At USF, academic eligibility waits for no vaccine

The Bulls’ reduced academic staff is striving to keep student-athletes on point even when they’re off campus.
USF athletic director Michael Kelly said the cancellation of college sporting events during the coronavirus crisis has overshadowed the fact student-athletes still are expected to maintain academic eligibility.
USF athletic director Michael Kelly said the cancellation of college sporting events during the coronavirus crisis has overshadowed the fact student-athletes still are expected to maintain academic eligibility. [ Times ]
Published April 14, 2020|Updated April 14, 2020

In a previous era of college athletics, when games were held and crowds assembled, the micro-managers with whistles typically held the monopoly on absurd working hours.

No more. These days at USF, Tim Anderson or one of his seven full-time staffers periodically find themselves in a virtual advising appointment or tutorial session well after midnight.

Anything to accommodate the Bulls student-athlete who may be riding out the pandemic back home in Sweden (six-hour time difference), Spain (six hours) or even Australia (14 hours).

“We do what we need to do, absolutely,” said Anderson, USF’s associate athletic director for academics. “We’ve got some folks doing some late calls and some late sessions, some late check-ins.”

Related: Can football student-athletes return if colleges don't?

The labyrinth of challenges being navigated by college athletic departments during this unprecedented stretch transcends keeping student-athletes conditioned and cognizant of the playbook.

Keeping them eligible is pretty critical as well.

“It’s hard enough for really great athletes to stay in shape and stay mind-focused and all that sort of thing,” USF athletic director Michael Kelly said. “But when you throw in your academic load on top of it, it’s another thing the pro sports don’t have to worry about.”

Even for a segment of the student body accustomed to discipline, rigid structures and immense oversight, the challenge of staying on top of class work can be daunting in a remote setting.

“We’re trying to keep things as normal and as routine as possible in a very not-normal and not-routine environment,” Anderson said.

In regular circumstances, Bulls student-athletes would have weekly in-person meetings with academic advisors, and hours of tutoring sessions. All would take place in the Fishman Family Student-Athlete Enrichment Center, an expansive wing of offices, tutorial rooms, computer stations, digital-information boards and group learning spaces on the Selmon Center’s second floor.

“It’s just an area that isn’t a locker room,” former Bulls offensive guard Billy Atterbury said, “for you to go and hang out and get some of your academic work done.”

Currently, it’s empty. Anderson’s staff typically includes eight part-time interns and roughly 50 tutors, but he says his personnel has been “pared down," with all working remotely.

“But we are still offering tutorial appointments and doing so in a remote fashion through one of the technology platforms,” he said.

That’s only one in a sequence of significant adjustments.

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When the university announced plans for distance teaching the remainder of the spring semester (plans which have since stretched to summer sessions), Anderson and his team first had to determine where each student-athlete would be isolating, and the kind of device (laptop, desktop, iPhone) to which they’d have access.

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Then, they had to ascertain the virtual-teaching methods of USF’s professors (i.e. who would deliver live lectures, who would post lessons, who would hold live chats, etc.).

“Everyone does it in a little different learning way,” Kelly said. “So for Tim and all of our different academic advisors to really get a quick grasp on that end to develop the right procedures, to keep in touch with all of our student-athletes, has been a Herculean effort.”

For now, freshmen and the most at-risk student-athletes are given highest priority to remote tutorials, offered in the form of daily one-on-one sessions or small-group study halls on a video-conference platform. Wee-hour tutorials for a foreign student back home are done by a full-timer.

From a broader perspective, Anderson said his staff’s charge is to “over-communicate” with all student-athletes, most of whom have had their daily academic schedules “re-drafted.”

“I would say first and foremost, we want ’em to know that we care about them and we’re here,” Anderson said.

Meantime, eligibility requirements have not been relaxed, though all USF students (except those in the pharmacy program) now can request the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading option in lieu of an actual letter grade.

“They might be at home with six or seven family members. They might be with four or five roommates. They might be by themselves,” Anderson said.

“So finding a quiet place to get work done, finding a quiet place to hold a tutoring appointment, making sure they have reliable wireless and a laptop or desktop, dealing with all of those issues … is probably the most challenging thing.

“We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible, but we’re very empathetic and understanding that it’s not a normal situation for anybody.”

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