Mike Davis has been there before. He’s knocked on doors, looking for jobs and been told “no thanks.”

That, says UAB’s new basketball coach, is because he made a mistake during his playing days at the University of Alabama. When his basketball career with the Crimson Tide was over, he chose to end his academic career as well, falling short of earning his degree.

“I was out of college for a while without it,” says Davis, who played in Switzerland and in the Continental Basketball Association for several years as he pursued a professional basketball career. “I found out there are a lot of job opportunities out there, but not many good jobs for people without a college degree.”

Eventually – 12 years after finishing his playing days at Alabama – Davis earned his degree. And he learned a lesson that he was determined to get across to any basketball player he ever coached in the future.

“I don’t want any of my players ever to have to go through what I went through,” Davis says. “I was fortunate, because I know the further you are removed from your college days, the harder it is to go back and get that degree. I want my players to graduate.”

Davis isn’t blowing smoke.

When he left the University of Indiana in the spring of this year, 13 of his 15 players were graduates from the school, and one of the two remaining players needed just one more class to earn his degree.
How significant is that? Consider that of the 65 men’s teams to make the NCAA Tournament in 1995, 43 of them would not have been eligible for postseason play if the minimum graduation rate were just 50 percent, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
So how does Davis do it? He has plenty of help from his coaching staff.

Strong support
Donnie Marsh’s eyes light up when he’s asked to explain the formula for academic success for athletes. Marsh, an assistant head coach, came to UAB with Davis from Indiana and, along with fellow assistant head coach Kerry Rupp (who also followed Davis from Indiana), has been instrumental in developing and implementing the strategy for assisting athletes with their academic progress.

First, every student-athlete has an academic playbook.

“It has everything in it that’s going to help them understand what we want and expect,” Marsh says. “It has the academic rules and regulations, an individualized schedule specific to that player, tutor assignments, study hall schedule – anything kids need to know from an academic standpoint is in that playbook.”

Each coach, Davis, Marsh, Rupp and Tracy Dildy, is assigned three or four players and essentially serve as their guidance counselors.

Each player gets a detailed weekly schedule from their coach. If class is at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. on Monday, they may have tutoring sessions scheduled at 11 a.m., followed by lunch at noon, weight training at 1 p.m. and practice at 2 p.m. If Tuesday classes begin at 8 a.m. and end at 10:30 a.m., they could have shooting practice until lunch and study hall early in the afternoon. After practice, it could be off to meet with a tutor.

And the players aren’t the only ones to get their schedule. It gets sent home for parents to see, as well.

“Kids need that structure,” Marsh says. “If you leave it up to them, then they become 18, 19 and 20 years old again  [in how they manage things], and I think sometimes we forget what we may have been like that age, not to mention all the demands placed on these kids today and all of things fighting for their attention. That structure for them is essential.”

The coaches check on classes every day. They check for tardiness, whether everyone was paying attention and whether the players were prepared for class.

“Would a player be late or tardy to practice and it be accepted? Would they not come to practice prepared that day to work?” asks Rupp. “That teacher has put in a lot of time and effort to get that class ready for that day’s instruction, just like we as coaches have done for that day’s practice.

“We don’t want to drop the ball on these kids. We tell them we don’t expect all As, but we expect A effort every single day,” Rupp continues. “Kids are kids, and sometimes they’re going to get off course. We have to be there to right the ship. The bottom line is we want these kids to walk out of UAB with a degree and the skills to compete on the court and in the walk of life.”

That’s why Davis says he wants his players prepared for class, not just in class. Davis says the faculty his staff has had the pleasure of working with so far have been “outstanding” and extremely supportive and appreciative of their efforts.

“What we’re trying to do is take academics to another level. We’re trying to change the mindset. We want to have the best academic team on campus, too, and I know it’s going to be hard,” Davis says. “But the support we have received throughout campus and from the administration has been tremendous. President [Carol] Garrison, Ph.D., has been great, and what she wants us to achieve academically is the way it should be.”