SBJ/April 1 - 7, 2002/Opinion

50 years later, we still salute excellence

Lester Jordan had a problem. It was 1952, and the sports information director at Southern Methodist University was reviewing his football team's roster for the upcoming season when he realized that, for the first time in many years, his Mustangs did not have a legitimate All-America candidate.

With a keen eye for uncovering a good story for the media, Jordan pried a little deeper into his team's individual player profiles. He saw that a number of his gridiron stars were doing exceptionally well in the classroom. He then thought the notion of combining two ingredients — academic excellence and football ability — would be worthy of an entire team, position by position. Encompassing all the other schools in the Southwest Conference, Jordan named a "Pre-Season All-Southwest Conference Academic Team."

The response from the media and his fellow SIDs was so warm that Jordan decided to take his idea a step further. Later that fall, he made a decision that would eventually change forever the landscape of college sports. On Dec. 6, 1952, the first annual "Academic All-America Team" was unveiled to the public.

Jordan passed away in November 1993, but his legacy lives on in the 1,800-member College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), the current gatekeepers of the program. There is no doubt that he would be overjoyed by where the program stands today.

The term "student athlete" is not an oxymoron, and for those fans of collegiate athletics who have become jaded by some of the negative stories on college campuses today, I have wonderful news. In this, its 50th anniversary year, the Academic All-America program stands as a symbol of all that is right about college athletics in this country.

Certainly a lot has changed since Jordan's idea came to fruition in 1952, particularly with collegiate sports having evolved into the multimillion-dollar business it is today. But the qualities it took for a college student to be an Academic All-America 50 years ago — achieving a proper balance between exceptional play on the athletic field and standout work in the classroom — are the same.

I am certain that the three Georgia Tech football players on the inaugural team — Ed Gossage, Cecil Trainer and George Morris — spent many nights wrestling with the choice of hitting the books or dancing the night away at a fraternity party. Fifty years later, Georgia Tech punter Dan Dyke had the same choices (with a computer and the Internet at his disposal!). By being named to the 50th anniversary Academic All-America football team last December, Dyke showed the same dedication and commitment that his Yellow Jacket predecessors had shown in 1952. The essence of what it takes to be a true student athlete has remained identical for a half-century.

I am quite proud of how the Academic All-America program has been able to change with the times in a positive way and strongly believe that CoSIDA deserves congratulations on the 50th anniversary of its very worthwhile program.

Jordan's first team was made up solely of football players, and the program remained that way until the 1960s and '70s when basketball, baseball and a college division for all existing teams were added.

The passing of Title IX in 1972 brought the dawn of a new era in women's sports. Welcoming this change, CoSIDA announced the first Academic All-America women's team in basketball in 1979. Volleyball, softball and the at-large teams were added in the early 1980s. These teams have included some of the most influential women athletes ever, including Rebecca Lobo, Anne Donovan, Lynnette Woodard, Val Ackerman, Ruth Riley and Julie Foudy, to name a few.

Another milestone occurred in 1985, when Verizon came on board as title sponsor and enabled the Academic All-America program to reach beyond the traditional elements. In 1988 Verizon and sports marketing executives at Millsport created the inaugural Academic All-America Hall of Fame to help honor Academic All-America student athletes who have gone on to make significant contributions to society. Celebrating its 15th anniversary this June, the Hall of Fame has paid tribute to some of the most noteworthy people in America, including Coach John Wooden, Justice Byron White, Lee Roy Selmon, Tracy Caulkins-Stockwell, Pat Haden, Cris Collinsworth and Bill Walton.

The Academic All-America program is bigger and better than ever, and its overwhelming success on college campuses has enabled us to take a landmark step of expansion. During the 2001-02 academic year, 816 students (a 19 percent increase from last year) will be named to various Academic All-America teams, including the first-ever teams devoted exclusively to soccer and track and field.

Since that inaugural team was announced, nearly 12,000 students from more than 900 schools have earned the prestigious title, "Academic All-America." In my travels on behalf of the Verizon program over these past 15 years, I have been fortunate enough to meet many of the honorees as well as the annual inductees into the Hall of Fame. In my mind, the quality, integrity and skill sets of these gifted individuals make them our country's true "All-Americans." They're the quality people you would hope your son or daughter would meet and marry, or that your company would be fortunate enough to employ.

We often hear parents and educators stressing to student athletes that an education is something to fall back on if a professional sports career doesn't materialize. A story of an inaugural team member perfectly illustrates that theory and should be an inspiration for today's athletes.

Dick Nunis was a football star at the University of Southern California in the early '50s. His focus was on a football career, but a broken neck crushed his dreams of playing in the NFL. While completing his graduate degree, he impressed an interviewer enough to earn a summer job as an orientation instructor at a local theme park opening to the public later that year. Forty-four years later, Nunis retired as one of the most successful executives of the Walt Disney Co. It's safe to say that a college degree and an athletic spirit opened up his future in a dramatic way.

As we celebrate this 50th anniversary year of the Academic Teams program, let me say to those who question the integrity of college sports today that there are indeed positive role models to emulate, and that CoSIDA's long-enduring program is an excellent place to find them. To Verizon and CoSIDA, thanks for maintaining a fantastic idea for so many wonderful years.

Finally, to those 12,000 students who have been named Academic All-America in the last 50 years, my hearty congratulations. Oh my!

Dick Enberg, a 13-time Emmy Award winner, is spokesman for the Verizon Academic All-America program.

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