Rebels:

Sunday’s commencement caps nice run of success for athletics’ academics

Despite heavy turnover among the academic support staff, the Rebels have posted stellar GPA and progress numbers lately

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Sam Morris

Friends and family take photos during UNLV’s commencement Saturday, May 12, 2012.

Anyone who sits through business meetings knows it’s key to get the most important information out first, while everyone is more likely to be completely tuned in. At UNLV athletic department meetings, when head coaches from all of the sports gather with administrators to discuss the topics of the day, Rebels Athletic Director Jim Livengood gives that pole position to academics.

“Jim would give me the floor first, make sure every coach understood and did not move on until everyone got it,” said David Jackson, UNLV’s director of student-athlete academic services. “He completely backed us up. He knew the importance of what we were talking about.”

There are approximately 420 student-athletes at UNLV, and about 55 of them are expected to graduate this spring and summer. Thirty-four of them are planning to walk across the stage during Sunday’s commencement at the Thomas & Mack Center.

This group of student-athletes has seen a unique change in their academic support system during their time at UNLV. While the staff has undergone a nearly complete overhaul from just two years ago, the cumulative GPA has gone up — from just seven out of 17 sports achieving a 3.0 a few years ago to 12 out of 17 reaching that GPA last fall semester, according to the university.

“We were very happy with our results,” said Rebecca Pugh, the assistant athletic director for compliance and student-athlete academic services.

Pugh, a former UNLV softball player, and Jackson lead the department that still isn’t up to full strength, according to Livengood. Located in the Academic Success Center on campus, the student-athlete academic staff consists of six full-time employees and one graduate assistant. In addition to Pugh, one of the other full-time employees and the grad assistant, former all-conference softball player Marissa Nichols, attended UNLV.

“They really care about the program. It’s their school,” said Livengood, who said the nearly complete turnover in staffing over the last two years was a good thing. He would still like to see another full-time position added in the next three to six months, too.

In addition to working on eligibility and compliance issues for current and incoming student-athletes, a lot of what they do is hands-on work with student-athletes. Each sport has a different number of study hall hours, but they all have time set aside to meet and work with the advisers, each of whom works with a few sports. If there are student-athletes who need extra help — either because their grades are poor, they have a particularly difficult class load or other issues — Jackson said the staff sets up weekly object-based learning sessions where the adviser lays out for the student-athlete precisely what needs to be accomplished that week.

“Whatever it is, just getting prepared,” Jackson said.

According to the numbers, things are improving. There were 43 student-athletes named to the most recent fall Academic All-Mountain West team; that is the second-highest number in school history, and it continues a modest incline. To be eligible for the team, a student-athlete must maintain at least a cumulative 3.0 GPA and be either a starter or significant contributor to their team.

During the same semester, about 22 percent of all student-athletes made the dean’s list, which requires at least a 3.5 GPA. The university also expects continued success with updated Academic Progress Rate scores (right) due out in the next month.

What is the APR?

The NCAA requires participating schools to maintain a certain Academic Progress Rate (APR) over two- or four-year periods in order to participate in postseason championships.

The requirement is currently 900 points over the past four years or 930 over the past two, but starting in 2014-15 that will change to 930 over four or 940 over two. Points are calculated on an NCAA-created metric that awards one point to a student-athlete each semester for staying in school and one point for remaining academically eligible.

“Every single one of our coaches knows exactly where the APR is with their teams, and where it figures to be in the near future,” Livengood said.

One of the most notable schools to suffer from poor APR performance is UConn, which is part of the reason UNLV ended up with Huskies men’s basketball transfer Roscoe Smith.

For more info, go to the NCAA website.

It’s impossible to attribute all of this to one factor or one person, though as the department leader, Livengood — who’s officially retiring June 30 — will certainly get plenty of credit. And Jackson is happy to give it to him, though they would both agree it’s not as simple as one man doing a good job.

“If we went to administration in the last few years, administration would always back us up,” Jackson said. “But it starts with coaches and student-athletes.”

From the type of kids the coaches target in recruiting to recognizing problem signs or simply making sure academics are a priority, the coaching staffs shoulder a lot of responsibility in the process. That is fair, since they would have mostly themselves to blame should things slip and Academic Progress Rate hits affect their program.

Continuing this successful trend will be a key issue for the incoming athletic director, who’s expected to be named no sooner than September. Until then, it will be on the interim athletic director, who could be announced next week, and the same people it’s already dependent on: coaches, the students and the student-athlete academic services.

On Sunday, all of the work the graduating student-athletes put in academically will melt away as they enjoy the moment and think about what comes next. Livengood said it’s one of the most important days of the year, exceeding even conference titles or big victories that come during the season.

“If we’re true to what our mission is, bringing in young people who are going to leave with a degree, then our happiest day needs to be graduation,” he said.

For some of the people who helped get them there that moment will be fleeting, because there’s another crop of student-athletes on the way and summer session I is just around the corner.

“We smile for about a day or two, pat each other on the back,” Jackson said, “and then we’re back out here grinding.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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