TAMPA — Justin Miller is proud to say he's a Mac guy, but to find himself in a room with 461 new Apple MacBook Pro laptops, USF's assistant athletic director for academics and student-athlete development is downright giddy.
"You can see how excited I am," Miller said in discussing the groundbreaking new plan to outfit every student-athlete on every USF team with a laptop to help academic studies. "I think we'll see a lot of students really excel with this."
USF's athletic department announced a partnership with Apple earlier this month. And when its student-athletes return for spring classes, they'll have use of a $1,200 laptop as well as wireless Internet cards that will allow them to work whether they're in a locker room, on a bus or waiting at an airport after a road game.
It's what USF athletic director Doug Woolard envisions as "an anytime, anywhere learning environment for our students."
USF's plan is unique in its scope. Michigan State, for instance, has 33 laptops available for 750 athletes.
The Bulls will spend about $175,000 a year to lease the computers and more on "MiFi" wireless Internet cards. But in making one computer available to every student-athlete, they're removing some of the obstacles to academic success.
"We can hold our students accountable for a certain level of productivity," Miller said. "No one can say, 'There are no computer labs open.' That excuse is gone. The same thing with, 'I don't have time to do my work.' You don't have to be here now, and we can build that autonomy, that responsibility. It's all building toward that."
USF has taken its share of criticism for low scores in football and men's basketball in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate scores, which measure academic success and retention. Much of USF's problems have been the latter with athletes transferring to smaller schools. But Miller said acquiring the laptops, both from a financial and innovation standpoint, sends a clear message.
"The enthusiasm of the kids behind this, it's awesome," he said. "I can't tell you how many have said, 'Why can't I have it now?' The sense of investment in the students from an athletic department sense, that's going to pay forward a lot. This is something Mr. Woolard and President (Judy) Genshaft have said is something they want to invest in our student-athletes' futures. That's what we're doing."
USF checked, and the laptops aren't an NCAA issue because they do not represent an improper benefit. The NCAA allows computers to be issued on a "checkout and retrieval" basis. So now, as students are on a break between semesters, the laptops are checked in because there is no academic need for them. Same for students who don't attend summer classes. Their computers get turned in until fall.
USF's primary concern with the laptop program was that by NCAA rules, athletes cannot endorse or promote a product. So students know they can't post something on Twitter or Facebook saying how much they love their new laptop.
USF's existing computer lab had just 17 computers available for athletes to use, and Miller estimated about 40 percent of USF athletes have laptops. But few of those are as cutting-edge as what they'll have now.
One program converts written text to spoken words, so students can hear how a term paper sounds. Recording software will allow them to upload audio files from lectures for others to hear.
The laptop initiative represents less than 1 percent of USF's $32 million athletic budget, which is among the smallest of all schools in BCS conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10).
Miller said he has been pleased by how the program has been received by other schools with larger budgets now looking into doing the same for their student-athletes.
"I've gotten e-mails from other schools saying this is awesome," Miller said. "Not, 'How did you pull this off?' But, 'What did you do to get this done? This is really cool. Nice work.'
"Some of our Big East rivals have sent those."