If you follow Florida Gulf Coast University athletics, you know the Eagles are winners.
Consider that in 2016-17, FGCU captured its third consecutive Atlantic Sun Conference All-Sports Championship, and the swimming and diving team has won eight titles in nine years in the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association.
But beyond the courts, fields and pools, FGCU student-athletes also are winning at the “student” part of their game.
With a 3.27 cumulative grade-point average this past spring, some 260 Eagle athletes in 15 intercollegiate sports topped the overall student average GPA (of 3.08) for the 16th consecutive semester. And with more than 7,000 collective volunteer hours performed by those student-athletes and the department’s staff in 2016-17, the regional impact of FGCU Athletics made the university one of three national finalists for the inaugural Community Service Award (with Maryland and East Carolina) presented by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and the Fiesta Bowl.
That’s taking FGCU’s formula for athletics success from the scoreboard and spreading it to the bigger game of a complete student life.
Such accomplishments don’t happen by accident. While the FGCU coaches provide the most obvious guidance in building well-rounded citizens away from their respective sports, much of this non-competitive success can be credited to university “coaches” of a different sort put in place by Athletics Director Ken Kavanagh.
Meet Kelly Jean Brock and Tom Roberts, who push the student-athletes academically; and Kathy Peterson, who coordinates the teams’ highly visible volunteer presence in the community. While the coaches and players go about their business on the competitive side of the equation, this trio behind the scenes makes sure the non-sporting side of running an NCAA athletics program gets the attention it needs.
All three say the common denominators in achieving success in both academic achievement and community service are the same as those needed to build a winning sports team: effective time management and teamwork.
“Coordinating time demands of student-athletes is where we help them the most,” said Brock, assistant athletic director and director of the Student-Athlete Learning Center on the second floor of the Outdoor Sports Complex. “We have the resources to help them get organized. Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping a to-do list.”
Brock oversees two other full-time staff members, about 20 tutors and 15 student peer mentors who help athletes remain academically eligible and on track to graduate in four years. Athletes meet once or twice a week with the support staff to make sure they’re staying on course. Besides the tutoring and coaching, FGCU Athletics works closely with Undergraduate Studies and takes full advantage of the Center for Academic Achievement and Writing Center. Team study halls are scheduled eight to 10 hours a week — with cellphones confiscated for maximum concentration.
Behind all this is an FGCU faculty that’s equally critical to student-athlete success. Brock, who worked at the universities of Tennessee and Minnesota before coming to FGCU four years ago, said she has “never worked with a better faculty than the one we have at FGCU. They make every effort to be fair not only for athletes, but for every student who has other commitments.”
That’s where Roberts, an associate and graduate professor of Educational Leadership who serves as FGCU’s faculty athletics representative, comes in as liaison.
“I always encourage our student-athletes to be proactive about keeping professors informed when they will be on the road, to see what they can do in advance to stay up with the work,” said Roberts, who just finished his first year in the athletics faculty role. “Our faculty members are understanding and accommodating. I have yet to come across a problem between student-athletes and professors.”
The work ethic and responsibility that are necessary to win games translates perfectly into coursework, given the proper guidance. “My personal experience with athletes as students is outstanding,” Roberts said. “They are top-notch, both in classrooms in the traditional sense, and in online courses. They tend to be active participants and get assignments done on time. I think those qualities are attributable to what it takes them to be successful as athletes.”
At FGCU, another part of being a student-athlete is fulfilling the university’s requirement of performing at least 80 service-learning hours to graduate. Each of FGCU’s 15 teams completes at least one service project each academic year that engages at least 90 percent of the roster and doesn’t involve their sport. In other words, the baseball team can’t get off easy by staging a clinic for local Little Leaguers.
Instead, Eagle student-athletes have lent their talents to some 30 Southwest Florida organizations through the years, including three primary initiatives: Habitat for Humanity, the Harry Chapin Food Bank and Golisano Children’s Hospital. Eagles also are a presence in local elementary schools, primarily through the basketball teams’ Eagle Reading program, which Peterson says is a “huge thing for the younger kids.”
“They really look up to our players,” said Peterson, the associate athletics director for student-athlete services. “We get a lot of positive feedback from the schools in appreciation for us coming.”
The community visibility also helps attract FGCU’s neighbors to campus. “When people see our athletes and meet them, it makes them want to come and see them play,” Peterson said.
This support system for success isn’t taken for granted by the Eagle athletes who benefit from it. Nick Rivera, a first baseman on the baseball team from Cape Coral who was the most accomplished power hitter in FGCU history with career team records of 46 homers, 63 doubles and 220 runs batted in, says he never would have earned his degree in criminal justice last spring if it weren’t for Brock, Roberts, Peterson and the rest of the team behind the teams.
“The amount of effort they put in motivates us to do better,” said Rivera, whose criminal-justice plans are on hold as he pursues his dream of becoming a baseball coach himself. “When I got here, I needed to be pushed, or I never would have graduated. The first day I was on campus, they pulled me aside and told me how it was going to be. They gave me a plan, and we stuck to that plan, and it put me in position to succeed. I’m tremendously grateful.”