frequently. The act of trying to juggle school and play on the road.

"It's hard, obviously, to miss class," Mahurin said. "Teachers are very generous in giving them road work. They notify the faculty a semester in advance when they'll be gone. The traveling schedule, everything is in every teacher's hands. The student hands it to the teacher, to the teacher will know when they'll be gone. Teachers are very generous. If students only miss when they're travelling and sick, teachers, they'll be glad to give them road work. And, maybe they can take a laptop computer, but they just have to work harder. Athletes at the highest level, in what I call the flagship sports, have very little free time. They practice, they work out, they eat, they study, they go to class, they go to bed and they do it all over again."

But thanks to dedication, hard work, the academic staff and understanding professors, the student-athlete can balance everything better at WKU than at the majority of other institutions.

"Even though you have practice and you have stuff, your coach makes you have time for study hall," former softballer Ryan Rogge said. Last season was Rogge's senior year, but she'll be graduating in December, while assisting the softball team.

"It's being gone, that's the hardest. We even have study hall on their road sometimes, but it's not the same. When you're not there in class, you don't get to hear it in person. Every professor I've had has been amazing. All the exercise science professors are great about it. They always help me out and they usually find someone, even if they don't wanna give me the notes, they'll find someone with the notes and give them to me."

The coaches play the biggest role. After all, they're the ones who find the student-athletes and bring them to WKU. The coaches' most important job might be the year-round process of recruiting, when they go on a hunt across the country and sometimes around the world, in search of athletes that will make their programs better. At the same time, they're weeding out those athletes to find the ones with not only the most athletic potential, but academic potential as well.

"It goes back to recruiting," football coach David Elson said. "I'll always say that. If we bring guys in here that are serious about getting their education and obviously capable, then we're off to a good start. When you put those type of young men in an environment that you have great faculty, great academic support set up, coaches that care, academic advisors that care, a systematic structure of how we monitor and checks and balances of what we're doing, that should be the results. That's the expectation here and we talk about it a lot, we've got a great culture of both academic and athletic success within our athletic department."

Elson and his staff specifically, go to extra lengths to check on their players and make sure they're getting it done on the field and off.

"There's a whole system, especially for the freshmen when they come in," Elson said. "We set up a pretty structured environment for them, when it comes to study table, tutors being available and really getting them to understand the benefit of tutors. Grade checks that they take around to the teachers is something that we do in the fall and spring, about once every four weeks. We do it once a week during the summer. Then, we physically schedule days and times where our entire staff will spread out across the campus and be checking classes and making sure guys are sitting in the front. That shows them that it's important to us and we're not just gonna sit in here and assume anything. We're gonna take an active role and that they're doing the things they need to do to get an education."

The football team has also added a few extra elements to help and assist its athletes. One of those is the Life Skills program. The program is a way to help football players in personal development, including sexual responsibility, drugs and alcohol and time management. It also helps them with financial smartness, academic development, career development and community service.

The program, in place since 2004, is headed by Norm Johnson, who has been involved with the football program since 2002. Johnson graduated form WKU in 1976, spent 15 years in counseling and administration, before going into business.

"It really is lots of different things," he said. "It could be personal advice. We have a lot of players who have a lot of family support. Then we have a lot that don't. They're a long way from home and they don't have a real strong family support system to begin with. A lot of times, it's just building relationships, being sort of a mentor and at my age, these guys have a gazillion friends. What they need is parental-type role models. With the age difference, I'm someone that relates to the players, as not as a peer, but as an adult. I think I have a lot of credibility with the players, because they've seen me prosper and have success in business. They know I've earned some prosperity. It gives me credibility to talk to them about the things it takes to be successful."

Johnson also works with the assistance of character coach Sean Pugh, a former Topper, who helps with community service, as well as with faith and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

And if the student-athlete uses all the support in place, graduation might be on track.

The men's basketball team has been mentioned on CBS for its graduation high graduation rate since 2003.

"It meant a lot, just more so for my parents than anything else," Mendez-Valdez said. "As one of their ultimate goals, they wanted to see one of their own, one of their sons walk through and get a college degree. It meant a lot to see them happy. (The coaches) have done a lot to be honest. From both coaching staffs, I could always think about both in emphasizing how important an education was and how you need to take care of that before you take care of anything on the court. That was the first thing that, that was the priority that they wanted to do."


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