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November 9, 2012

On the Record: Raymond Harrison Jr.

Note: On Nov. 15, Harrison was named Texas A&M's senior associate director of athletics.

To say Raymond Harrison Jr. is his own man is perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay the University of South Carolina's Associate Athletics Director for Academic and Student Support.

At just 38, he is in charge of academic performance for all of USC's student-athletes, overseeing a massively successful tutoring, advising and mentoring program that has set school record after school record for academic performance under his watch. Since taking over for the beloved Dr. Harold White in 2006, following are just a handful of the academic accomplishments he has led:

* 2006-present: Led SEC in number of student-athletes named to Commissioner's Honor Roll
* 2011-12: Fall 2011 was the highest departmental GPA in school history (3.202). Spring 2012 was the second-highest (3.196)
* 2010-11: All teams accomplished multi-year APR scores of over 950 for the first time.
* 11 consecutive semesters of a departmental GPA above 3.0 (the first semester in school history over a 3.0 was Spring 2007)
* 11 teams have achieved their highest GPA since 2006-07, and 12 teams have achieved their second-highest GPA since 2006-07.

Those are just some of the overall highlights. The individual and team accolades are literally too numerous to mention here.

To have accomplished so much, so young, would be enough to make any family beam with pride.

To have have created such an impressive legacy for oneself when one's brother is none other than former NFL superstar Rodney Harrison - he of the two Super Bowls, two Pro Bowls, one of only two players in NFL history to record 30 sacks and 30 interceptions in his career (the other is Ray Lewis, and Harrison was the first) and currently an analyst on NBC's Football Night in America - well, that's all the more impressive.

Harrison sat down with GamecockCentral.com last week to talk about how far he and the academic support program have come from the cramped quarters of the old buildings adjacent to Sarge Frye Field (think having to share bathrooms with an entire baseball crowd and cramming tutors and athletes into rooms with not enough space, too few computers and too many distractions) to the many benefits of the still-sparkling $13 million, three-story, 40,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Dodie Academic Center.

Read on to find out what have been the keys to the tremendous academic success, what lessons he learned from his brother that he imparts to student-athletes at USC today and how, precisely, that academic achievement has directly translated to an edge on the field in all sports at South Carolina in the ultra-competitive world of the Southeastern Conference.

GamecockCentral.com: You started out in college as a football player yourself.

Raymond Harrison Jr.: That's right. I was able to go to the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship there as a safety. and after I finished playing football and graduating I stayed around and did some odd jobs there and went back to grad school there. Part of my deal there was getting an internship in academic support, and I went to work in the field at the University of Louisville after that for the next six years.

GamecockCentral.com: What led you from Louisville to USC to take over for Dr. White?

Harrison: Funny story there. Dr. White has been doing this for over 30-something years. I was a young guy in the field and I'd always see him at conferences and ask people who he was; I was so intimidated by him I'd never go and speak to him. One year, I said, "What the heck, let me go introduce myself." This was back in 2006. I did it and found out he had a job opening here and I applied for it.

I interviewed for the job, and he hired me and that's why I'm here. He said "Come down here and work
with me for a couple of years and I'll turn it over," because he previously had retired then came back. When I came in we were on academic probation because of the previous person they had, not Harold. They brought him out of retirement to help clean things up. He told me when he interviewed me that he'd stick around with me two to three more years, which I thought was fantastic, because I'd get to learn from a legend.

After one year, he said, "Raymond, you're ready. I'm hanging it up and going to the beach." I said, "Coach, that's not what you told me!" But he said "You're ready. Trust me when I tell you that." He was right. I wasn't very confident that I was at the time, but when you're thrown in the fire you rely on your instincts and I believed in his belief in me.

I had a coach once, Tim Rose, who when I was down, when I didn't think I was a very good football player, didn't think I was a very good person because of the way the previous coach had talked to me, he was there saying, "Good job, Raymond! Great job!" He gave me so much positive reinforcement. I didn't realize how down I was until he came in my life, and he made me feel so much better about myself as a football player but so much more as a person. That's what's driven me in this profession. You have to have structure and discipline and accountability, but when you believe in a person and continue to believe in them and tell them they can do things, they can do it.

GamecockCentral.com: What was that transition like?

Harrison: The interesting thing about this place was that when we took over when Harold left, it was a struggle. It was a struggle because you're trying to implement a new system. They were used to doing things a certain way. I wanted to do things a little differently. I had five pillars, five principles, I wanted to establish. I said "These are the things we're going to do, and we're going to do them as best we can: 1) Go to class prepared every day. 2) Get to know your professors. 3) Turn your assignments in on time. 4) Be respectful to everyone you come into contact with. 5) Utilize your resources."

We put together a staff that understood all those things and understood it was their responsibility to hold student-athletes accountable to those things every day. It's been an interesting process, because we've done it and done it and done it, and we've put together some policies to hold them accountable, and you've seen the results. It's very pleasing.

And it's not just because of the highest GPAs, leading the SEC and all that, it's pleasing because the student-athletes have bought into it and carry that on, take ownership in it where you have the juniors and seniors taking the freshmen under their wings and showing them "This is how we do things at Carolina."

GamecockCentral.com: And clearly, results in the classroom translate to results on the field.

Harrison: It's interesting, isn't it? When we meet with prospects for football, something we've hammered from Day One has been that you have to be consistent in your work ethic. I've always told my staff that: I want them to be an 'X-factor.'" They asked me what I meant by that. I said, "We don't get a ton of credit for athletic success here on the academic side, but what you can do is that we all want to be winners. We all are competitive. We all want to win on the field of play." I said, "What we can do to make them better competitors is hold them accountable in our area. Nine times out of ten they don't want to do this. It's either too hard or something they have no interest in doing.

"But if you can get them disciplined and working their butts off for something they don't really like, how good are they going to be doing something they really love?" I use the analogy all the time, my brother played in the NFL for 15 years and I said, "Rodney, how do you stay competitive and keep your job?" Because every year they're bringing in a rookie or free agent who is younger, stronger and faster to take your job. I said, "How do you hold those kids off?"

He said, "What I've learned is how to study the game. The NFL, for me, has become 85 percent mental, 15 percent physical. I've learned to study the game, watch film and know tendencies and formations. I know the angles to take so that I'm getting to the ball faster than those guys who are faster than me."

I use that with our guys and with our staff, saying, "We're in the SEC. If we think we're going to have the biggest, strongest or fastest guys all the time we're fooling ourselves. We need to give our guys an edge. That edge is, "Are they mentally sharper? Are they more disciplined?" And if so, that's what's going to carry over to the field and that's what we've taught and preached over and over.

I thought it was very interesting over the last two years when the football team has gone to the SEC Championship and last year with the most wins in school history, it coincided with the highest GPA ever and graduating the most football players over those two years in school history. It's not coincidence. Coach Spurrier will attest to that and give credit to how important guys doing the right things off the field equals wins on the field.

GamecockCentral.com: How has the opening of the Dodie in 2010 been a springboard for that success?

Harrison: One of the things - and we didn't make any excuses before, you still had to do those five principles every day - but one of the things we made sure we did when we built it was we needed enough tutor and seminar rooms, because a lot of what we do are one-on-one and group sessions. We needed to have those. One of the things Eric Hyman wanted and that I agree with is that it needed to be light and airy, because as a former student-athlete, when I think of study hall, I'm thinking punishment or prison or something negative.

When you come in this place, it's not that at all. It's very inviting. Our student-athletes, even when they don't have to be here, they're here because it's an environment that's conducive for them to learn. They take advantage of it. They'll come here to eat, they'll come up and use the computer labs or study and use the private space to work. It's fantastic, and it's been a tremendous advantage for us.

GamecockCentral.com: Do you share your own experience of having played Division I football and then gone on to a successful career afterwards, that you have to prepare for a life that doesn't include professional sports?

Harrison: I do. I share with them that I serve as a good leader to our staff and student-athletes. Some athletes don't consider themselves role models. I do. I know most of our student-athletes, a lot of them, at least, think there's something professionally for them in their sport after graduation. I want them to see what I've done. I'm not shy, I tell them I wasn't good enough for the NFL. But because of the person, my advisor who kept me on track, I'm in the position I'm in now.

I tell them, you always want to give yourself options. The more you take care of your business, the more options you have later in life. Now you may have that career everyone dreams about. And even if you do, there still will come a time when you have to have something to fall back on. I try to tell them a little bit, stories about me and my family, to connect with them, build a relationship with them and help them see the truth of that. But you have to hold them accountable for that to work. I'm not interested in being the most popular person. I want them to respect me, because respect lasts longer than popularity.

GamecockCentral.com: For that to work, too, you have to have the buy-in of the different coaches as well.

Harrison: Absolutely. I love our coaches here, the newest being Frank Martin. He gets it. They all get it. No place I've been has been as strong across the board as we are right now. I credit a lot of that to the leadership from Eric now to Ray. I believe every student, every child, they all want discipline and structure. They're not going to tell you that, but they want it.

That's what we try to do is give them that. We talk about individual goals. We try to make them realistic, but even if they're unrealistic, that's fine, let's have some goals. Let's shoot for something. One of the things we have going for us is that they're competitors, so if we can make it competitive, we can make it fun. They don't want to lose, they don't want to be last in anything.

We had, those 50 graduates for football over the past two years who were the most in school history, two of them are current NFL players, Jasper Brinkley and Darian Stewart, who came back to finish because they didn't want to be the ones on the list of those who didn't get their degrees. Both of those guys came back in the off-season to get it done. What a message that sends. I think it's very neat how things have changed here and progressed.

GamecockCentral.com: And it's not just football with that success, either.

Harrison: It's across the board. All of our teams have raised their games, and that's a testament to all our advisors and all our coaches. Everybody is interested in football, it's a key component, but it's basketball, it's track, it's swimming and diving, it's baseball - with baseball, for example, when they were at the College World Series, they had the highest GPA of all the teams. Michael Roth had the highest GPA of all the participants one year and last year Erik Payne had the highest GPA of all the participants. That's South Carolina.

We've led the SEC for the past six years in the number of students named to the SEC Honor Roll. We've had the 11 consecutive semesters of a GPA over 3, which had only happened once before, in 2007. For me, that's winning academic championships. We compete in the SEC, and in my mind, we're academic champions. If you can't tell, it's something I'm passionate about proud of, because our staff works so hard. It's a tough job because you work long hours; it's not a 9-to-5 job; they work until 9 or 10 at night when student-athletes are studying. They're always on call, student-athletes are always texting them, emailing them and they're always available, because what we do here is hire people who care. We want people who care, who want to help student-athletes achieve their goals. We have that here, those kinds of people, and it shows.

GamecockCentral.com: And personally, that has to be satisfying to see so many things come together with such success.

Harrison: I've been very fortunate to be in a position to influence people positively. You can have a negative impact in a heartbeat. But you can have a positive impact on so many people, because I remember having so many teammates who didn't take advantage of their opportunities, who put all their eggs in one basket and not making it to the professional level and thinking, "What are those guys going to do now?" They're going to go back to where they came from and now the situation is worse.

It's not like it was before, when you were a star and you had promise and hope. Now you don't have that, you might not have worked hard to finish your degree, and it can be bad. We have an obligation to prepare our students for life after college, and we want to give them every tool they need to do it, from academics to life skills, so they can leave here and be successful citizens in the world. If we don't, we've done them a disservice.

I tell people I was a young black male and football player with a dream of making the NFL, but it didn't work out. What I never dreamed that did work out because of my dedication to my education was I was able to help guide the development of a $13 million dollar building and oversee a program with so many amazing students and staff.

I don't want to see our guys end up like some of my former teammates, and we're very focused on giving them everything they need to be able to go from here and become great Gamecocks out in the world. It's wonderful, truly wonderful, to see that happen year after year.

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