Sports: Students first, athletes second; but when academic pressure grows, USC tenders a supporting hand
Grooters, who was recruited last summer from Michigan State University, said he was attracted to USC because it’s not just an athletic power — it’s also an academic power.
"Rarely do you find the two together – that’s what sold me on USC," said Grooters, USC’s director of student athlete academic services. "It has a culture where highly competitive academic standards are most important."
Grooters' job is a hefty one – he is responsible for the educational success of 600 athletes in 19 team sports from football and basketball to swimming and golf. Athletes spend many hours each week training for their sport, which means that their time needs to be well-managed to assure that studying is given high priority.
It is a job Grooters knows well.
At Michigan State, Grooters won praise from the Sporting News, which ranked MSU's athletic department 10th among 112 Division I schools. The rankings were based on wins and losses of major programs, graduation rates, college atmosphere, integrity and gender equity.
In 1996, while at Florida State University, Grooters earned the Award for Outstanding Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, given annually by College Athletic Management magazine. In 1989-90, he received the same award while at the University of Nebraska.
Now at USC, Grooters has spent the past year developing a structured system that helps athletes succeed both in the classroom and on the field.
Sitting in his modest office in the basement of Heritage Hall, Grooters watches through his picture windows as athletes are tutored and counseled in the McAlistar Academic Resource Center.
"To be successful at this job, you can’t be in an ivory tower," he said. "You have to have your finger on what’s going on."
Grooters and his staff see athletes throughout their academic careers – starting with orientation and ending with graduation. He knows many by name, and often chats with them about their progress or challenges.
"We try to teach athletes discipline so that they can stand on their own," Grooters said. "That’s our ultimate goal."
Athletes who need extra help are closely monitored: Their class attendance is checked, they are given a strict schedule for study hall and exams and grades are tracked. Tutors, learning assistants and counselors keep records of all one-on-one help, leaving little chance for slipups. Grooters implemented similar programs at Michigan State, Florida State and the University of Nebraska.
"If an athlete needs academic support, we’re here," Grooters said. "We constantly remind students that academics are their first priority, before all else.
"What we do here may not seem very important to some people, but if one thing goes wrong, we’re in the news," he added. "The university’s reputation — and the athlete’s welfare — are at stake."
Grooters believes athletes have what it takes to be successful students.
"To be a good athlete you need discipline, focus and hard work," he said. "The same goes for being a good student. They have these qualities -– they just need to utilize them in their studies. There is so much emphasis on athletics that sometimes these kids just need to be reminded why they’re here. They’re here to earn a degree."
And hopefully, land a good career upon graduation.
With that in mind, Grooters has expanded a series of life-skills classes that prepare athletes for the real world. Funded by a $50,000 annual grant from the NCAA, the offerings include career counseling, personal development courses, community outreach programs and internship opportunities.
"It’s very important that college players get a good education and pursue internships because fewer than 1 percent of them will make it to the pros," Grooters said. "Those who do make it to professional sports may not be there long. The average length of a pro career is 3 1/2 years. I remind students that 50 percent of pro football players end up broke."
As he did in Michigan, Grooters is looking to increase the graduation rate among athletes and raise individual grade-point averages. He plans to hold a special dinner for athletes earning a 3.0 and higher GPA and will award gold, silver and bronze medallions for athletes who perform especially well.
"Our student athletes thrill and entertain us in their sports, then seem to disappear into our student body," said Michael A. Diamond, USC’s vice president and executive vice provost. "That’s as it should be, because their goals are no different from that of every other student: to acquire the skills, experience and inquisitiveness to make education a lifelong adventure, one that equips each of us to be a productive, happy member of society. We should be proud that we place the emphasis on student first, athlete second."
Grooters knows all about the stresses that come with juggling school work with team practice. He was a four-year letterman at North Dakota State in cross country and track, winning a 1964 conference title. After graduating, he was hired as an assistant track and field coach at his alma mater before holding coaching positions at the University of Missouri.
After receiving his master’s degree and doctorate in educational administration from the University of Nebraska, friends encouraged him to apply for an opening as the school’s assistant athletic director of student services. "I didn’t really plan to go into this field," he said. "I thought I would go into a part of administration that was far removed from athletics. I never thought I would wind up in Los Angeles."
Grooters grew up in a small town in North Dakota and until coming to USC spent his career in college towns. The idea of relocating to Southern California was a little daunting at first. "We didn’t know what to expect," he said. "But we absolutely love it."
He and his wife, Vicki, live in Redondo Beach, just steps from the ocean. On a recent 6 a.m. run along the shore, Grooters saw a whale do a flip off the coast. "At that point I really felt I was living the quintessential California dream. We love being close to the beach but also living in Los Angeles with its mix of cultures, foods and interesting sites."
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