UH Athletics puts the student back in student-athlete
As the NCAA enters its seventh year investigating the academic fraud case against the University of North Carolina, the role of the student-athlete is constantly debated. Are they employees of the school that should be treated as such, or is there still room for the student aspect of student-athlete?
UH Athletics looks to fit the second definition, totaling an overall 2.88 GPA in the fall, and continuing their recent success with their fourth straight semester greater than 2.85. Additionally, a record-high 96 student-athletes were named to the Dean’s List.
“We are focused on building champions for life,” said Vice President for Athletics Hunter Yurachek. “Our three core pillars in that pursuit are academics, athletics and as members of our community, and when we have success in any of those three pillars, we celebrate our student-athletes’ achievements.”
Since Yurachek took over the program in April 2015, Cougar athletics have posted four of the top academic performances in school history. The number of student-athletes achieving 4.0 semesters has steadily increased, with 14 reaching the feat last fall.
Junior golfer Megan Thothong is one of the 14, totaling a 4.0 in three straight semesters, but the Dallas native’s success was not just in the classroom. Thothong was named to both the American Athletic Conference All-Academic and All-AAC teams in 2016.
“I work just as hard in the classroom as on the course,” Thothong said. “People like to joke that being a student-athlete is like having two full-time jobs, and coming into college it was important for me to do really well in both.”
Often competitive by nature, athletes compete beyond the fields in classrooms and sometimes event within the athletic department. Eleven of the 17 programs now have a cumulative GPA greater than 3.0, with softball leading the pack at 3.53.
Softball also led all programs with a 3.59 last semester, its highest fall GPA in program history. First-year head coach Kristin Vesely knows the importance of excelling in the classroom, especially for female student-athletes.
“Female athletes don’t have as big an opportunity to go pro, and while we have pro in our sport, it’s not at a high-income level and it’s not enough to sustain a living,” Vesely said. “If they’re able to master being at the field for 20 hours a week, being in class for 15 hours and still get As, that shows something to people.”
Houston still has work to do as a department, ranking in the lower half of the AAC by overall GPA. In addition, of the more than 2,300 student-athletes named to the AAC All-Academic team in 2015-2016, only 159 came from the Cougars, ranking No. 10 out of 12 schools.
One of the three core programs of the department is academics, so many resources are available to the student-athletes struggling in the classroom.
“Academic resources, study hall sessions and individual tutors, along with frequent communication with UH faculty on academic performance of at-risk students and early warning systems are in place,” Yurachek said. “Our student-athletes are monitored and supported on a daily basis by a committed staff of academic advisers and coaches who prioritize academic success.”
In addition, individual coaches instill their own academic requirements and resources for their athletes.
As a stand-out player at University of Oklahoma under longtime head coach Patty Gasso, Vesely learned the importance of succeeding in all aspects of being a student-athlete, instituting her own standards on the program.
“They meet weekly with (assistant) coach (Jessica) Schultz and update us on grades so that after the first week we know if something is not going well,” Vesely said. “We’re very big into team study hall, and the incoming freshman have 10 hours a week of mandatory study hall.”
Vesely adds to a program that has had the best overall GPA each of the past four fall semesters and was second in cumulative GPA after Spring 2016.
As each student-athlete comes to Houston they meet with an academic adviser to work out a degree plan, creating a calendar to fit all their classes around practices and competitions.
“From the very beginning we are used to getting our work done,” Thothong said. “We have (Associate Athletics Director for Academic Services) Maria Peden, and she helps us set up our four-year course to see which classes we should take to set us up for success.”
Most student-athletes go pro in something besides sports, and even for those who do, having a strong educated background is important in the real world.
With only three semesters left at UH, Thothong understands the reality of the situation facing her.
“Not everyone is going to become a professional athlete,” Thothong said. “It’s all about setting yourself up for success.”