Monday, May 15, 2017

Hogs football reaping success of academic center

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema (right) watches Saturday, April 1, 2017, as head strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert leads warmup drills during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville.

By Richard Davenport
May 14, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE -- Since being named the head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks in December 2012, Bret Bielema has placed a greater emphases on academics, thus resulting in a higher team grade-point average and a better Academic Progress Report.

The team posted a 2.94 grade point average in the spring of 2015, as the Hogs led the SEC with 40 student-athletes on the fall academic honor roll. They led the conference again in 2016 with 39 on the prestigious list.

The football facilities routinely receive glowing reviews from prospects and their parents, but the Hogs' success in the classroom, along with the Jerry and Gene Jones Family Student-Athlete Success Center, also garners praise.

The center is a strong selling point in recruiting, and numerous prospects and parents have mentioned that the Hogs have one of the best academic setups in the nation. The facility was dedicated on Sept. 19, 2015, and is the largest of it's kind in the SEC. There are 37 tutoring rooms, 3 computer labs and 3 learning labs in the 55,000-square-feet building.

Chris Johnson was the director of student-athlete services at Jacksonville University before becoming the assistant director of academics for football at Arkansas in January 2014. He was promoted to director of academics for football in the spring of 2016.

Johnson said the facilities, the administration's support and all the necessary resources go a long ways in the academic success, but Bielema's leadership is key.

"Coach Bielema really makes it all work with just with how he supports us," Johnson said. "I got here after coach did. I wasn't here before, but what you hear it wasn't the way it is now."

Johnson, along with assistant director of academics Liz Reyes and academic counselor J.L Jennings, give updates on the status of the 105-player roster to Bielema and his staff during Thursday meetings. The academic report can take up approximately 30 minutes of the hour-long staff meeting.

"It's doesn't matter if we have Alabama in two days or in the middle of spring ball or the start of the spring semester," Johnson said.

He, Reyes and Jennings prepare a weekly packet that's given to the coaches which includes current grades, upcoming assignments, and a list professors attending spring or fall practice.

"The packet also has information on the players the academic staff have concerns about that semester and a daily report of who was in class and who wasn't. Who had a great tutor session and who really needs to be given some kudos," Johnson said.

The players are very aware of the Thursday academic meeting.

"They try and have their grades ready by that day," Johnson said. "They're like, 'have you guys met with the coaches yet?' because they don't want to be called out in their position groups."

Johnson said he's aware some schools have an assistant coach and a few graduate assistants overseeing a team's academics.

"If there's a problem that's who you go through, but knowing I can just pick up the phone and talk to coach himself, that goes a long way," Johnson said.

The Fred W. Smith Football Center has numerous football-related posters and pictures hanging on its walls, but the Jones center is void of such.

"There's nothing athletic related on the walls and that's very strategic," Johnson said. "We know they're going to get enough of that in the Fred Smith center. So what we really want the focus to be everything in the classroom, in the community, career development and all those sort of things."

There are approximately 100 tutors available to the student-athletes.

"Some are undergraduate students themselves, some are graduate students depending on their qualifications and depending what their majors are," Johnson said. "They're given the ability to tutor our students, and they have to go through a certification process to do that."

The academic center is geared to serve the athletes much like how the student union serves the general student population.

"Really, the vision for this building was to be a student union for our athletes," Johnson said. "We have pretty much everything they need here. They can get computers and laptops checked out for a week at a time and complete their work. We allow them to check out calculators. We have a sports nutritionist, a sports physiologist, we have our student-athlete development unit which I feel like is one of the best in the country.

"The expectations for us [are] to be No. 1 in the league in honor rolls, so that's something we take a lot of pride in."

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