Academics and athletics overlap for more than just student-athletes at the University of South Carolina. Faculty and staff have the opportunity to experience more of the athletics scene through the Guest Coaching Program. The program began in 2007 and allows student-athletes to select professors to attend one of their home games or matches as a special guest.
"The goal is to build those relationships between student-athletes and their professors," said Academic Advisor Alise Svihla, who is heading up the Guest Coaching Program this year. "It helps us out too if we need to contact the professors during the year to talk to them about any problems a student-athlete is having in class. It also helps us understand what the professors are doing, and it helps them understand what the student-athlete is doing when he or she isn't in class. It really helps bridge the relationship."
"The professors get a close up view of what's going on," said women's soccer head coach Shelley Smith. "We appreciate their support. A lot of the reasons our student-athletes enjoy their experience here at South Carolina is because of their professors. So it's a neat way to thank them."
Last year, more than 100 South Carolina faculty and staff members took part in the program. While the professors don't actually get a chance to coach the team, they do get the opportunity to meet with the coaching staff, are given voucher for something to eat, and are also given tickets for themselves and one guest, provided the guest is not a recruitable student.
"The student-athletes nominate their professors and we'll reach out to them with some options for games to come to," Svihla said. "There are multiple guest coaches for the selected home games. They will tour the facilities, listen to a presentation on the services we offer, and stay for the game or match."
"We see them during our pre-game training," Smith said. "It's not too invasive to upset our routine, but it's good to be able to say hello and chat with them and thank them for what they do for our students. Some of them are already fans and come to a lot of games or their kids have come to our camps. It's neat to have them out there."
This is a campus that `walks the walk' when it comes to supporting the student-athletes academically so that when their athletics career is over, they also have some skills to fall back on.Dr. Jennifer Pournelle
Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, who is a research associate professor, teaches an Environment 101 class which often has several student-athletes from different sports. She was a guest at a women's basketball game last year.
"It was a lot of fun," Pournelle said. "I had two or three of the girls on the team in my class. One of the other fun things was that some of the other people who were invited to be there were faculty from my unit who I had never met because they were new. Our school is pretty spread out in terms of disciplinary interests. So that was fun."
While athletics departments at some schools may appear to be at odds with academics, Dr. Pournelle said that is not the case at South Carolina.
"All of the faculty that I know here, we enjoy our student-athletes because it's very clear that they are expected to attend classes and do the work," Pournelle said. "They are held to that standard and are genuinely student-athletes. They're not athletes who go through the motions and pretend to be students. I also understand that student-athletes basically have a full-time commitment to their sport in addition to their classwork."
Building and enhancing the relationship between the faculty and the student-athletes is an important aspect of the program.
"By inviting new faculty, it could improve relations between academics and athletics because they may arrive here with a different mindset from other institutions," Pournelle said. "This is a campus that `walks the walk' when it comes to supporting the student-athletes academically so that when their athletics career is over, they also have some skills to fall back on."
"We want to teach them about what we do here at the Dodie," Svihla said. "We give them a packet of information that also explains what a day in the life is like for those that participate in athletics."
It's not uncommon for a professor to be selected as Guest Coach for multiple sports over the course of a few years, but the program aims to target faculty and staff who have not participated in the program previously. The response has been very positive from both areas.
"The professors feel involved with what our student-athletes are doing," Smith said. "It gives them a chance to see what they are doing outside of classes, the commitment they are making to perform, and how important it is to them. It gives them some additional insight into what our student-athletes are being asked to do."
"The students get so excited when they hear back from their professor when they're invited to be a Guest Coach," Svihla added. "The student-athletes love seeing their professors there. It's cool that the professors are excited about it too and want to talk to the student-athletes about it. We do hear from some of the professors that they'd like to come to other events too."
South Carolina baseball student-athlete Alex Destino invited his speech professor, Jennifer Bjorn, in appreciation for her assistance in making sure he remained on track between his class and travel schedule.
"She is a phenomenal teacher, and she does an unbelievable job of making sure we stay on top of everything when we can't be in class due to a game," Destino said. "She talked all about being at the game as the guest in our next class. I think it helps build a bond with a professor. She was already respected by the other student-athletes in the class, but I think it's a great thing when you can have a professor come and see what you're doing when you're not in class. It's a neat perspective for them to know that you're passionate about playing your sport and showing them that you're also passionate about getting your degree."
Not only does the program give professors an insight to the out-of-class lives of some of their students, it also exposes them to events they may not have attended in the past. The South Carolina athletics marketing department helps promote the professor's game day visits by introducing them on the field or floor of some home athletics events as well as on the video board of some venues.
"We're all a part of the same team," said Josh Waters, Assistant Athletics Director for Marketing. "Any time we can do something that is welcoming to the folks in academics, we want to do it. I think that it's well--received by the professors and the student-athletes. It's interesting to see a student-athlete pick out his or her professor at a game and point them out to their teammates. You see some of the student-athletes go up and hug their professor, which I think is neat."