Gators’ gameplan for academic eligibility in place despite virus

University of Florida students take part in a Fall Commencement Ceremony at the Exactech Arena on campus. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

 In this remote, virtual world the University of Florida football players now find themselves, the challenges are many, some confusing.

 They’ve been told to stay strong and fit, most without the benefit of weights and gyms. Stay in the playbook, even if preseason practice and the start of the season might be in doubt. Stay connected with teammates and coaches who are scattered across the state and other parts of the nation.

 But, perhaps most important of all — and probably the biggest challenge of all — is staying on top of things academically with players back home and classrooms shuttered.

 There’s no confusion here. They need to take care of their academic responsibilities during this shutdown. They are reminded of that daily by a UF academic staff that seems determined to keep the Gators in the game grade-wise while they’re away from campus.

 There’s a comprehensive academic game plan in place, and players seem to be executing it fine so far.

 “They’re realizing they can do this,” said Tony Meacham, UF’s assistant director of academic services. “It’s just a matter of time, commitment and once they can figure out the logistics of everything, that’s going to transfer over to the summer (where classes will remain online only).

 “What they’ve experienced these last few weeks, they’re going to see it as, ‘I can do this. It’s not going to be that difficult.’ It’s getting them to buy in like everything else, whether it’s the weight room or the practice field. You buy into this, you’re going to have good results.”

 The buy in has been there, at least up until now, with the spring semester about to come to a close.

 “As much as you can expect,” said Jason Storch, an assistant director of academic services at UF. “With everyone, the first week it was kind of all new and exciting and different. As it’s worn on, there are definitely some challenges. For the most part they have persevered.”

 The Hawkins (Academic) Center, which also is shuttered and working remotely, has quite a team to help the team. Meacham is in charge of the defensive players, while Storch is in charge of the offensive players. The two have worked together for more than 20 years. They are being assisted by coaches, professors and about 150 tutors.

 Meacham and Storch are on the phone with their players daily, talking and texting, making sure they are taking care of their classwork and assignments online. They receive almost daily academic progress reports from the players’ professors.

 “We still have access and a mirror image of their grade book, is what it boils down to,” Meacham said. “We can see things in real time — if they’re doing it on time, when the grades populate. We can see those.

 “We spend a ton of time every day looking at those because it’s so important. That probably takes up the majority of our day, monitoring what’s getting done. If something’s not done, how is it going to get accomplished? Same access as we had (when the players were on campus).”

 Working with the players remotely has presented challenges for both the academic staff and players. One of the biggest has been the tutoring process. Virtually every player requires tutoring, some two or three times a week, and this is a new way of doing it for everyone.

 “Doing tutoring on the computer has been a big adjustment (for the players), as well as for us,” Meacham said. “We had to learn a new system as well because we don’t really do that on a regular basis. In general, it’s been good. We’re having to work out certain kinks.

 “(The players) have to be pretty disciplined, just because it’s not an easy process right now. I’m not saying it was easy before, but it catered to what they needed. Now, it takes a little bit more time.

 “They may be used to a 50-minute session and now it’s going to take an hour and 20 minutes or an extra session to do that.”

 The players have been working with about 150 tutors. Meacham said there are two different sections of tutors.

 “There are strategy tutors that are more one-on-one, time management, day-to-day, making sure they’re on top of their stuff,” he said. “They meet with them once, twice, maybe more each week.

 “And content tutors, which is a big staff of over 100 people that are working the various subjects. We’ve kind of continued (what we were doing on campus). If they were meeting with a match tutor twice a week, they’re still doing that.”

 One of the academic goals is to keep the players’ lives as structured as possible.

 “We try to keep everything as similar as possible,” Storch said. “So, if a guy had a 9:30 or 10:30 tutor before all this, continue with that. We’re trying to have some sort of sense of consistency. These guys, they do great with structure.

 “LIke everyone, time management is a huge challenge. You have more free time than you’ve ever had before.”

 The academic staff is staying on top of the players, making sure they’re meeting their classroom responsibilities. Meacham and Storch not only are calling and/or texting every one of their players daily, they’re also staying in contact with coaches and professors.

 “What I tell them all the time: Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Storch said. “When they can be at school, they do football and have a couple of other responsibilities.

 “But they get home and they’ve got a lot more responsibilities, a lot more requirements, a lot more pull on them. (We’re) just kind of helping them navigate that and help them follow due dates, follow assignments.

 “We email with the professors to make sure guys are staying on track and doing what they’re supposed to do.”

 In the two months the players had on campus before they were sent home by the threat of the coronavirus, the Gators apparently made great physical gains in the strength and conditioning program, gains they hope to retain for as long as they’re gone.

 The players are facing a similar situation academically, Meacham said. 

 “We try to impress on them all the time that they built this bank 11 or 12 weeks before they left,” he said. “They don’t want to lose that. They don’t want to all of a sudden see their grades drop because they’re not doing it to the best of their ability.

 “We just harp on them all the time, and that does create some sense of responsibility on their end. Talking to their coaches on a constant basis helps with the reinforcement. What they have, what they need to turn in, they’re starting to realize that.”