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December 20, 2013

IU football standing out in the classroom

Earlier this month the Big Ten announced that a program record 26 Indiana football players had been named Academic All-Big Ten by the conference. In addition, junior safety Mark Murphy became the second Hoosier in as many years to be named an Academic All-American since Kevin Wilson became head coach three years ago. Peegs.com recently had the chance to speak with Dustin Swanson, who is Director of Academic Services for Football, about the success the IU program has had academically in the last three years and what he feels has been the reason for that.

In the three years that Coach Wilson has been at Indiana the football program has had 72 Academic All-Big Ten selections, which is a three-year record, and out of the nine Academic All-Americans the program has produced two have come with him as the head coach. Swanson said that the biggest reason for the success of the program academically is due to the fact that Coach Wilson and his staff do a great job of bringing in quality people.

"I think first and foremost, it is a tribute to the individuals who work tirelessly to earn that recognition," Swanson said about the number of players who have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. "And at the same time I think it is a tribute to the coaching staff for recruiting such well-rounded, high character young men who put a premium on academic achievement. Finally, I think our academic support staff deserves a little bit of credit because we have been here for them every step of the way. Some students have needed more help than others, but guys like Adam Replogle and Mark Murphy, they're going to achieve at that high level no matter where they're at. I think there is some strategy that goes into scheduling as far as helping them strike a balance with their degree programs. We definitely emphasize that and support them along the way, but at the end of the day it's the kids and it's the coaching staff recruiting the kind of kids that can come in here and have success."

Swanson said it would not be possible to have such a strong academic program if not for the commitment Coach Wilson and his staff have made to making sure the players take care of business in that area.

"It has been a blessing," he said about working with Coach Wilson and his staff. "You never really know what you're going to get when you come to the realization that there is going to be a coaching change, so you're kind of on pins and needles. I have been here since Coach (Terry) Hoeppner and there was a pretty smooth transition between him and Bill Lynch, but we just didn't know what to think. Coach Wilson came in from day one and he wanted to make the players that were already committed to the program and had a lot invested feel like they were part of the team and that they were going to contribute. I think that helped them maintain a good attitude and stay focused on what they needed to achieve not only on the field but academically as well. I think that constant emphasizing of you need to be a well-rounded person, and that it's not just about the athletic side of things because we want you to leave this institution a better man with a degree that you can be proud of. I hear that on a regular basis whether it is a team meeting or they are telling us that during an academic support meeting that we have with them on a weekly basis. It's just a common theme around here with the coaches."

There are four full-time staff members that work solely with the football program along with 60 to 80 tutors that are also available to the players. Swanson said determining the best course of action for each student-athlete and then making sure they are following that is the primary responsibility of the academic staff.

"The academic advisors meet with our most closely monitored group on a weekly basis to track the grades, document their progress, help them problem solve, and then really try to evaluate their overall academic support plan," Swanson said about their typical duties as a staff. "And then we have a learning specialist that works closely with 30 of our most underprepared students, the students that need the most significant support. With first and second year students we are typically monitoring them much closer because we're really trying to help them make the transition, and we want to know for sure that they've kind of earned their independence and are self-sufficient students no matter where they're at with their academic program. They are still here utilizing the services and meeting with tutors and meeting with their academic advisor, but for the first couple of years we're really trying to make sure they're in a good place before we give them rope."

Swanson said when you are dealing with more than 100 different personalities the toughest part is figuring out the best plan for each one based on their background as a student.

"Everybody comes to us with a different academic identity based on their experiences and based on their own individual expectations and their potential and what they are capable of," he said. "So I think the biggest challenge for us is getting to know who these guys really and truly are. We have to breakdown whatever barriers may exist, and then work to build a comprehensive academic support plan based on their individual needs. That is what we preach during the recruiting process, we are trying to individualize your academic support program as much as we can. When a student comes in and they are very guarded or introverted about their capabilities that can make the process move at a slower rate, and so with every student it takes a different amount of time to really get to understand who they are and what they need. And then the ultimate goal is for them to learn how to learn because there are guys that just weren't held to a certain standard in high school and we've got to get them up to speed quickly."

Swanson feels that the only way a player can fail in their program is if they don't do what they're supposed to and basically do everything they can to not succeed.

"We truly believe that the only way you can fail in this program is if you purposely do it," he said. "You would just have to make up your mind that you're not going to class and you're not going to communicate with the academic support staff and you are going to be on your own program. If a student determines that is what they want to do then there is no academic support program that can help them. But if they stay committed and they communicate there is nothing that they can't do."

In Coach Wilson's second season the staff decided to have practices in the morning instead of in the afternoon. Swanson said the move has worked out very well for everyone.

"First off, Coach Wilson was very concerned about the academic impact of the morning practices," Swanson said when asked about the morning practice schedule. "We had plenty of time to evaluate the potential effects, but once we took some time to do that we ultimately were in support of the move. We did do some research during that time on the class scheduling impact, and at the end of the day we really felt that if we were strategic and planned it sufficiently, because of our ability to use summer school with these guys, we thought the transition would be fairly smooth. I've had a lot of conversations with my guys that I meet with on a regular basis about the schedule and they really are in complete favor of it. They would rather do their practicing and their football stuff in the morning and get it out of the way."

Another benefit of practicing in the morning has been class attendance for the players. It was already strong according to Swanson, but it became even better with the new schedule.

"One thing that Coach Wilson has brought up in the past is that there is research that tells us that physical exertion increases brainwave activity and makes you more alert," Swan son said. "So his thought is if we get the football stuff rolling (in the morning) we already know they are out of bed and they are with us, and once they leave the facility they are less likely to go back to the room and go to bed because they really need to get to class. All of our classes are happening between 12:20 and 5:15 so when you get done with practice you eat your lunch and then you've got to get to class, whereas if you want until the afternoon (to practice) class attendance can become an issue as far as getting guys up and getting them alert and getting them to class. Our class attendance has always been good, but we noticed it has been better since we moved to the morning practice."

Swanson said that when recruits come on campus there are three things he and his staff try to get across to them about why their academic plan is second to none.

"The very first thing that I want students to take away from a recruiting meeting with anybody on our staff is we are an experienced staff," Swanson said about the recruiting pitch they give to visiting recruits. "We have got over 20 years of experience working in and around this program, and at the end of the day we really are passionate about student success. The second thing is there are a lot of great resources here at IU and I think that they need to know that we are going to do everything in our capacity to make sure they take advantage of all the resources that are available to them in our department and outside our department. Lastly, the IU degree is very valuable and they've got the opportunity of a lifetime to play the sport that they love and to earn a world class education. We get into a lot of the specifics about the academic support program, but if they take those three pieces away from our meeting then I think we've done a pretty good job."


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