Clemson's innovative, imitated Vickery Hall helped educate athletes, change school's academic image

Vickery Hall, Clemson University's innovative athletic academic center, opened near the center of campus in 1991.

CLEMSON -- It was a virtual campus civil war, unlike any flap at Clemson University before or since.

The battle 20 years ago was as intense as anything played out at Death Valley or Littlejohn Coliseum.

On one side was head coach Danny Ford and his popular football program, complete with a 1981 national championship and five Atlantic Coast Conference titles.

On the other were Clemson administrators determined to remain successful in football and basketball while erasing a poor academic image associated with those sports by effectively educating players within a proposed academic center exclusively for Clemson athletes.

Proponents of the innovative building won and, partly because of his outspoken opposition to its construction, Ford was forced to resign.

Since opening its doors near the center of campus in 1991, Vickery Hall has made a steady impact inside the athletic department, where overall grade point averages have gone from embarrassing to respectable, and outside, where imitation on a grand scale is the most expensive form of flattery.

Vickery Hall sparked an academic revolution in the way many big-time football and basketball schools educate players. Before, many student-athletes were seen as "dumb jocks" who simply competed until their eligibility expired.

Now, in increasing numbers, sports-minded universities work to make sure players leave with degrees -- and must do so to compete with similar sales pitches from head coaches at other schools.

Snazzy athletic academic centers full of tutors and computer labs now are common at major conference schools throughout the South and beyond.

Clemson, the University of South Carolina and other schools also have recently expanded learning centers open to all students, but some educators think the athletic academic concept works so well it should extend to other students on a scale every bit as grand.

At Clemson, Vickery Hall has helped the Tigers compete at the highest level of college athletics even with a recruiting base anchored in a state known for some of the lowest public education rankings, the critical contrast behind the original concept.

"It was a big step for us to take back then," said Clemson Director of Academic Services Bobby Douglas, part of the Vickery Hall staff all along. "Those ideas were foreign. It was a big facilities war with jock dorms. That's what everybody wanted, but Clemson chose to go with an academic support facility instead of a jock dorm, and it's paid off tremendously."

Douglas planted some of the shrubs outside of Vickery Hall.

"Within the football community we were on the unpopular side of things," he said. "And within the academic community people were wondering, 'What are athletics people doing advising?' And here we were right smack in their backyard.

"In the late '80s and early '90s it was academics vs. athletics, and it was not a very good marriage. But a lot of barriers have come down and a lot of stereotypes have been erased."

The University of South Carolina's new $13.5 million Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center is the latest example of a big building full of computer stations, study halls and tutor options for virtually every subject.

It is a big recruiting boost, sending a message to prospects that a life-lasting degree is tied to an athletic scholarship.

"You have everything you need to be a student-athlete," said South Carolina sophomore football player Stephon Gilmore, a Southeastern Conference Honor Roll student. "It's easier for us to keep up with our grades since they built it. There are more tutors, technology and computers than you have at the library."

It isn't cheap and probably is eye-opening to some observers in light of a Transylvania University study released last month showing that only 14 of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division I-A) schools -- those with athletic programs in major conferences -- made money in fiscal year 2009.

The dilemma

The Vickery Hall budget, which includes 17 full-time employees and 75 student tutors, is $1.7 million per year. Funding for the center comes from donations from IPTAY, the school's athletic booster group, Clemson Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips said.

The Dodie Anderson Center budget, including 11 full-time staff and 150 tutors, is $1.1 million. The money comes from athletic department revenue, mostly TV shares and ticket sales, South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman said.

Both schools point to positive data. At South Carolina, athletes combined for a department-wide grade point average of 3.1 for the 2010 spring semester, the seventh straight semester above 3.0.

Head coach Steve Spurrier's football team has topped a 2.6 grade point average five times in the last seven semesters, the five best football figures on record. South Carolina led the SEC with 78 athletes (including 29 football players) on the 2009 SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll.

"We treat our student-athletes with respect but we challenge them," said Raymond Harrison, South Carolina's director of academics and life skills. "They know we have their best interests at heart."

At Clemson, the overall athletic department grade point average was 2.9 last spring, a mostly steady rise from 2.3 in 1992. The collective football team grade point average ranged from 1.9 to 2.1 over the last five semesters under Ford. It has been above 2.0 since the fall of 1991 and above 2.4 since the spring of 2007 (2.6 last spring).

The graduation rate for scholarship football players who have stayed until their senior season is 91 percent (58 of 64) over the last four years.

Former basketball head coach Oliver Purnell produced three consecutive NCAA Tournament teams and a stellar academic record; 11 players graduated from 2006-10.

"Vickery was great foresight on Clemson's part," said Phillips, who in 1991 was an associate athletic director at Arkansas, his alma mater. "Clemson was on the cutting edge."

Clemson President James Barker said athletic academic centers are unlike athletic dorms banned by the NCAA in the early 1990s in that the former is a "link" between athletes and fellow students and the later was "a separation."

"We have figured out where those bridges need to be built," Barker said. "Athletic dorms sent the wrong message."

Vickery Hall was a "moral obligation on Clemson's part," he said. "I'm not sure what the next step is going to be, but it seems like it's a positive direction universities are going in with this. ... I don't know that we intended to start a national trend. We just felt obligated."

But there still are challenges for Clemson -- at Vickery Hall and on the field:

The Tigers since Ford left have won only one ACC title, and that was in 1991 with Ken Hatfield coaching Ford-recruited players.

Three consecutive coaches, Hatfield, Tommy West and Tommy Bowden, were forced out as the ACC added Florida State, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech while Clemson slipped in the league's football hierarchy.

The football grade point average dipped to 2.0 in the fall of 2002 and 2.2 as recently as the fall of 2006.

The basketball program went through a rugged Vickery Hall Era stretch in which graduation rates generally were shoddy among players recruited by Rick Barnes, and the team GPA was 1.9 as recently as the fall of 2004.

Barker's push to get Clemson a top 20 standing among the country's national public universities caused so much fretting among some Tiger football fans, Phillips felt obligated to include an extraordinary statement within an official address: "There is no university conspiracy to devalue the football program in favor of an academic ranking."

Mostly, the Palmetto State continues to lag in many high school academic areas while Clemson's average entering SAT score climbs.

"Our average SAT is 1230 and we recruit a great deal from South Carolina," said Becky Bowman, Clemson's associate athletic director for academic services.

"That is an unusual profile for the typical South Carolinian. I think it's fair to ask the question, 'If we're going to be competitive in the ACC and in the NCAA, and we plan to recruit a lot of South Carolinians and a lot of student-athletes from the Southeast, how can they come in without the typical profile but still earn a degree?' "

Mandatory study hall

Bowman -- part shrewd manager, part soft-hearted mother who has adopted special-needs children -- is a big part of the answer.

"I don't want our staff to ever feel like we're responsible for a team's GPA," Bowman said. "What we're responsible for is helping our student-athletes be successful in the classroom. And I don't think our staff is responsible for eligibility."

Freshman study hall is mandatory 10 hours per week for every athlete in every sport, plus a mandatory weekly meeting with an adviser.

"At first you think, 'This is terrible,' " football player and graduate student Chris Hairston said. "As a freshman I thought, 'What am I doing here so much studying?' But as you get older, you understand."

The best part of Vickery Hall, Hairston said, is availability. "They have resources and tutors for everything," he said.

Like Danny Ford, current Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is an Alabama native and University of Alabama graduate. Swinney last December led Clemson within one defensive stop of its first ACC championship since 1991.

He fielded a lot of questions about that during the ACC Football Kickoff event in July. So did Hairston and senior teammate DeAndre McDaniel, players who accompanied Swinney to Greensboro, N.C., for the media event.

Swinney's favorite Greensboro memory is an unsolicited compliment from a radio personality.

"Of all the players who have been in here," the man told Swinney, "Chris Hairston was by far the most articulate."

Hairston, from Winston-Salem, N.C., received a management degree in August and is one of 53 Clemson players to compete as graduate students over the last 10 years.

"Every guy who comes through our program, from walk-ons to the scholarship players, knows Vickery is invaluable," Hairston said. "The work they do there really helps us graduate. Even if I just need a place to go and sit and do a paper, that's where I go."

Hairston said he has spent "hours upon hours" in Vickery Hall.

Bobby Douglas has seen it all. It was such a controversial idea 20 years ago, the guy planting shrubs outside the building almost had to keep looking over his shoulder. There still are issues associated with college athletic academic centers, but Clemson's civil war is over, at least for now.

"Not a day goes by," Douglas said, "when this place isn't packed."

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or 843 937-5593.