A Game Plan To Blitz The Books John Baxter has engineered an academic turnaround at Fresno State

December 20, 1999

In a small, two-room office at Fresno State, flanked by a
novelty mallet, an oversized frying pan, assorted doodads and
framed pictures of animals, sits 36-year-old assistant football
coach John Baxter. A set of bowling pins tops his file cabinet,
the drawers of which hold dozens of three-ring binders and
copies of old newspaper articles. He knows exactly where to find
page 10c of the June 27, 1997, USA Today, the page on which
Fresno State's student-athlete graduation record was ranked as
the worst of any Division I-A institution in the country.

The props are visual coaching aids. The binders help Baxter
organize his 16 hours a day of juggling special teams coaching
duties with his role as the Bulldogs' academic guru. The
articles are reminders of the program's turbulent past.

When Pat Hill replaced the retiring Jim Sweeney as Fresno
State's football coach after the 1996 season, the first person
he hired was Baxter. The first thing Baxter did was parade the
entire team in front of a video camera and ask each player to
state his GPA and the number of academic units he had passed the
previous semester. Twenty-two of the 73 players had sub-2.0
GPAs, and only eight were above 3.0. The team average was 1.95.

"You could hear a pin drop in the room when we finished doing
it," Baxter says. "At the end of the meeting I said, 'Whatever
you guys have been doing obviously hasn't been working, so if
you'll just come back tomorrow and trust me for one day, I'll
show you how I can make a difference in your lives.' From that
day on, they've been believers." The ones who stayed, that is.
Only 51 players came back the next season. Those 51 averaged a
2.68 GPA the following semester.

The Bulldogs' academic transformation under Hill and Baxter has
been impressive: In the three semesters since that first meeting
the team's cumulative GPA has risen from 2.21 to 2.67. Add to
this a record of 8-4, Fresno State's best in six years, and an
invitation to play Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 18, its
first postseason bid since 1993, and it's clear something
special is happening. The program's recipe mixes an unusually
dedicated coaching staff with a cultish devotion to Baxter's
patented study-skills formula, Academic Gameplan.

Academic Gameplan begins with Baxter's two-week seminar on study
skills at the start of each semester. This is followed by 30- to
60-minute study sessions four days a week. Players and the
entire coaching staff attend the sessions; each coach is charged
with monitoring the progress of his position players.

In the seminar Baxter teaches students classroom demeanor,
note-taking skills ("the academic glove") and how to use his
custom-made black three-ring binder ("the academic bat") to
organize their lives. Each player is required to purchase a
binder, which allots space for a list of all assignment grades
("the scoreboard") as well as detailed schedules of classes,
both short-term ("the scouting report") and long-term ("the
lineup").

A self-proclaimed "visual learner," Baxter would have been a
Prop 16 football player under today's rules. He flunked out of
Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill., but talked his way back in
with a promise to attend summer school. He graduated from high
school but flunked out of Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, after
one semester--then begged for another chance there, too. The
dean's condition was that Baxter have a plan.

"I interviewed guys on the football team who were good
students," says Baxter, who didn't play for Division III Loras
but was the running backs coach as an undergraduate. "Then I
went to the coach and I asked him how he kept track of the
budget, recruiting, the game plans and the playbooks, and he had
a bunch of three-ring binders. So I developed an organizer in
the binder, and I showed the dean, 'Here's my plan.' I never
looked back."

Baxter graduated from Loras in 1985, then earned a master's in
higher education from Iowa State in 1987, writing his thesis on
alternatives to traditional academic support. He developed
Gameplan as a graduate assistant coach at Iowa State, then
implemented it while coaching at Maine, Arizona, Maryland and
Tulane. With Hill's support, Gameplan has been embraced at Fresno
State.

Not a single member of Hill's first recruiting class has been
disqualified for academic reasons. In fact, barring unforeseen
catastrophe, that class should pass the 70% four-year graduation
rate--which would place Fresno State alongside the nation's
elite athletic scholarship schools--when it checks out in 2001.

As for Baxter, his success as a special teams coach--his units
have blocked 50 kicks in nine seasons--has drawn feelers from
several pro teams. For now he'll stick to college. "I'm into
educating kids," he says. "I think the things I've done in
coaching stand on their own, but to me there's a bigger picture
out there than touchdowns."

COLOR PHOTO: JASON M. GROW/SABA

"If you'll trust me for one day, I'll show you how I can make a
difference in your lives."

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