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magazine home > archives > winter 2004 > features

The staff of the Center for Athletic Academic Services at the University of Memphis is helping keep student-athletes on track for sports and graduation.

A League of Their Own
by Blair Dedrick

Counseling session at the
Counselor Maria Tyson offers advice about courses to U of M freshman track athlete Larry Harris.

The staff of the Center for Athletic Academic Services at the University of Memphis is helping keep student-athletes on track for sports and graduation.

The U of M football team is intent on practice as Becky Kolenbrander steps onto the field.

"Hey, Ms. Becky! Guess what?" a player on the defensive line immediately queries. "I got a 79 on that test."

"That's pretty good," she replies with a smile, "almost a B."

The player grins, and she keeps walking. Seconds later, another player calls out to tell her about a professor he is having trouble understanding. Then, a third stops to ask if she can find him a tutor for a math class.

"Do you have kids?" one asks. "Because if you do, I feel sorry for them. You're always out here with us."

Kolenbrander laughs, but acknowledges the truth in the statement. "It's a good thing I don't have kids," she says. "If I did, they'd be neglected."

Kolenbrander is part of a special team at the University of Memphis — she works as a counselor at the Center for Athletic Academic Services (CAAS). She and other advisers at CAAS work closely with U of M athletes to ensure they have every opportunity to graduate — in addition to playing sports.

With new athletic academic services director Joseph P. Luckey and the commitment his counselors have to CAAS, the often stereotypical "dumb-jock" image is quickly disappearing from the U of M campus.

Lofty goals

"We have turned the corner," says Dr. Luckey. In his second year at the U of M, the CAAS director can readily produce solid statistics to prove it.

The U of M basketball team last year recorded its loftiest GPA since fall 1991. Team member Earl Barron, who completed his athletic eligibility last spring, became the first Tiger basketball player since 1991 to graduate in four years when he received his degree in May.

The football team, too, achieved high marks, enjoying its best-ever GPA, and the baseball team boasted
its highest mark since 1995. The men's track and tennis teams also sported their best academic performance in history. Not to be outdone, the women's golf, tennis, volleyball and soccer teams all recorded GPAs above 3.0 during the 2002-03 year. And individually, 109 student-athletes achieved 3.0 GPAs or higher, with 53
recording better than 3.5.

"I think one reason we are doing so much better is that we are coming up with a graduation plan during the athletes' sophomore and junior years," Luckey says. "We are looking at the whole picture — not just the current semester. Our goal is to get them graduated in four years."

Luckey also is quick to credit his four academic counselors — all of whom he personally hired — for
the turnaround, as well as his assistant director and his office coordinator.

"Our center is all about people," says Luckey. "If we don't have that good relationship with the students, they won't come in.

"People who work with our staff see our concern for the student-athletes, and the athletes appreciate the concern that we have for academics," he says. "We've put together a team of our own."

Courting success

Kolenbrander's relationship with the members of the football team isn't unique within the center. All CAAS counselors have similar bonds with their student-athletes that start early — advisers immediately begin teaching freshmen student-athletes how to balance their lives. Freshmen are required to attend the center for a minimum of six study hours each week.

"We are basically a support system," Kolenbrander says. "If they can ask for help, we can find that help for them."

Senior Coot Terry, a sports marketing major who is a linebacker for the football team, says he wouldn't be graduating in May if it weren't for Kolenbrander.

"Before Becky, I had a lot of problems," he says. "I was taking all the wrong classes, but she got here and really helped me out."

Terry attributes Kolenbrander with not only getting him in the right classes to fulfill his graduation requirements, but with encouraging him to network with business people who can help him find a job once he

"We're all real close to Becky," Terry says. "That's the kind of relationship you need to get through college."

Luckey says the initial adjustment period for a student-athlete is difficult. "The first year can be very intimidating, like a ride on a roller coaster," he says. "You have to juggle study hall, classes and practice."

Soccer player Veronica Ruiz notes, "The counselors make sure we have the right classes — not just to stay eligible, but to be successful in life."

CAAS assistant director Nicole Green knows firsthand the responsibilities of student-athletes from her time spent as a sprinter in college.

"Our main reason for being here is for the student — not the athlete," she says. "When they leave here, I want every one of them to look back and say, 'I have my degree.'"

Fehi Tuivai, a junior volleyball player, is thankful the advisers take that attitude. She transferred from a school in California; as a result, some of her requirements did not count toward her sociology major.

"My adviser, Bridget Van Landeghem, was always ready to answer any questions I had," Tuivai says. "She really worked with me and really seemed to care about me."

Counselor Maria Tyson says her main objective is to build a relationship with each student that covers common everyday issues. "Besides academics, I dispense advice on everything from long-distance relationships to parents," she says.

Tower of power

The recent renovation of the old library tower — now the John S. Wilder Tower — has given CAAS new space in which to work. The entire sixth and seventh floors of the building house CAAS and teem with life at most hours of the day.

Areas have been developed for small-group study, individual study and tutoring sessions, as well as computer research and use. Even during study hours, which are mostly outside of regular work hours, advisers are available to answer questions, solve problems and keep student-athletes on task.

Trece Hayslett, an adviser to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, has seen firsthand the positives that the new staff and facilities have produced. She points to a situation involving a former women's basketball player, Tamika Rogers, as proof that Luckey's team is headed in the right direction.

"We had a female basketball player who was close to failing," Hayslett says. "Dr. Luckey sat down with her and said, 'I'm not going to let you get away with this.' Tamika was mad, but excited at the same time. She was truly amazed that Dr. Luckey took the time to help her with school." Rogers graduated last August.

The success of CAAS is becoming more and more evident. During May commencement ceremonies, 23 student-athletes graduated, with 21 more receiving degrees in August.

"We are moving in the right direction," Luckey says. "Our job is to graduate students, and that is happening more and more."

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