In the world of college sports, it can be easy to look past the term student-athlete and just see the athlete part. Tim Miles is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen at CSU.
From the minute Miles, coach of CSU men’s basketball team, arrived in Fort Collins two years ago, he committed to trying to change the university’s basketball culture, including the way athletes view academics. Now, at the end of his second season with the Rams, Miles said he is still trying to change the way the team sees being student athletes, even at the cost of temporarily handicapping the program. He explained that his players will be better for it in the end.
“We’ve sent a loud and clear message,” he said. “We’ve suspended guys academically, we’ve not taken guys on trips, we’ve held guys out of practice and added study table sessions. I don’t see the progress in wins and losses; I see the progress in what it takes to be a complete person versus a complete player. That’s in your personal life, your academic life and certainly your basketball skills.”
Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk said the basketball team and CSU athletics as a whole have made recent progress academically, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”In general, yes, we are improving,” he said. “We are definitely making strides. We aren’t where we should be or where we want to be, but generally we are improving.”
Kowalczyk added that Miles was the perfect choice to help bring change and said that he hired him based on his previous record of success on and off the court.
“Tim (Miles) gets it,” Kowalczyk said. “He had a very good track record at North Dakota State, which is one reason I hired him. There is no question he understands having academic success is critical to building a program.”
Miles is trying to live up to his past reputation for success by any means necessary. Most recently, the 13-year coach showed how committed he is to academics by suspending the Rams leading scorer Marcus Walker and key defender Harvey Perry for three weeks at the beginning of the conference season. Both Walker and Perry had academic issues Miles insisted on fixing before he let the players return to the court.
Walker explained that the temporary suspension was mentally hard because he felt he was letting his teammates down. The former Ram guard added that he learned his lesson and that he can already see CSU’s attitude about academics changing.
“It is going to change, and it has changed,” Walker, a junior college transfer, said. “We got a lot of academic programs that people go to now, including myself. People are going to class more and not taking days off where they think they don’t have to go to class. It’ll be a whole lot different in the next couple of years.”
Mel Sanders, the director of Academic Student Services, said he lauded Mile’s decision to suspend players, calling it necessary at the time.
“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Sanders said. “He had to send a message that there are consequences for not performing academically. He did just that.”
Uphill battle for the new coach
Miles has fought an uphill battle since arriving in Fort Collins, inheriting a difficult academic situation from former head coach Dale Layer. Under Layer’s watch, the Rams basketball team received an NCAA public penalty for unsatisfactory academic performance, cutting the number of scholarships the Rams could offer to only nine, according to the NCAA’s official Web site.
Even though he has only been here two years, Miles has already made noticeable academic progress, most visibly in the basketball team’s graduation rate. According to NCAA records, in 2008 the Rams posted an 85 percent graduation rate, up 18 percent from previous years.
In addition, Kowalczyk pointed out that CSU athletics overall grade point average has also improved, giving partial credit to Miles and the basketball team. In the fall of 2006, the Athletics Department showed an average GPA of 2.84. Fast-forward to the fall of 2008, and the average GPA is up .07 points to 2.91.
Although Miles can see progress in his team’s academic performance, he said there is still a lot of work to be done. Miles, who was trained as an elementary educator in college, jokingly compared basketball players to fourth graders.
“Fourth graders and athletes have a lot in common, so I don’t pretend like they ever really get it,” he said. “I’ll just keep singing the good song and hope it takes.”
Sanders explained that even though positive changes are occurring, Miles and every college coach at CSU has a difficult juggling act when it comes to mixing athletics and academics. The self-described academic advisor to athletes said that coaches have to put athletics first some of the time.
“You have to take into consideration that outside of the Ivy League, coaches want to recruit good students but also the best performing athlete,” Sanders said. “If a coach loses all their games but graduates all their athletes, they will still get fired.”
Miles emphasized that building strong academic and athletic performances are processes that take time. While CSU basketball has improved academic performance, the team’s athletic accomplishments have come much slower. In two seasons under Miles, the Rams are a disappointing 16-47, including a one-and-done exit from this year’s MWC Tournament following a loss to bottom-seeded Air Force.
Playing the role of an optimist, Miles is confident performances in both academics and athletics will improve.
“We’ll go for a couple of weeks pretty well and then fall off a little bit,” the former North Dakota State head-man said about the Rams. “Maturity happens over time, it just doesn’t happen in a short time. Knowing that, we just have to keep emphasizing the right things and driving home our point.”
Walker agreed with his former coach. The six-footer said that he is confident in Miles’ ability to bring about change, even if it is at a slow pace.
“All good programs have that period where you have to take that big step. Other times you have to take little steps,” Walker said. “I think coach is taking those little steps to get to that big step. After that you can start taking bigger steps. He’s going about it the right way by making sure everyone’s mind is right about what a good program is instead of just going out and wining basketball games.”
Men’s basketball beat reporter Adam Bohlmeyer can be reached at email@example.com.