Pomona, Calif. — This will introduce a college football coach who has made academics No. 1 on his list of priorities. Normally anyone who believed that would probably think he could date Tinkerbell or argue strike issues successfully with Marvin Miller.
But at California State Polytechnic University, where former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel is in his second year as head coach, players show clout in the classroom or don't keep their uniforms long enough to get them dirty.
Actually, Gabriel's program is part of a growing trend among colleges across the country to convince their athletes that there is life after sports.
"If a player can't perform in the classroom, chances are he isn't going to give you what you want on the field, either," Gabriel explained. "When we recruit, we look for a lot more than the physical aspects of a player. We also want to know how intelligent he is; what his interests are; and where he rates as a self-starter.
"for anyone to be successful in any walk of life, he has to be intelligent."
"Players who work hard to improve something as simple as a muscle or a part of their game often skip the fact that they also need to practice being intelligent.
"It's our policy to academically test all incoming freshmen and junior college transfers who want to play football. We are particularly interested in how they score in English, math, and grammar, and we devote at least six hours of testing to finding out. By then we know their academic level better than they do, and if they are headed for problems in the classroom."
For players who have been in the habit of using their books only for doorstops, Gabriel and his staff have established a special study hall with its own academic coach. he is Bill Doak, a former Denver Broncos' tight end who is within three months of getting his degree in hotel-restaurant management. Bill's coaching duties also extend to the football field.
Doak's initial approach is to place players having problems with teammates who are good students and who have shown ability to lead and teach. If this doesn't work, special tutors are assigned.
"I know how tough it is for some of these kids to get their classroom values straight because I was like that myself during my freshman year at north Carolina State," said Gabriel, who later became a Scholastic All-American.
"Basically, I was out for a good time. I wanted to play three sports [ baseball, football, and basketball], so I did, and I also saw so many movies that there wasn't any time left to study.
"I didn't wake up what was happening until somebody handed me a paper with my grade point average on it," Roman continued. "It was 1.9 with my finals comng up! I worked hard in what was left of the school year and passed. But the important thing is that I learned from my mistake and disciplined myself to the point where I knew I'd never get myself into a situation like that again."
Asked what happens when a player with classroom problems gets all this help and still can't make the proper grade, Gabriel replied: "We call the player into our office; drop him from the team; and tell him to forget football and devote all his efforts to being a full-time student. Some of them listen and take your advice. But of the 50 we dropped last year, the majority left and went to a school where the academic requirements were no problem.
"Anyone who thinks that an education isn't more important than playing any varsity sport isn't very well informed. I saw a lot of this in pro football when I was with the Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles -- dozens of guys who weren't prepared for anything after football because they hadn't gotten their degrees or been to many classes. While it is true that being a former pro will often open doors in the business world that might otherwise have remained closed , nobody stays very long in those good jobs if he doesn't produce."
Gabriel says he feels part of his job is to make sure that at least 90 percent of his players graduate, and that he'll always be shooting for 100 percent.
"If Joe Paterno can graduate 95 percent of his players at Penn State and Bear Bryant can have a 90 percent rating at Alabama, I don't think Cal Poly should settle for anything less. Nobody wants to win more than I do. But I want to do it with student-athletes who won't leave here wondering if there's life after fotball.
"Already this year, 12 of our players have improved their grade point averages. nobody can tell me that improvement won't carry over onto the field because i've seen it happen. It takes time to build a program like we have in mind because you can't short-cut quality. But we're going to make it happen."