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May 12, 2009

What it's like to work in academic support for the football team

By: Matt Kovatch

Colin Howlett

With spring football having concluded on April 25 and final exams about to take place, you know what that means – time for many Hokies to make one final push with their academics before the semester ends. So who better to check in with than Colin Howlett, the associate director of Student-Athlete Academic Support Services at Virginia Tech? Howlett is wrapping up his 12th year at Tech and he oversees the advisement of football student-athletes with regard to their academic endeavors. Here’s a quick look at what it’s like trying to keep the Hokies on pace in the classroom:

By the time final exams roll around, most of my work is done.

“By the end of the semester, I have a pretty good idea of where each student is going to end up. The busiest time is actually the beginning of each semester when we’re trying to make sure each student’s schedule is set. That’s when we need to set up when they’re going to have study hall, what tutors they’re going to meet with, and so on. And then pre-registration for courses, which is in the middle of the semester, is also a busy time. Getting classes on this campus is at a premium right now, so you need to plan ahead. Provided that a student does well in all the classes he’s enrolled in now, what’s the next step? The end of the semester is more stressful than busy because I know who my question marks are and all I can do is sweat it out.”

Don’t believe the misconceptions.

“The perception nationwide by some people is that many football players don’t belong in college. Well, that’s not true. These guys are smart enough to be successful here – they just need to be motivated in the right direction. The other misconception is that they have it so easy. There are going to be people reading this who say, ‘Football players get their school paid for.’ They do and that’s a tremendous benefit, but football itself is a 20-hour-a-week job at the minimum – it’s actually more than that when you count things like getting in early to visit the training room or going to study hall. There’s a real time commitment. Some people work a full-time job to be able to afford going to school and I respect that, but what sets the football players apart is the physicality of it – it is a meat grinder out there. People don’t understand how physically demanding their job is – most people don’t expend the physical energy that the players do.”

Just like the coaching staff, we also preach the lunch pail mentality.

“If you go to class, work hard, be conscientious, do your assignments on time and behave the right way, you’re going to go out to the field and do the same. My take on things, and Coach Beamer may agree with it, is that’s what our football program is also about. It’s the lunch pail attitude. If I show up every day and do what I’m supposed to do, I’m going to get better. That’s what we try to apply to our academic work.”

Believe it or not, one of our biggest obstacles is the NFL.

“A lot of the students I work with are motivated to be successful athletically. There is a rainbow out there with a pot of gold at the end of it that is the NFL. And I understand that motivation – it’s a lot harder to look at academics and see the same kind of thing. If you were to get your degree and get an extraordinarily good job out of college, you might make $75,000 a year. But for this group of football players, you can make at least three times that if you are successful athletically. They allow that to cloud their vision sometimes, even though the chances of making it in the NFL are so much tougher. It’s our job to get them to buy into the academic route.”

Our coaches do their part to help us complete our mission.

“There’s a certain amount of motivation that we provide to the students through our office, but a lot of that comes from the coaches. For people who are basically judged on winning and losing, they spend a great amount of time on preaching the importance of academics. They have grasped the relationship between being successful academically and winning. If a student does things in a certain way that allows them to be successful on campus, they’re going to be the same on the field. Coach Beamer really understands that and pushes like crazy on these students to be successful and that really makes my job easier.”

But in some ways, football can be just as important as class.

“When I was a college football player at Division III Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, I learned just as much through football – with the teamwork and time budgeting and leadership – as I did in the classroom. I’ve relied on those experiences to pull me through every job that I’ve had. I think athletics is one of the greatest supplements to an education that there can be – I’m a big believer in athletics as a way to educate oneself.”