Turn back the clock to the start of the last decade, and the “student” portion of the term “student-athlete” was somewhat of a misnomer in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga vocabulary.
Several UTC athletes were doing well in the classroom 10 years ago, receiving degrees and moving into productive careers, but that was more the result of chance than plan. Fewer than half of UTC student-athletes graduated then; for many, the goal was to do just enough academically to maintain NCAA eligibility. Nobody was happy about it and, fortunately, leadership in the athletic department figured out how to fix it.
Enter Emily Blackman.
What happened in 2010 is Athletic Director Rick Hart brought Blackman to the department and tasked her with turning the academic program around. Her newly-created position as leader of what’s now known as the Student-Athlete Academic Enhancement Center was to direct all facets of academic guidance given to Mocs’ student-athletes.
A decade ago, the UTC Graduation Success Rate for athletes was 48%. The GSR is a measurement developed by the NCAA to more accurately quantify the success of Division I student-athletes as part of its academic reform initiative. In the NCAA’s most recent cohort review released in October 2019, the UTC GSR had risen to a program-best 87%. The overall grade-point average for UTC student-athletes during the fall 2019 semester was a school-record 3.197. A school-record 169 student-athletes made the Dean’s List, including 46 who recorded a perfect 4.0 GPA, tying a program high-water mark.
“When I arrived 10 years ago, it was a survival mode to keep them eligible and keep them on the field. There was no real thought to the entire student-athlete experience,” says Blackman, senior associate athletic director for academic enhancement. “It was essential to me that our focus would become graduating students with a meaningful degree. If you stay on track for that, then you are by default going to be eligible for the NCAA. The idea of silos— putting student-athletes in just a few specific majors to stay eligible—doesn’t fit in with what the student-athlete experience was meant to be.
“Students who are in degrees that they love and feel passionate about typically do better in their coursework because it’s a topic they enjoy learning about. I’d rather have a student-athlete in a challenging class and learning something they love rather than being in an easier class in something they dislike. Students typically get a higher grade in the more-challenging class.”
At first, Blackman had a team of only three advisors. Her area had 12 computers—with no guarantee that all were functional—for nearly 300 student-athletes. Study hall took place in the corridors on the fourth floor of McKenzie Arena. Football players couldn’t come to study hall during the day because they didn’t have space for them, “and we would tell the other sports that they couldn’t come at night because football was up there,” Blackman recalls. “Hallways were not always the most conducive, especially when there was a rock concert going on in the arena.”
Along with needing to bump up the number on staff, she had to change the mindset of the student-athletes already onboard. She also insisted on transforming the recruiting approach, advocating for better students among the athletes being pursued. Blackman says she has been blessed that the three athletic directors she has worked for—Hart, David Blackburn and current AD Mark Wharton—share her vision.
But to get that initial buy-in about creating a better student-athlete, she needed to gain the support of key members of the coaching staff. “Our coaches have done a phenomenal job of recruiting students who plan to earn a meaningful degree, and Russ Huesman, head football coach through 2016, was huge on that,” Blackman says. “He understood. Having been an alum of the University, it was so crucial that the student-athletes here value being at Chattanooga and value earning a degree from the school he earned his degree from. “That approach has been continued with (current football coach) Rusty Wright, also an alumnus. Rusty has that same mentality and love of the school. He wants this experience for his athletes.”
Over the last decade, the Student-Athlete Academic Enhancement Center has more than doubled its advisor staff, including the addition of a learning specialist. It now has dedicated second-floor space at McKenzie Arena, complete with 58 computer stations and two study halls. Investments have been made in software that helps students balance their study and practice schedules.
UTC student-athletes have come a long way academically over the past 10 years. “My staff and I talk every week about the fact that our job is to graduate students with meaningful degrees. You have to have an entire group buying into the mission,” Blackman says. “It takes years to move the needle. And it takes a lot of people to make this all happen. After a couple of years, the faculty and staff on campus saw what we were trying to do and bought in. We now have such great partners, and Chancellor (Steve) Angle has been fantastic; he’s such a great supporter of what we do.
“One of my favorite moments is helping a student apply to graduate. Not too long ago, I sat down with this one male student-athlete, and he broke down and started crying when we went to fill it out. I asked ‘Why are you upset?’ He said, ‘I’m not. I’m happy. I was always told I was nothing more than an athlete, and now I’ll have a degree. No one can ever take that away from me.’ Those are the moments that keep you doing what you’re doing.