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The University of Florida being an upper-tier football program hasn't happened by accident. Every bit as important as the coaching staff and the players is the support staff working behind the scenes who help to drive the effort.
Over the last two off-seasons GatorBait.net has taken a look at those invaluable members of the team.
While instate rival Florida State is making headlines due to an academic scandal and fighting the forfeiture of victories - UF has 'quietly' gone in the opposite direction.
Though it isn't in the headlines, right down I-75 in Gainesville, entering their fifth season at UF, Urban Meyer and staff have done a remarkable job of making academics a priority while still being able to pile up wins and championships on the field.
To wit, every single senior on the 2008 National Champion Gator football squad is leaving UF with a degree. Not only did each and every one of them graduate, in addition Florida football placed a league record 37 players on the SEC Academic Honor Roll as well.
Just as impressive, over half of the members of the team have a GPA 3.0 or higher.
Today, Assistant Directors of Academic Services, Tony Meacham and Jason Storch provide some insight as to how the academic side of the football equation is handled at UF.
GatorBait.net: What are your backgrounds as far as how long have you been at the University of Florida and what have been your duties along the way?
Meacham & Storch: Combined we have been working for the Office of Student Life (OSL) for 23 years as academic counselors to the Football program. Jason Storch works with the Offensive players and Tony Meacham works with the Defensive players.
The OSL is an academic unit housed on campus in Farrior Hall. On a day-to-day basis we assist our players with course planning and major selection as well as tracking their progress in all their classes.
Our mission in the OSL is to prepare our student-athletes for life after graduation.
In order to do this, we provide programs and services that facilitate graduation while promoting educational, personal & career development.
The bottom line is that our job is not 8am-5pm. We are in constant communication with the players and their position coaches on a daily basis tracking their academic progress.
GatorBait.net: Florida was perfect last year, not on the field where they lost a single game, but in the classroom where 100-percent of the seniors on the 2008 football team graduated. To someone in your line of work that had to feel as good as winning a national championship.
Meacham & Storch: It is very fulfilling to see all the Seniors accomplish this goal. We have worked with these guys since they arrived on campus, so for us it's an accumulation of all the hard work put in by not just us, but mentors, tutors and other staff that have worked with them along the way.
Some players have overcome various obstacles over their four or five years, but all are able to leave here with a University of Florida diploma.
In the end, it's very rewarding to see them win championships (SEC and National Championships) as well as realize their dreams off the field.
Click Here to view this Link. GatorBait.net: Prior to Meyer's arrival at UF, the overall team GPA was a dismal 2.38. It has gone up every semester since. The last number made available was a 2.86. That doesn't happen by accident. What caused such a dramatic shift in that number?
Meacham & Storch: There are many factors that go into the increased success of our players in the classroom. Coach Meyer's emphasis on recruiting character and students that are committed to the learning process has certainly played a big role.
The expectations that we put on the players in our program also plays a part. For example, if the underclassmen see all of our Seniors graduating it puts the pressure on them to accomplish the same goal. Assistant coaches play a vital role in supporting our efforts on a day-to-day basis.
Lastly, we are more or less in the "academic trenches" with our players monitoring their daily actions and making sure they are on the right track. We believe all these factors must be in place and work hand-in-hand to accomplish all of our goals.
GatorBait.net: UF (along with Vanderbilt) placed a league record 37 football players on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. What does that achievement mean to those of you who work on the academic side?
Meacham & Storch: Obviously, this a great accomplishment that our entire staff takes great pride in. We think we have the best staff of academic support personnel (Learning specialists & tutors/mentors) in the country working with our players. If the students buy into what we do, they will be successful.
GatorBait.net: Following up on that question, how much of a part does the academic staff play in the recruiting process?
Meacham & Storch: We provide an educational resource to the student athletes, coaches and parents during the recruiting process. From evaluating high school transcripts to meeting with prospects and their parents when they visit campus, we immediately become a resource for that student, educating them about what the OSL does and what UF has to offer.
Our main function during official/unofficial visits is to discuss academics through a presentation and to answer any questions they may have.
Once they sign with Florida we are involved right away helping them make the transition from high school to college.
GatorBait.net: Football in itself can be considered a full time job. Between working out, practice, film study, etc... there's a lot of time invested in getting better as a team. How hard is it to schedule classes and study time around 'football time'?
Meacham & Storch: We structure each of our players' academic schedule/workload on an individual basis. We do require mandatory study hall for many of our players through required content tutoring that takes place on a weekly basis.
Their course load each semester is based on what specific courses they have chosen and need for their major. Because we work with them over a 4-5 year period we know their strengths and weaknesses and help them plan their class schedule accordingly.
GatorBait.net: There are always going to be players who need more attention, who maybe aren't as dedicated or who aren't willing to put in a great amount of effort when it comes to the academic side of things. How do you handle that?
Meacham & Storch: The key to our success is the day-to-day monitoring we do with all our players. We work hand-in-hand with the position coach to make sure our players understand the importance of academics and what can result if they follow the plan we put in place for them.
"School wise if your GPA wasn't where he thought it should be, you had mandatory tutor hours - no exceptions. The worse your GPA was, the more hours you had to spend with the tutor and if you didn't do it, you knew you were going to get punished. It wasn't smoke and mirrors with him. He said how important it was to leave Florida with a degree and he backed it up. Little things like that. Even if a player didn't care about school or getting a degree, Meyer made them care because it was harder to go through the punishment than it was to work to get your GPA up." - Former Florida lineman Drew Miller on the changes Urban Meyer brought with regards to academics - Parting Shots (spring 2008)