By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - Skip Holtz ends just about every USF football practice by stressing the importance of the Bulls performing well in the classroom.
The Bulls responded by wrapping up the spring semester with a program-record 37 student-athletes with a 3.0 grade point average or better. USF also set a new top mark with a semester GPA of 2.76 that surpassed the previous program record of 2.64 set in the fall of this school year.
"It speaks volumes for these players and the way that they have bought in. I'm seeing the culture change," Holtz said. "Building a championship is a way of life. It's not about just winning a couple of games. It's doing well academically, making good social decisions and being accountable on the field. I feel really good about where we're going right now."
The Bulls have been heading in the right direction academically since Holtz took over as head coach with the team GPA increasing each semester since the spring of 2011. The number of GPAs of 3.0 or better also has risen each semester from 25 in the fall of 2010 all the way up to the new program record set this spring.
"I feel like we're really healthy right now as a program," Holtz said. "Not just physically, but academically we're on a very sound foundation."
The recipe for success under Holtz all starts with the recruits the program is bringing in according to Jason Linders, USF's assistant athletic director for student-athlete development.
"We're bringing in better student-athletes here; better character, better all-around young people," said Linders, who became a Bull in the summer of 2009. "Coach Holtz is a big program guy and it's not about how many stars (a recruit) has behind a name."
USF's academic support system certainly has helped recruits stay on the track to success once they join the program. According to Linders, "our support staff does a great job of holding our guys accountable, continuing to preach to our guys about taking ownership in their education. We have comprehensive academic plans for each student-athlete and if they follow them, they should enjoy academic success."
The Bulls have decreased their dropped classes total by 47 percent since Linders took over and a tiered study hall system has made the team eager to reach new heights. Players used to be able to avoid study hall if they had a 2.5 GPA, but the minimum requirement was raised to 2.75, which allows a student to major in any academic program offered at the university.
"I think guys are competing in the classroom like they do on the field," Linders said.
Post above a 3.0 and a player can get recognized on the Big East All-Academic team, as well as in front of the entire program at the annual banquet at the end of each season. It's a simple gesture, but it goes a long way when a Bull stands up to receive an award in front of his team, family and friends.
"What guy doesn't want to hear his name called and get a little bit of recognition?" Linders said.
Another notable aspect of USF's academic support system is its goal of making sure players succeed after they've left school early to pursue a career in athletics. Linders has put a priority on strengthening USF's degree completion program by getting out to alumni functions and spreading the word that the Bulls encourage former players to come back to school and finish up no matter how long they've been away. Linders helped four players graduate during his first year and the number has grown to 15 with many more in the mix at this point.
"The big picture is you're helping these guys change their lives and have an opportunity to be successful in life after sports," Linders said.