By Dan Guttenplan
Jerry Ralph knew his football team had a problem when he committed to become the head coach of Hoover High (San Diego, Calif.) before the 2012 season. His players couldn’t stay on the field because they couldn’t get the grades.
Ralph investigated the academic background of his team after his hire, and learned that 40 percent of his players were ineligible to play that coming fall. If the players’ collective grades for physical education were removed from the equation, 69 percent would have been ineligible.
“I thought that was ludicrous,” Ralph said. “I threw the football away and all we did was study halls, tutoring, lifting and running. We didn’t do any football drills.”
Ralph invented what he calls “behavior medication.” In order to get feedback from his players’ teachers on a weekly basis, he drafted red and gold cards. He sent a red and gold card to each of his players’ teachers, and asked for color-coded updates on a weekly basis.
“I wasn’t getting the feedback I needed from teachers, and when I did, it was too late,” Ralph said. “All the teachers had to do was check off a box. If it was red, they could explain, ‘Dante missed two homework assignments.’ I’d have the kids with red cards carry around red bags on the field. Kids did not want the red cards.”
Last fall, Ralph’s team experienced unprecedented success on the field and in the classroom. The Cardinals won their first league championship in 51 years and reached the CIF championship game for the first time in program history.
Perhaps more importantly, the Hoover players maintained a team GPA of over 3.0, and four players were recognized with National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Scholar-Athletes. Coaches of other sports teams at Hoover High have adopted Ralph’s color-coded progress system, and Hoover athletes as a whole are improving in the classroom.
“What ended up happening was the standards became really high to be on the football team,” Ralph said. “They know when they come out for football, they can’t be messing around in the classroom. This year, we had fewer players make the commitment, but that’s what made it so special.”
How to Make Academics a Priority
- Seek help from teachers. Make it easy for teachers to provide updates. Teachers are often very busy, but they want what you want: strong academic commitment from your players.
- Talk about academics on the field. If a player has achieved something special, recognize it on the field. If a player is not committed to his studies, provide appropriate discipline.
- Study as a team. Many college programs have mandatory study halls for freshmen. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice on-field practice time for study halls. Academics come first.
- Communicate with parents. If a player is struggling in the classroom, he will often tell his parents before coaches. However, coaches may have access to tutors or mentors.
- Encourage community service. Often students who engage in community service and other charitable efforts take pride in themselves, and in turn, pride in their academic performance.
Be an Academic Trendsetter
Ralph had success at Hoover by mandating study halls and encouraging tutoring sessions for his players who were struggling with their academics. Many coaches of other sports teams at Hoover adopted the same program after seeing it work for his team.
“There’s a really well-organized afternoon program every day in the library,” Ralph said. “The administration supports it, and everyone is buying into it.”
This spring, Ralph started a website —Academicsmartcard.com — to share his red and gold card system to other coaches around the country.