Changing The Game
Creating a new model for athletics in higher education
By Tim Schmitt, GR’08, ’10
It’s no secret that some student-athletes pursue higher education primarily as a means to “study” their sport. While college sports provide a great opportunity for the vast majority of participants to grow both academically and athletically, some students don’t always make this connection. While few in the world of higher education would claim to endorse this approach, the fact is that education can sometimes take a backseat to athletics.
Colleges and universities want—and athletes want to be a part of—strong athletics teams that win championship titles and bring prestige to their schools. But there is no guarantee that shunning academics to focus on athletics results in winning teams. When this gamble for athletic greatness does happen, it takes place at the expense of student-athletes who are missing out on the education they were promised.
And it’s a gamble that need not take place. There have always been great athletes who excel in the classroom. And often, students who have struggled academically in their younger years find academic success in college thanks to the opportunity provided them by participating in athletics. Changing the mindset in higher education to expect this to be the rule rather than the exception, however, is not a simple task.
“The concept that students can learn more than their sports through athletics is not new,” says Director of Athletics Sandy Hatfield Clubb. “Learning is happening everywhere on college campuses. Unfortunately we often leave it to chance in athletics that learning happens in the best way possible. Why not develop intentionality in our programs to ensure that comprehensive learning takes place?”
This challenge exists on college campuses of all sizes across the country—and Drake is no exception. As a result, Drake’s Athletics Department, led by Hatfield Clubb and with support from Drake University President David Maxwell, has been undergoing an intentional and strategic shift in the athletics programs at Drake. Building upon traditions of academic excellence and athletic achievement already in place, Drake is intertwining learning outcomes with athletics to further develop well-rounded student-athletes as well as winning programs.
The Drake Athletics Strategic Plan calls for the University to provide leadership-based experiences for student-athletes and create a progressive model for intercollegiate sport. This plan, says Maxwell, is an example of how Drake University takes its mission seriously and how athletics can—and should—play an important role in its fulfillment.
“The Drake experience is a holistic experience,” says Maxwell. “Whether it’s in the classroom, in Greek life, in the lab, in student life, or on athletics teams, students are learning to lead. Athletics is one path that leads to the learning outcomes promoted by the University.”
Leveraging the jersey
Hatfield Clubb presented the Drake Athletics Strategic Plan to the campus community in 2010. Student-athletes now take coursework that explicitly defines and points out lessons in leadership and communication from the playfield that were previously left to chance. Additionally, they use their visibility and positions as student-athletes to engage in service work—from packaging meals through Meals from the Heartland to acting as guest lecturers in local schools—that further reinforces these lessons while benefitting the community at large.
The Seeds of Success program, made possible through a grant from DuPont Pioneer and in partnership with Character Counts, allows student-athletes to visit area middle schools and discuss with students what it takes to succeed in the classroom and in life.
“They use the power of the jersey to reach middle school students and tell their stories of success and overcoming adversity,” says Hatfield Clubb.
Drake’s student-athletes seem to understand that there is more to learn from their sport than, well, their sport. When the grant was awarded, Hatfield Clubb committed to putting 30 student-athletes into classrooms in the first year and to increasing the number of participants over subsequent years. In the first year, however, 42 student-athletes eagerly signed up to participate.
“Our students embraced the program immediately,” she says. “That speaks to the type of student-athletes who Drake recruits.”
Recruiting the right students is just the first part of the effort. Once here, student-athletes are guided through Bulldog Foundations, an extended orientation process that introduces them to the Bulldog Way and the Drake Playbook—programs that teach the importance of integrity in action for all student-athletes.
“Every coach has a philosophy and approach to ethics and success—it is not a cookie-cutter approach,” says Hatfield Clubb. “They understand that leadership involves learning who you are and developing that potential. They stretch their students and take them beyond their own mental concept of what they can do. They help them reach their full potential by getting better every day.”
But can we still win games?
The focus on athletics as a tool to teach leadership and ethics while requiring student-athletes to be academic achievers is a concept that is different for some fans. It’s natural, then, that some might ask if it is possible to take this approach and still have successful teams.
The short answer is yes.
“The concept of creating winning teams and using athletics as a teaching tool are not mutually exclusive,” says Maxwell.
The 2007–2008 men’s basketball team is a perfect example of this, he says. That team, made up of many athletes with GPAs of 3.0 or above, won the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship, set a school record for wins, and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
More recently, the 2012 football team won its second consecutive conference title in November; the men’s soccer team advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2010; men’s tennis won two consecutive MVC titles in 2011 and 2012; the softball team advanced to the semifinals of last year’s MVC tournament; and individual athlete honors—both academic and athletic—are too numerous to list.
But this is just the beginning. Drake University is striving for sustained success and believes that a coaching model in which there is an intentional focus on developing the human being first and educating young people to become world-class leaders will produce winning programs.
“Some have argued that Division I teams have to recruit student-athletes who are not prepared for, or focused on, the academic side of college in order to be competitive,” says Lindsay Whorton, AS’09, ED’09, a former student-athlete, first-team Academic All-American, Rhodes Scholar, Fulbright recipient, and current member of the Drake University Board of Trustees. “There are many talented athletes who are very bright and are motivated to excel both on and off the court or field. I believe that an institution that is able to truly integrate the athletic and academic spheres will be able to successfully attract these student-athletes. Such an institution will produce winning teams, teams that will also contribute to a vibrant academic environment.”
Matt Bowie, a senior biology major, member of the men’s basketball team, and a member of the football team until his eligibility ran out this year, recognizes that athletics has helped him learn some meaningful lessons—on and off the field.
“Drake Athletics is unique to other programs in not only the way academics are stressed as the highest priority to athletes but also the way the qualities of leadership, time management, self-efficacy, and others can be learned from these sports,” says Bowie. “This approach has been important to me because it assures that I don’t become one-dimensional. I am not just a student or just an athlete. The approach focuses on maintaining the balance needed to excel in both aspects and not just getting by in one or the other.”
Bowie says he learned about the power of athletics in a very real way when he traveled to Tanzania as a member of Drake’s football team in 2011 to compete in the first-ever collegiate game of American football on the African continent.
“That trip really helped me gain perspective on other cultures and myself,” he says. “It pushed me from being really introverted to where I actually love to experience new things. This is something that would not have happened without participating in athletics.”
Maxwell, who traveled with the team to Tanzania, recalls a conversation while still en route in which Bowie mentioned that, although he was interested in winning the game, he was well aware that the trip, the experience, and the service work they were to do was much bigger than the sport that brought the team there.
“The game is a catalyst,” says Maxwell. “The Africa trip was a powerful example of this. It helped teach cross-cultural communication and leadership, and it allowed these students to do meaningful work in a variety of settings for a population in need. To hear Matt articulate this was very powerful.”
Though results of implementing the Drake Athletics Strategic Plan are apparent in the words of Matt Bowie and in the actions of student-athletes across campus, the effort is really in its formative steps.
“I think there are more ways to integrate athletics and academics in a formal sense and to continue to think about the role that athletics plays in accomplishing the mission of the liberal arts university,” says Whorton. “There is room to consider how college athletics can contribute even more to the university at large and enhance the experience of non-athletes and campus life as well as student-athletes.”
Hatfield Clubb acknowledges this effort has just begun, and ensuring it continues and succeeds will require a campuswide effort.
“The majority of our work is ahead of us,” she says. “Student-athletes really do a great job supporting each other, but the question is how we build pride across the community and make sure this carries over and continues. We need to have a pervasive culture, not pockets of buy-in.”