Support staff sets players up for success

Originally Published: September 29, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

NORMAN, Okla. -- D.J. Wolfe is sitting at a computer in the Prentice Gautt Academic Center, fiddling. The Oklahoma freshman running back clicks the mouse a couple times and visits SoonerSports.com, the school's athletic web site, and reads the recap of OU's 31-7 whipping of Oregon the previous day.

On a ghostly quiet Sunday night on campus, the sprawling Gautt Center -- named for the school's first African-American scholarship athlete -- is alive and teeming with many of Oklahoma's 450 varsity athletes. Some are working on their own, others are being helped by a battalion of tutors and counselors.

All around Wolfe, his fellow freshman football players are doing hard time. They're toiling away under their 10-hour-per-week minimum study hall requirement, the Sooners' built-in firewall against early academic struggles.

In walks Adrian Peterson -- the toast of Norman after his brilliant 183-yard performance against the Ducks, but just another entry-level college student on this night. He looks much more like a teenager with books under his arm instead of a football.

I think everyone comes into study hall thinking 'I don't want to, I don't want to.' But it's better for you. It makes you buckle down and do it.
Oklahoma freshman D.J. Wolfe

Wolfe has only a fraction of Peterson's stature and stats -- 17 carries for 65 yards through three games -- but he's ahead of him on the academic depth chart. Wolfe graduated a semester early from Eisenhower High School in Lawton and enrolled at OU last January. His 3.0 grade-point average last spring emancipated him from mandatory freshman study hall -- which is why there is no monitor cracking down on him for reading SoonerSports.com instead of his English comp textbook.

"I think everyone comes into study hall thinking 'I don't want to, I don't want to,'" Wolfe says. "But it's better for you. It makes you buckle down and do it."

The muscle behind Oklahoma's buckle-down academic support system is Randy Garibay, the department's assistant director for academic affairs and coordinator of academic services. His people check every athlete in every sport into a database when they arrive for study hall, noting the time. The OU academic support staff knows more about who's been naughty or nice than Santa Claus.

If you're more than five minutes late, "the system is energized," Garibay says. Phone calls are made to locate the laggardly. If you arrive without books, expect a grilling. And if you don't show up at all?

"Coach Bob (Stoops) will know by 9 tomorrow morning," says Garibay, who also drops by practice regularly to give Stoops academic updates in person -- or to provide a little face-to-face encouragement to a player.

The retired army colonel looks like the last man in Norman you'd want to cross: shaved head, Fu Manchu mustache, burly chest, intense eyes. But get him talking about his job and the intimidating mien melts.

"I'm not looking for a career," he says. "I already had one. My job now is to get these young people ready for the real world. I've got 450 sons and daughters."

Wolfe is a favorite son of the academic folks. Bright, diligent, mature and in possession of a luminous smile, he's never had worse than a B average in school. The son of a military man and a hospital receptionist is disciplined enough to live by himself off-campus (after an agreement with a roommate from home fell through) and he loves to cook. He's an aspiring business major whose parents drilled the value of education into his head at an early age.

But like virtually every other scholarship football player at Oklahoma, his dominant daydreams revolve around a future in the National Football League.

"Every day," Wolfe says with a laugh. "I think that's the goal. Don't get me wrong, it's fun to be here, but I don't think we'd be playing unless it was to go to the next step. ... Maybe one day my number will get called."

The numbers are against Wolfe having his number called. Even at Oklahoma, arguably the preeminent college football program of the 21st century, there have been just 13 Sooners drafted in the past five years -- four in the first round.

The list of can't-miss collegians who missed at the NFL level is bigger than Tony Mandarich. But it's hard to make young stars believe that they might not be one of the chosen few.

"I think everyone comes in thinking, 'I have a shot,'" Wolfe says. "What some players fail to realize, this is only a start. You have to soak up as much as you can, listen as much as you can and learn."

Yet even with his dreams centered on football, Wolfe is certain that he spends far more time on academics. He's carrying 12 credit hours this semester: English Comp, Principles of Communications, Library/Information Science and, he says with a sheepish smile, Experiencing Music for Non-Majors. So far, English Comp is the toughie.

"I'm not into writing or typing," Wolfe says. "I'd rather talk about it."

He's in class from 8:30 a.m. until 11:20 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Then he usually drives his 1995 Explorer -- "20-inch spinners, couple TV screens in there," he says proudly -- home to his apartment for a quick nap. After that it's back to his second home, the Barry Switzer Center on the south end of Memorial Stadium.

Around 1:15 p.m., Wolfe hits the weight room, trying to add bulk to his 5-foot-11, 192-pound frame. At 2 o'clock, it's time for special-teams meetings and practice. (Wolfe is on the first-team punt return and second-team kickoff and punt coverage units.) Then comes position meetings and, finally, practice.

After that, it's time to eat dinner and study. There's not a whole lot of built-in slack time.

"That's my life, I guess," he says with a shrug and another bright smile. "Can't complain about it. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world right now. I'm doing something I love to do."

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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