“Traumatic” is the best way Sandy Pugh can describe it.
It was April 2011, and she was just days into her tenure as Southern University’s interim athletic director when she flew to Indianapolis with a small group from SU. There, they’d meet with the NCAA to discuss what penalties the Jaguars would face for low Academic Progress Rate scores.
Both football and men’s basketball were up against postseason bans, and to make matters worse, the athletic director and men’s basketball coach had both just been fired.
Sitting in the conference room and facing university presidents, NCAA officials and attorneys, Pugh kept wondering the same thing.
“How did we get here?”
The Jaguars got there — in a place that did result in postseason bans for those two sports and penalties for five other teams — because of years of neglect toward APR scores and the commitment to academics it takes to boost them.
But a little more than a year later, thanks to the efforts of many, the path has been laid to make sure Southern never goes back.
The NCAA implemented APR in 2004, aiming to provide an early indicator of graduation rates. Scores are calculated by team as four-year averages and released a year after the data is complete, based on each player remaining in school and being academically eligible.
SU’s most recent score (2010-11) for all of Division I was 973, and teams scoring below 900 face penalties that escalate in severity after multiple violations.
When Pugh began pulling double duty as women’s basketball coach and interim A.D., Southern was in dire straits, particularly in men’s basketball.
The Jaguars’ previous four scores were below 850, and they earned an 852 for 2009-10, which brought on the postseason ban for the 2011-12 season. Their single-year score for was an abominable 780, and a similar performance the next year could have meant restricted NCAA membership and bans for all of Southern’s teams.
So with the search for a new coach under way, Pugh was looking for someone who knew study hall as well as basketball.
“To me, the number one thing wasn’t wins and losses for men’s basketball, it was APR,” Pugh said. “Because of the situation they were in, if they didn’t turn it around, it would affect women’s basketball, and tennis and baseball — all of us who had a chance to potentially go to the NCAAs. I definitely wanted somebody who would do a good job there first.”
She chose Roman Banks, a former Southern assistant who was then an associate head coach at Southeastern Louisiana, where he was on an APR committee.
Banks’ hire was a slam dunk on and off the court, resulting in a 13-win turnaround and an incredible 152-point leap in APR score, which stood at 932 for the 2010-11 year. That’s even above the new 930 cut line that Southern will have to meet beginning in 2016-17.
How did Bates do it?
“First of all, you have to make sure they’re going to class,” Banks said.
He instituted the aptly named wake-up policy, where the roster was broken down and players were assigned to each coach. Each morning, they’d show up, grab their players and walk them to class.
All players had to be at class at least 10 minutes early, and there were class checks to make sure. A few six-mile team runs cured everyone of showing up late.
Coaches went to study hall too.
“(Players) go to study hall, and what are they going to do? Sit there and act like they’re working,” Banks said. “We walked around and asked, ‘What are you doing? What’s your assignment?’ We took their syllabus, broke it down and had a plan.”
If grades slipped or someone missed class, Banks would hold them out of practice — to the point where sometimes the only way to scrimmage was for coaches to play.
The message got through to Banks’ players.
“To their credit, it helped us because they wanted to erase the stigma of being this bad group of guys in this era of Southern University,” he said. “I really think they had some self-pride after learning what this program has been about.”
The Jaguars won’t be out of the woods for several years (until the bad scores from the past drop out of the four-year average), but that hands-on approach is one example of a changing culture.
Football coach Stump Mitchell went through a similar process. He was blind-sided with APR problems after taking the job, but the combination of the postseason ban and his emphasis on education has prompted a turnaround.
During his first semester as coach, Mitchell said there were eight players with a 3.0 GPA and none at 4.0. The next term, those numbers shot up to 22 and four.
“There were guys on the team who education was important to them, but there just weren’t enough of them,” Mitchell said. “Now I think we have an abundance of people who realize what it takes to be a part of Southern University athletics.”
Of course, not every team at Southern struggled with APR. The women’s tennis team earned a public commendation from the NCAA this year for its perfect four-year average of 1,000, and five other teams — including Pugh’s women’s basketball squad — registered scores above the future 930 benchmark in 2010-11.
However, it’s also clear that SU’s academic support for student-athletes was far from where it needed to be, but thanks in part to the wake-up call of those postseason bans, much has changed.
Under Pugh, the school implemented the Student First Initiative, which aims to provide everything that Southern athletes need. There are new rooms on campus, including a study hall inside the F.G. Clark Activity Center that was established in 2010 and comes with 14 computers (including four Macs).
There’s a similar facility inside the A.W. Mumford Field House that’s more convenient for the football and track teams, and other rooms for study halls or computer use are located in the library. Athletes can also check out lap-tops, especially for when they are on the road and need to keep up with schoolwork.
The newer Destination Blue program is geared toward moving student-athletes up through a progression of color-coded zones to reach blue, a GPA of 3.0 or above. Those in the zones below blue have pre-determined requirements to keep them on track, such as frequency of academic assessments (from daily to monthly), amount of time in study hall (from 15 hours per week to zero), and referrals to tutorial services.
As preventative measures, SU raised minimum core GPA requirements to 2.3 for incoming freshmen and 2.6 for transfers, and coaches have put more focus on recruiting athletes who are strong in the classroom.
Next, testing helps identify learning disabilities or areas where specific students may struggle.
“If they have a problem in learning, we want to catch it early so we can assist them and provide the necessary things for them,” academic counselor Sheila Minor said. “Whatever adjustments they need, we’re going to try and have it right for them when they come in the fall.”
Finally, there’s the GradesFirst software, which assistant academic counselor Trayvean Scott calls “accountability 101.”
That connects professors, counselors, coaches and athletes digitally. Teachers can send progress reports to coaches, athletes can set tutoring appointments, and study hall hours are tracked via on-line sign-in.
Add all that up, and Scott said Southern is “light years” ahead of when he played basketball there from 2001-05.
While the APR penalties and Pugh’s guidance got SU moving, there’s no question that William Broussard, who took over as full-time athletic director in April, has kept pushing forward.
“Will has done a great job of grabbing it and keeping it afloat, and I think that’s a credit to him,” Pugh said. “We don’t have to start over. A lot of A.D.s will come in and completely derail the train and want to go another direction, but I guess he was able to see the value of what we had put in place. I’m happy to see that.”
Under Broussard, the Jaguars are more aggressively pursuing grants from the NCAA Supplemental Support Fund, which provides money for academic support to low-resource institutions.
Southern received a grant for $12,000 from the fund last year, while Broussard’s alma mater and former employer, Northwestern State, got $33,000.
This year, SU asked for $49,500. The school expects to learn the result in July.
Another key is how those funds are divvied up.
Broussard’s focus has been on tutorial services and summer school — a crucial time for athletes to catch up in the classroom — as well as looking for other improvements. He has also maintained a relationship with LSU, which has served as an on-going adviser. The Tigers boast a multi-million-dollar, 54,000 square-foot academic center for student-athletes.
“That’s much the style of what I think the NCAA is expecting from low-resource institutions in terms of the mobilization of resources and creative energy,” Broussard said.
If anyone understands the academic improvements SU has made for its athletes, it’s Scott.
When he was a Jaguar, there was no academic center, and formal study halls were rare.
Now, he sees a school that’s better equipped, more focused and working smarter.
Scott wrapped up his first degree in 2 years, added two more before finishing his playing career and is now working toward a doctorate in sports administration at LSU.
At Southern, one of his main jobs is being proactive by helping coaches understand how one player slipping, transferring or leaving will impact their APR scores, or as he says it, “turning bodies into numbers.”
Now, all SU coaches are familiar with the ins and outs of APR, and while there’s plenty of work left to do, they’re moving in the right direction.
“We’re going to more than set the baseline for the SWAC in the next five years,” Scott said. “I want to be the program other schools emulate in black college athletics.”
The fact that a statement like that can even be made on The Bluff is a testament to many people, particularly Pugh.
Southern has come a long way from that 2011 meeting with the NCAA, and the Jaguars have no plans to return.
“That was a tough time. It’s a pleasure to stand here today knowing we weathered that storm, because that was a category 5,” Pugh said. “It feels good to stand here knowing the contribution I made to my institution was a good one.”
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