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Another season is in the record books for the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. It was not the record that we were all hoping for, and I was not able to travel to the last game, which was away. But I watched it on the livestream, and once again I marveled at the grit, resilience, and indefatigable spirit of the players, the coaches, and the fans - parents - who I knew were in the stands. I've come to love all aspects of the culture of this game, but it's the people who make it the best.

First, appreciation must go to the coaches, chief among them Head Coach Michael Dailey, who said yes from the start when approached to have a female art history professor as the first faculty mentor to the team. We reminisce now often about how we were going to "figure it out," and we have. I'm grateful for his patience, his answering of my thousands of questions (I am an academic!), and his embrace of just about every one of my ideas. I have made it a point to get to know the other coaches a bit better this year, though I could have done more on that score. Yet, I know how busy they are.

Second, the parents have been fun to get to know, too. What a hardy bunch! And these people know how to party! I can't name names, but I have been gifted with more sausage, sweets, and alcoholic shots than I have ever in my life. At first, it was overwhelming and I did not know what to say or do, which makes professors as a rule uncomfortable. But as I try to tell my students: lean into what makes you uneasy and take a risk. I am glad that I did so because interacting with the parents has been a joy I did not anticipate when I took on this role.

And finally, but certainly not last, is my appreciation for the students. Among the graduating bunch this year are some of the first players who sought me out when I did not know what I was doing. I don't know why they trusted me, as I hardly think I gave off an attitude of confidence about my role. All I can think is that my desire to help and to support somehow came through. And I listened. By listening I learned so much. Because many people read this blog and because it's public, I will not name their names. However, they will always be among the most important students in my twenty-year teaching career in higher ed. They (hopefully) know who they are. They made me a better professor, by helping me see how they came alive in debates, games, and other active learning in the classroom. Several of them taught me about what it is like to be a black young man navigating today's society and some first-generation students shared with me the angst at the costs they were incurring. They taught me about grit and resilience, which I have blogged about here before. They taught me collectively about teamwork and why that is important.

In the end they have offered me a new way to express my creativity as a professor, a (sometimes) administrator, and a speaker on student athletes and teaching and learning. I've been given a new outlet for the next few years to help guide and shape higher education, specifically on how institutions can better support student athletes holistically at the (NCAA) Division III level. I've spoken at a few institutions, have a book proposal in about my experiences, and will be speaking at the NCAA's Annual Convention in January.

To the entire McDaniel College Football Team: a huge thank you from the faculty mentor. Thanks for making me a member of the team. And when is Spring Ball?!?!

The 2018 Team (photo: Katie Ogorzalek)

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make to student athletes who take their classes: “You are not here to play football” (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But the truth is, to say they are “not here to play [insert sport here]” is not fully true.

Coaches play an important role in recruiting every incoming class. I knew that intellectually, but I really did not understand how the coaches play an integral role in the recruitment of an incoming class. Until I began to mentor the football team and took a front row seat to the academic cycle of the team and a coach’s life, I did not realize how vital they are to the admissions enterprise. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue, student recruitment is key. While we have lots of outreach and marketing, it is often through a coach that a student first learns about an institution and has his or her “first touch.” Coaches want talent for their teams, and they spend a lot of time in high schools recruiting top students. Thus, many times the student’s first interaction with a college institution is through the coach.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to the question, “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. They emphasized that they very much love their sport, and to play, but they also want an education.

"Playing football" was not among the answers. Not one single student answered the question “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” with “to play football” as their first answer. While football may be the reason they looked at this particular college, and while the sport may offer them opportunities through alumni connections, each of these students had their eyes on a larger prize: a college education and a pathway to a job and career. A follow up question about where they might be in five years, students answered by saying “I want to be a spokesman for a company” or “have a steady income.” Other students answered, “having independence financially,” and “finding a career and maybe starting a family.”

Thus, by their own answers, football was not the primary reason that they were in school, and yet, as the book I am currently writing will hopefully demonstrate, playing football is an important identity marker for them, and it is often their ticket to college. Without the team in high school, a coach’s interest, they may not have found a path to college as easily as they did through their sport.

Faculty, perhaps we should be a bit more reflective and interested in our students' sports identity and be more willing to help them make the most out of their four years, in the classroom and on the field.

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For those of you who haven't read this blog before, I am the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. I am a tenured Professor of Art History, and have been in my role with the team for about a year and a half. During the season I attend practices and games, and when I am not able to get to an away game I watch on live-stream and to the likely amusement of the players, tweet during all four quarters of the game. But most of my work is helping students become more successfully academically. This can include helping them with time management, study skills, securing a tutor, or even sometimes helping them connect with various resources at the institution.

I have learned a lot through this academic mentor role. By being willing to listen to them before attempting to "fix everything," I have learned a lot about what higher education does well for students, and where it falls short. Thus, I have decided to write a book about what these football players are teaching me and can teach other institutions. I have a vague outline of the book in mind, but the working title is: Understanding and Supporting the Student Athlete: A Guide for Institutions of Higher Education from a Faculty Mentor of a Division Three Football Team. I realize that is quite the mouthful, and it may change as the book takes shape. However, I'm very passionate about this topic and was just on the campus of the Maine Maritime Academy, holding conversations with coaches, staff, and faculty about supporting student athletes.

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make: "You are not here to play football" (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But really: to say they are "not here to play X sport" is not fully true.

Unbeknownst to most faculty (or at least this one) is the role coaches play in recruiting every incoming class. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue to pay the bills and make an annual budget, student recruitment is key. Oftentimes a student is only made aware of the institution because of a coach's approach. Thus, if that student then enrolls in the institution, and they play the sport, to say that the student is not there to play the sport is disingenuous. They are there to play their sport, but also to get an education.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to "why are you here" that the whole cohort gave. Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. In a future post I will write about the the importance of sports as an identity marker, an issue that is particularly true for minority and/or first-generation students. I am still researching that particular idea.

But faculty reading this post: if you have student athletes in your classes, know this: they want to play their sport. They were most likely recruited for your institution by a coach to play their sport. But they are very much interested in their education and want to do well and succeed. They just need a little understanding and support.

I have wanted to write a piece for McDaniel College Green Terror Football team coaches for awhile. Now that the season is over, I think it’s a good time to do so.

I am amazed at how hard all of them work: the head coach, the position coaches, the assistant coaches. I don’t fully understand the hierarchy there, but I do know they all work super hard to get the best out of the students on the field, while they simultaneously emphasize the need to keep to the books and graduate.

Our record this year was 3-7, which was the record as last season. But don’t let that record fool you: they are not the same team.

They are much more poised and focused. They play very much more as a unit than I saw in any game in the 2016 season. Their Twitter hashtag, #AsOne, is felt and expressed by all. The refrain I heard at training camp: “Do Your Job!” was taken to heart by the players and they did that for the most part.

There were some key injuries. But there always are.

Yet, the Coaches kept getting them back into it, keeping student/players’ eyes both on the next game as well as reminding them about classes. It’s a really tough balancing act, and one I would have no idea how to achieve.

That is why when some of my colleagues and friends jokingly call me “Coach McKay,” I wince.

Because I am not a coach. I do not know the first thing about coaching. I am still smarting over the loss at Franklin and Marshall, and that was Week 3!! I am still learning the mentoring gig; coach I am not.

Now the Coaches go onto the next phase of their operation: recruiting. The amount of time and commitment this part of their job requires is immense, which hardly anyone understands, particularly faculty. Last year, I contacted the Coach after the last game of the season, naively thinking that he would have all the time in the world now that the season was over. How wrong I was! He and the other coaches will now be on the road until the winter break. In January, they host busloads of potential student/players on campus, many of whom they saw in high school games every Friday night of the regular season. They then have a bit of a lull before March and “spring ball” starts. Then prepare for camp to start in August! It took me awhile, but now I get the drill.

So, this post is for the Green Terror Coaches. Their support of me has been wonderful and I want to send the same to them.  Go get us some great players, and thank you for all you do! I will be holding down the fort, meeting with the guys to make sure they finish the semester strong.

From a grateful faculty mentor, thank you, coaches, for all that you do!

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