Students First: Clemson University’s Special Partnership Between Academics and Athletics

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 07: A Clemson Tiger cheerleader carries the team flag against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Levi's Stadium on January 7, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 07: A Clemson Tiger cheerleader carries the team flag against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Levi's Stadium on January 7, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

The close bond between the academic and athletic realms at Clemson University is part of what makes the entire university so special.

When Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich spoke at February’s Faculty Senate meeting, there were numerous themes with the potential to serve as the focal point of his remarks.

A recent national championship for Clemson football, a variety of ongoing Clemson Athletics construction projects and the fiscal success of Clemson’s athletic department could have each been obvious conversational cornerstones of the speech.

Instead, Radakovich chose to use his platform to touch on something much more important: the success of Clemson student-athletes.

The leader of the Clemson sporting sector opted to devote his time in front of a crowd composed largely of Clemson University academia to express his pride and devotion for the academic achievement permeating throughout Clemson’s athletic programs.

Fully representative of Clemson Athletics’ rare dedication to pushing its athletes to be the best that they can be in the classroom, the oration was indicative of an ever-strengthening bond forged between Clemson Athletics and Clemson University academics.

Student Support

Radakovich said to the academically inclined audience, “We just want to be good partners with academics. Our coaches and administrators take school very seriously.”

Indicative of that seriousness is the abundance of services provided to Clemson student-athletes that bolster their academic careers.

From the institution of the Nieri Center in 2017 as the state-of-the-art hub of academic services for Clemson athletes to the record-high GPAs in the student-athlete body that have been seen across multiple athletic programs, the academic achievement has been just as vital to the impeccable success of Clemson Athletics in recent years as the success experienced in competition.

Steve Duzan, the senior athletic director who oversees student-athlete academic services and development echoed those sentiments, saying, “In Clemson Athletics, we believe in the mission of developing the total student. It’s all about finding the best way to combine the two worlds of academics and athletics and having them work together in tandem.”

Programs such as P.A.W. Journey, the life-skills program that has become a fixture of Clemson football, and the partnerships with creative media outlets like Adobe have paved the way for Clemson Athletics to showcase the greatness of its athletes away from sports, and the internship and community service opportunities presented to the student-athletes by way of these partnerships are components of a larger dedication to preparing these young men and women for life beyond sports.

The marketing and monetary adherence to bolstering the Clemson brand with the student-athletes in mind has garnered widespread attention, and Radakovich acknowledged in his speech that Facebook executives heaped praise on Clemson Athletics for just that during a recent collegiate media conference.

“The folks who were moderating that seminar continually referred to Clemson as being a leader in that space,” Radakovich recalled.

Clemson Athletics operates with Clemson academics in mind and even supports non-student athletes in their academic endeavors. IPTAY, the oldest and most successful collegiate booster club in the nation, is actually the most substantial benefactor of scholarships at Clemson University, both for student-athletes and non-student athletes.

“IPTAY is the largest academic endowment for non-student athletes on this campus,” Radakovich pointed out, “with upwards of $7 million in proceeds going toward non-student athlete scholarships.”

Leadership in Clemson’s athletic department holds a unified recognition of the importance of a healthy relationship between the academic and athletic sides of a university, and there are several examples of that close partnership paying dividends for all students at Clemson University.

For example, after Nieri became the new home of athlete academic services, the previous home, Vickery Hall, was transformed into an office for undergraduate studies. Since then, Vickery has also become an epicenter for veteran affairs on Clemson’s campus and will soon house a testing center that will benefit all Clemson students.

The Clemson Moments campaign is one of many marketing approaches undertaken by the university in recent years to showcase that balance between the all-in approach to academics and the all-in approach to athletics, which symbolizes why Clemson University is consistently ranked as one of the top 20 public universities. Student support is a priority for Clemson Athletics, even when it concerns non-student athletes, and is one of many connections in place that have unified the university academically and athletically.

Student Enrichment

“What makes it work is that there is a great appreciation in athletics for the academic side, and there is similar appreciation for athletics in academics,” Duzan said of the flourishing partnership between Clemson Athletics and Clemson academics. “We work hand in hand because, at the end of the day, we’re all here for the students.”

Duzan is the head of the Nieri Center, and he and his team make up perhaps the most well-developed student-athlete academic service organization in all of college athletics.

While Duzan oversees all student-athlete programming from an academic standpoint, he is also tasked with providing leadership in the fields of career and leadership development, as well as community service and engagement. Nieri is fully representative of the abundance of enrichment opportunities in place for Clemson student-athletes, as Duzan’s staff consists of nine academic coordinators, five learning specialists and approximately 150 student tutors, who are all working to enrich the academic elements of the student-athlete experience at Clemson.

In addition to the academic support offered through on-campus advising, Clemson Athletics’ academic services assist the athletes with course selection, mapping out degree plans and maintaining NCAA eligibility standards.

“Steve Duzan and the folks in the Nieri Center ensure that our student-athletes stay on course to progress toward their degrees,” Radakovich said of the Nieri Center. “All of their counselors and tutors are in that area. Nieri also offers the student support pieces, such as the community service and mental health areas, that are so important to us. All of that is housed under one roof.”

The transition from Vickery Hall to the West End Zone at Memorial Stadium a few years ago increased the square footage of the Clemson student-athlete academics hub by 19,000 square feet, doubling the size available for tutoring and collaborative spaces and fostering the academic service team’s increased interest in offering an abundance of resources for the development of student-athletes off the field and even outside of the classroom.

Women’s empowerment programs and minority initiatives are all offered to Clemson student-athletes, as are career development opportunities via the Michelin Career Center.

More UPIC internships are currently offered to Clemson athletes than ever before, and community service and engagement, such as student-athlete mentorship of local elementary school students, is thriving. However, without the ability of Clemson athletics and academics to work in tandem, much of that success would not be possible.

“We have great partnerships with all of those entities,” Duzan said of the alliances between athlete academic services and the on-campus student enrichment outlets. “What they add to our program is invaluable in how we are able to collaborate and support our students.”

Placing a precedence on earning a Clemson University degree above all else has helped to create a culture centered upon academic success in Clemson’s athletic department, with the desire to achieve in the classroom becoming infectious in the Clemson student-athlete body.

Coaches are helping to keep that culture alive by way of their recognition of academic achievement, and academic recognition programs have been become fixtures for Clemson’s athletic programs. The Tiger Trust initiative is an additional example that substantiates the Clemson Athletics model of doing whatever it takes to assist student-athletes along their journeys to graduation.

Covering the tuition and room and board of former Clemson athletes who return to school in order to complete their degrees later in life, the Tiger Trust program frequently aids athletes who leave school early in order to pursue career opportunities in professional sports and eventually return to complete their degree programs and begin the next chapters of their lives.

“Graduation is the primary goal from day one,” Duzan said when discussing his department’s priorities. “When you come to Clemson, it is about earning that Clemson degree, and we want to see that done.”

Star pass rusher Christian Wilkins of the national champion Clemson Tigers football team recently won what is considered to be the academic equivalent of the Heisman Trophy when he received the William V. Campbell Trophy this past season.

All of that and more is part of a sizable sampling of the positives that have come from Clemson Athletics’ devotion to making the student-athlete experience at Clemson University about more than just lifting weights and attending practices. By enriching the student-athletes in their pursuits of joint academic and athletic success, the fruits of the labor put forth by Duzan and his colleagues are evident and impactful.

Student Experience

It is no secret that many colleges and universities suffer from a disconnect between the academic and athletic branches, but Clemson University is no such institution. In fact, several employees of Clemson’s athletic department hold teaching jobs on campus, with four members of the senior leadership team alone serving as instructors.

“Four members of our senior staff teach classes on Clemson’s campus,” Radakovich told the Faculty Senate, “ranging from athletic leadership to creative media and even doctoral instruction. It’s important for us to be able to give back in that regard.”

Jeff Kallin and Nik Conklin of the Creative Solutions team in Clemson Athletic Communications are shining examples of athletics employees eager to transfer their knowledge and passion to the eager young minds of Clemson University.

Kallin, a graphic designer who serves as a Director of Creative Solutions, teaches a digital media and design class that focuses on design communication and the ways in which graphic communication is effective in professional settings.

As for Conklin, a videographer who also serves as a Director of Creative Solutions, he instructs a media in film class that applies filmmaking principles to all facets of the digital media that is commonly produced and consumed.

Each has been in the classroom for around three years now, and they consider their teaching positions in Clemson’s graphic communications department to be integral components of their careers.

“Nik and I both had the goal of translating some of the things that we do so that we could share it with students,” Kallin said of the educational aspirations that he shared with Conklin. “We found a really willing participant in the graphic communications program.”

Inspired by their longstanding roles of working within an athletic setting, Conklin and Kallin sought to bring attention to the unique work that they conduct through providing tutelage to a group of attentive, eager students in the classroom and in the workplace.

“The students have a hand in their own experiences,” Kallin said while addressing the diverse collection of undergraduates and postgraduates who have served as his interns, as well as his students. “We’re trying to make sure that we outline the opportunities that are in front of them and how they can attain them.”

These courses in the graphic communications department showcase Clemson Athletics’ common practice of shedding the stereotypes concerning athletic exclusivity by applying the concepts of college athletic employment to other areas of the university sphere.

Conklin said of his outlook on that approach, “The goal for us has always been professional, creative development. What it boils down to is that we have a passion for helping students have a leg up in their careers when they leave here as Clemson graduates.”

The Creative Solutions squad has always consisted of student employees, some of whom have been student-athletes. For Conklin, a former collegiate soccer player, and Kallin, a former collegiate basketball manager, they recognize how special it is that the Clemson brand has become synonymous with student-athletes making impacts beyond athletics.

“They’re here to learn and grow through the total Clemson experience,” Conklin said about the student-athletes whom he has worked with. “What we’ve been able to do in helping propel these student-athletes forward in their career goals has been awesome to see.”

Anna Johnson, a current senior distance runner for the Clemson track and field team, has certainly experienced her fair share of learning and growth during her time spent at Clemson University, and the aspiring recreation therapist is currently in the accelerated PRTM master’s program that she credits the well-rounded student experience supported by Clemson Athletics with helping her excel in.

“We have really great services here,” Johnson said of Clemson. “It’s nice to have an advisor from the athletics side to help keep me on track academically. Student-athletes get everything that they need here to succeed in school.”

Experiential education, whether it be through career workshops or the Tiger Pro Day career day offered to Clemson’s student-athletes, have all benefited Johnson during her collegiate tenure. In fact, a yoga instructor for the student-athlete yoga class at Clemson has proven to be one of the most important connections to the recreation therapy field that Johnson has made as a collegian.

Clemson track and field, like the other athletic programs at Clemson University, has also played a part in positively impacting Johnson’s student experience. Community service projects and the chances to listen to public speakers are a few of the many experiential opportunities taken advantage of by Johnson, thanks to her involvement with Clemson track and field. Furthermore, Johnson’s coaches have inspired her to consistently seek to better herself not just on the track but in school, too.

“Our coaches want to see us doing well in the classroom,” Johnson said. “When we meet with them, they always ask about how we’re doing in school and show interest in what we’re involved in on campus.”

The athletics employees holding professorships and the student-athletes branching out to experience career development opportunities are points of pride within the ranks of Clemson Athletics. That adoration and respect for the Clemson brand and its reputation has inspired many within those ranks to go beyond the call of duty to spread Clemson University’s passion for winning on the field, in the classroom and in the workplace far and wide.

“Clemson has a tremendous group of student-athletes who come here for the right reasons,” Duzan said. “Our mission when we recruit them is that they are students first. We’re preparing athletes to take on life’s challenges outside of athletics with a high level of success.”

Considering college athletes to be students first may seem like an impossible concept in an era in which college athletics is teeming with high-level competition and drawing more attention than ever before. At Clemson University, though, that outlook is a staple of the approach to athletics. Clemson Athletics has a reputation to uphold as the most well-rounded brand in college sports, and one of the most important factors of that brand is a dedication to promoting athletic achievement within the student-athlete body.

Thanks to a close relationship with the academic and professional development entities in the academic foray of Clemson University, Clemson Athletics has been able to follow through on that dedication more efficiently than any athletic department in the country.

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And, again, without the harmonious bond between academic affairs and athletic affairs, that would not be possible. Clemson University is, undoubtedly, a very special place, and its consideration of the well-being of students above all else, regardless of academic or athletic status, is perhaps what is most special of all about the university that consistently produces champions in athletics, champions in academics and, most importantly, champions in life.