After her son Nick graduated from Georgia Tech in August, Lisa McRae hung up his diploma on a wall in her bedroom.
Said Lisa McRae, “I get to wake up and look at it and smile.”
Nick McRae’s playing career at Tech never lifted off; the offensive lineman from Dublin has played 42 games for the Yellow Jackets line but started only two. However, McRae can lay claim to a more noteworthy achievement. Out of the 15 players in the 20-member 2008 recruiting class – coach Paul Johnson’s first – who were on the team four or more years, 13 have graduated. The final two, nose tackle T.J. Barnes and outside linebacker Malcolm Munroe, are on track to graduate in the spring. (What’s more, the five who transferred earlier have either graduated or are on track to graduate at their schools, which would produce a stunning 20-for-20 mark.)
The senior Jackets will complete their playing careers against USC in the Sun Bowl, Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas. Starting with the 2009 season, their on-field performance has included two ACC Championship game appearances (and a victory in 2009) and a 31-22 record. However, if the Yellow Jackets can’t beat the Trojans, they’ll also have their second losing season out of four. The diploma trumps.
Seeing Nick walk across the stage to receive his diploma, Lisa McRae said, “It was just amazing and mind-blowing.”
Of Tech’s seniors from the 2009 signing class, all have either graduated or are on track to graduate by next summer. They are part of a larger pattern of classroom improvement since Johnson’s hire. Credit can be traced to a variety of sources – to former athletic director Dan Radakovich, who beefed up academic support for the football team and all varsity athletes; to Johnson, who took on Radakovich’s mandate to improve graduation rate; and to the athletes themselves.
“At some point, you’ve got to put it on yourself,” Nick McRae said. “The coaches can tell you, but it’s you that’s got to go out there and do it.”
The seniors, who include quarterback Tevin Washington, guard Omoregie Uzzi and A-back Orwin Smith, have set a standard for following classes and will also leave behind a meaningful gift for the athletic department. Next summer, when the NCAA releases its annual academic progress rate (APR) report for every Division I school and team, Tech should enjoy a considerable jump. The APR, which measures eligibility and retention over a rolling four-year period, was 957 when Johnson arrived and 974 last year. Both were fifth best in the ACC, as scores have risen nationally. The next released score will be the first that measures only the team’s academic performance since Johnson’s hire.
“I think our academic support has done a good job,” Johnson said. “It’s also important to us as coaches. That’s one of the big things we needed to do when we came here, was to get that graduation (rate) up.”
Should Barnes and Munroe complete degree work, the 15-for-15 mark for 2008 signees who stayed for four years would be a drastic improvement for Tech from the last NCAA graduation success report, which tracked athletes who entered college 2002-2005. In it, Tech’s graduation rate, as measured by the NCAA, was 55 percent, tied for last in the ACC.
Radakovich, associate athletic director Phyllis LaBaw, assistant academic services director Chris Breen and others have created a structure that has better supported football players and other student-athletes. Hired in Feb. 2006, Radakovich roughly doubled the number of academic services staffers during his tenure. The 2005 Tech football media guide lists two academic advisers on the football support staff. There are now six.
Other changes, such as a program that permits freshmen to enroll in the summer rather than the fall, has helped players adjust to the Tech course load.
A summer internship program, available only to academically qualified students, has provided another incentive. Enhanced academic monitoring and tutoring programs have helped players stay on track.
Cornerback Rod Sweeting, a 2009 signee who completed his management degree in 3 ½ years and graduated Dec. 15, said his mother Williesa Toomer helped him the most by staying in his ear and motivating him. After that, he named Breen.
“I think the best adviser here is my adviser, Chris Breen,” Sweeting said. “He does a lot to help me. He makes sure I’m always on top of my stuff.”
For the fall term, 35 players earned a 3.0 or better to make the dean’s list, including 23 scholarship players. The team GPA for the term, Johnson said, was around 2.56.
“Those guys are doing good academically,” he said. “I’m proud of ’em.”
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog