Among the tasks assigned to the director of operations at a college football program are coordinating travel and team meals and keeping an eye on expenses. He also is charged with — at least at the University of Toledo — trumpeting the team’s academic exploits.
John Kuceyeski learned of that requirement not long ago when his boss, coach Matt Campbell, commanded him to gather photos of the team’s top achievers in the classroom and post them in the hallway outside the coaches’ offices.
“John’s first big job,” Campbell said of his new aide.
It must have been quite the undertaking, with a program-record 19 players attaining at least a 3.5 grade-point average in the spring and earning their mug displayed inside the Larimer building. Not long ago, when the program was posting ghastly GPAs and absorbing NCAA penalties, that same strip of wall would have been desolate.
“There needed to be a change of culture,” UT athletic director Mike O’Brien said.
Four years later records are being shattered. Good records. Ones that keep the NCAA at bay, become a point of pride in the community, and earn the head coach a whole lot of money in bonuses. The 3.027 GPA scored in the spring by the 110 or so team members is the best in program history and marks the first time a Toledo football team eclipsed 3.0.
“We’ve been really close for the last year,” Campbell said. “To do it this spring with this group was special. I think the kids were more excited than I was.”
Said O’Brien: “Very few programs with that many student athletes can say they’ve attained a 3.0.”
A similar trend is reflected in Academic Progress Rate. The 963 multiyear score, announced last week, is Toledo’s highest in the eight-year APR era and continues a fast climb from the early years when the program was docked 16 scholarships for sub-900 scores from 2004-05 to 2006-07.
Additionally, the 2011-12 single year score of 957 — the most recent data available — earned Campbell $50,000 from the university in bonuses. Half comes from the team scoring 925 or greater, and the remainder comes because Toledo finished in the top half (fourth) in the Mid-American Conference.
Campbell, an academic All-American as a player at Mount Union, cannot take full credit for the overhaul. Much praise should be bestowed on his former boss. Tim Beckman, who led Toledo for three years before leaving in late 2011 to coach Illinois, implemented a template for winning in the classroom that Campbell still uses. Coaches and the support staff monitor class attendance. Tutoring and study tables are emphasized. Players are split into eight teams that compete for distinction in academics and community service. The top three teams score athletic gear. Shoes. Jackets. The losers get a mop bucket to clean the lockerroom.
“The lack of success on the football field was correlating with what was going on off the field,” Campbell said of a four-year stretch in which the Rockets averaged fewer than five wins a season and failed to make a bowl game.
In Beckman’s first semester as coach the team’s combined GPA rose from 2.370 to 2.922, an average increase of more than half a grade per player. Small tweaks followed after Campbell took over. The staff began meeting with players individually every week to discuss academics, an effort Campbell said “might have been the last push” to attaining 3.0.
Another Campbell initiative: the photo wall. Residency is split into two groups — those scoring 4.0s, a group that last semester consisted of Ben Pike, Alvin Fletcher, David Pasquale, and Jeremiah Detmer, and those scoring 3.5s or higher. Names, but not photos, are listed of 3.0 students as well as those who made the greatest strides relative to their cumulative GPA.
“Right after the semester everyone was racing to that board to see whose picture was up,” Campbell said. “When you get that, you create a culture, and it becomes infectious from the ground up.”