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Winning in class again

Winning in class again

Winning in class again

Bruce Brown

This may be the year Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns break through for their first winning football season in a decade.

While they’re pursuing that goal, coach Rickey Bustle’s players are already making big strides in the classroom.

The Cajuns set a new high mark for grade point average in the 2005 spring semester with a team GPA of 2.579, the best performance since Danny Cottonham and his academic counseling staff have been keeping records.

The previous best was a 2.389 figure under Jerry Baldwin.

"We go back as far as 1982, and previously we have no records to go by," Cottonham said. "Of course, Coach (Raymond) Blanco would tell you everyone on their teams (1961-73 under Russ Faulkinberry) had 4.0 averages.

"You’re talking about 107-110 guys. There are more in the middle, so it’s harder to bring those numbers up. It’s not just the GPA. It’s the number of hours the kids pass.

"If you have five or 10 players who have a 3.5 average carrying 18 hours, that carries a lot more weight than five with 2.0’s carrying 9-10 hours.

"Overall, in football, all our numbers are coming up. It’s clear that the individual performances are getting better. There were only a few who were on probation or suspension at the end of the semester."

Five Ragin’ Cajuns – Brenton Burkhalter, Chris Klock, Eugene Kwarteng, Robert Terrell and Sam Wofford – made the Sun Belt Conference Commissioner’s List (3.5 GPA or higher) during the 2004-2005 school year.

Some 13 more were on the league’s Academic Honor Roll (3.0-3.49 GPA), so the Cajuns are headed in the right direction in school.

Cottonham gives much of the credit to the approach Bustle took when he became head coach before the 2002 campaign.

"When Rickey got here, he made it clear he wanted updates and would ask questions about the players," Cottonham said. "Before, coaches would get updates as needed. I like this idea, especially since you’re dealing with so many kids."

Cajun football coaches have a standing appointment every Thursday to get an academic report from Cottonham’s department.

"It’s really been good to involve the coaches in their academic lives," Cottonham said. "This way, they know only slightly less than we know about each kid. And the athletes respond so much better when the coaches know.

"We’ve had coaches who didn’t make that a priority, and you’re going to lose some athletes eventually with that approach. Some coaches have a difficult time disciplining the kids. It’s a negative part of the job."

Negative or not, most athletes find discipline valuable if they’re going to maintain progress toward a degree.

"Athletes need structure," Cottonham said. "They need discipline. It’s what kids want and what they expect. They certainly don’t expect things to get easier when they go to college. When they don’t find it (structure), they’re generally disappointed.

"They like the freedom they find in being in college, but they also know that boundaries are good."

Cottonham still finds one or two athletes who reach college with "prima donna" attitudes, but diligence by coaches and academic counseling, as well as more strict NCAA rules, help bring that kind of individual back in line.

"At some point," Cottonham said, "they realize they need to get with it or they’re not going to be here very long. We can’t go to class for you, but we’ll support you, tutor you and assist you.

"The University is requiring better students now, and the coaches are doing a better job of recruiting student-athletes."

Cottonham’s department points with pride to the 75 Cajuns in all sports who earned the Sun Belt Honor Roll last school year, as well as 45 members of the Commissioner’s List. Some have big percentages of their rosters on those lists – something which is tougher to do in football with the largest roster size among UL sports.

"Being a student-athlete is a full-time job," Cottonham said. "Physically, what you do every day, from 2-to-6 every day, and then the study time after that. I find myself thinking about it. It takes a heavy toll on kids today.

"If it wasn’t fun, that would make it very, very difficult to do."

Cottonham appreciates the sacrifices athletes make in order to remain in good standing in the classroom, and he believes in them and their future.

"The most rewarding part of my job is the Sun Belt Conference medallion they earn upon graduation," Cottonham said. "For our graduating seniors, it’s the most important thing they accomplish here, regardless of how many points they score, how many touchdowns they have or how many tackles they make.

"That’s what opens doors for you. And it comes down to you doing it. It brings joy to my heart."

Originally published August 28, 2005