The numbers don't lie: when it comes to achievements in the classroom, not many programs do a better job than South Carolina in terms of academic support for student athletes.
Recently released NCAA graduation success rate numbers from the 2009 cohort (which tracks the 2009 class' six year window for graduation) showed that USC graduated 95 percent of football players. That mark was first in the SEC, 11 percentage points ahead of second-place program Vanderbilt. The mark was also third nationally, behind just Stanford and Northwestern and ahead of programs like Duke, Notre Dame, Rice, Wake Forest, and numerous others.
Last year, the Gamecocks led the SEC for the 10th straight year on the Fall Academic Honor Roll for student athletes. USC also led the conference in First-Year Academic Honor Roll selections in 2015 for the ninth season in a row.
During a University of South Carolina Faculty Senate meeting back in April, one of the guest speakers was athletics director Ray Tanner. During his speech, he mentioned that he was often asked who his best coach was at South Carolina. His answer? The person who deserves a large share of the credit for the Gamecocks' success in the classroom: Maria Hickman.
"They ask, 'what does she coach?'" Tanner said. "I say, 'she coaches student athletes.' I don't think there's anybody better than Maria Hickman in the Southeastern Conference,' Tanner said. "She does a wonderful job."
Hickman is South Carolina's Senior Associate Athletics Director for Academics and Student Development. A former basketball player at Mars Hill, Hickman arrived in Columbia in 2007 as an academic advisor for football and gradually ascended to her current position.
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From her office in the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center, Hickman has directed South Carolina's student athletes to unprecedented success.
"Our culture has always been trying to build relationships with the students. Not only educating them about the importance of graduating and preparing them in their sport, but also preparing them for life," Hickman recently told GamecockCentral.com. "We get to know who they are. I think that makes us a little more successful than other people. The biggest thing that’s a difference-maker for us is the people here. I have a great staff."
"The Dodie", as it's affectionately called, has been open since 2010 and is the home to Hickman's operation. The 40,000 square foot building features three computer labs, a large and small study lounge, 20 tutor rooms, 12 seminar rooms, three computer labs, office space, an academic hall of fame, and a full service kitchen with dining room. In the offices is a large staff dedicated to assisting Carolina's student athletes. Including graduate assistants and interns, the staff numbers 25. There are nine full-time advisors (three football-only), five learning specialists to help those with learning disabilities, a life skills director, two administrative assistants, and several graduate assistants.
While many fans may not realize it, academic support is a substantial part of what families look for during the recruiting process. It's an area that South Carolina point to as an advantage, and an area in which Hickman has substantial involvement during visits by prospective players.
"They're impressed with the space and how we utilize the space," Hickman said of parent opinion surrounding the Dodie and the support at USC. "The amount of computers we have, just the different resources we have available. Tutoring is another thing that’s really big that the parents are impressed with and want to know about. Most of our tutoring is one-on-one, where you go to other campuses it’s more group tutoring or group sessions. We’ve found the one-on-one works more and is more beneficial to the student so I think that helps with our numbers as well. The parents are honed in on academics. They want to know If their kid is going to play ,but they want to know: will my student be supported here? That’s why I don’t sugarcoat it. On that recruiting, I’m as honest as I can be to let them know exactly what we do and how we do it."
Hickman credited former coach Steve Spurrier for helping change the culture in Columbia and holding players accountable in the classroom. That's been continued with a change in leadership in the football program, according to Hickman.
Will Muschamp's track record with academics is strong as well. As head coach at the University of Florida, Muschamp's football team posted the highest GPA in program history for his final two seasons in Gainesville. At one point, the team's GPA was higher that the rest of the student body on average.
"Coach Muschamp has been great and that entire staff," Hickman said. "Academics have been something that’s important. We meet with them once a week. If we have any issues I can give them a call and I know he’ll take care of it. He supports what we do here and he says to the guys that getting your education is important and getting your diploma."
One statistic often cited by Muschamp, whether to prospects or on the speaking circuit, is that just four percent of all college football players (at any level) last more than four seasons in the NFL. The four-season mark has to be reached before any thought of retirement benefits. That makes a diploma all the more important, and Hickman lays out detailed plans for each student.
"Our goal is to have them graduate before they go pro. We do a graduation plan that shows them how many classes they need to take in fall, spring, and summer," she said. "Summer is not a time to catch up; it's the time to get ahead. If you follow that plan using our resources, you're going to get your degree before you leave. We do have a program called the Carolina Degree Completion so if a student did leave early, as long as they’re eligible they can come back and we’ll take care of them and they can complete their degree. I try to tell the story of, it’s hard to come back. I have people who have been out of school 10 years now, they’re coming back, they have a family, they have kids. It’s hard to come back to Columbia and pick up wherever you’re living at to come back here to complete that degree. I try to tell that story on the front end, that we are here to help you. I don’t sugarcoat things; I’m to the point and what you see is what you get. I’m not going to tell them something that’s not going to happen once they get here, especially in the recruiting game, so they get a full understanding of how they work."
Hickman's next move is beginning a summer internship program that will put even more emphasis on life after football, adding to an already impressive program in Columbia.
"We've created a culture here that you have to do the right things. It starts with Coach Tanner. He supports me and everything I do and I can go to him if I need anything. It trickles down to the coaches and then it goes to us. Our coaches, especially over in football, they’ve been great. If I need anything, I’ll call. They keep the students accountable. If I have an issue, they set their own expectations. We run a tight ship here. You’re not going to get away with much. We’re going to hold you accountable and that starts from day one. I think that shows in the numbers as well."