John Baxter likes to begin his point on the American
educational system with a series of rhetorical questions.
Q: What do we call people that participate in sports at college?
Q: Who teaches an athlete how to play a game?
A: A coach.
Q: Who teaches a student how to study?
"There's nobody in charge of the rules, fundamentals and techniques of the game of student, but yet, everybody can identify who is in charge of teaching the extracurricular activity. The thing that is outside the curriculum," said special teams coach John Baxter.
Baxter's life's work is a program he wrote called the Academic Gameplan©.
"If we can teach guys all the complexities of our offense and defense, and
if we can get them to run 60 yards full speed into someone that is running at
them, we can get them to take notes. We can get them to plan their
day," Baxter explained.
Under Lane Kiffin, Baxter's job is to "install an academic offense"
for the entire football program.
Every kid on the team will participate and they'll stay in the program until they've mastered it.
"Some guys will stay in it three weeks and some will be in it for three years, it just depends on how long they resist," Baxter made clear.
Resistance seems to be futile. While Baxter preaches change over time, the statistics have shown immediate results.
Despite joining the coaching staff on March 8th in the middle of the spring semester, the USC football team had its highest semester GPA in seven years and the most 3.0 athletes in a spring semester that had been recorded, according to Kiffin.
Kiffin was a believer before he saw the numbers. He was a graduate of Baxter's program at Fresno State.
"It was really John Baxter that changed that culture (Fresno State) academically and the focus on it and the life skills that he would teach the kids. I thought to myself if I ever had the opportunity to incorporate that one day, I would do it," Kiffin said.
Baxter does not settle for the easy label of under performer. He believes it's simply a lack of execution.
In football, a team with talent can lose when they don't execute. In the classroom, an intelligent young person can get a bad grade if they don't execute.
Why don't they execute? Baxter's "recipe for disaster" breaks it down.
1. Teachers teach subjects not skills. (That is what they are hired to do.)
2. SOME teachers don't teach well.
3. SOME parents are not involved enough. (Even the best parents are beholden to secondhand information.)
4. Some students don't know how or why to be students because those fundamentals or techniques are never taught.
"That's the recipe for disaster! Not in USC football, in the United States of America," Baxter declared.
The traditional response is to lock a struggling student in study hall. Baxter detests the concept.
"It's academic prison with no rehabilitation. Institutions put under performing, at risk, marginalized students in a room, call it 'study hall' and essentially tell them 'do what you don't know how to do.' If they knew how to do it, they wouldn't be there!"
Baxter's plan concentrates on note taking, strategic planning, prioritizing daily tasks, becoming a more effective communicator, using and appreciating available resources, problem solving, networking and other usable skills.
Even more, he wants to teach the players life skills, so they're prepared for life at and after USC. However, the term "life skills" is often vaguely defined and thus misunderstood.
Baxter has authored a specific definition of "life skills" that each and every student-athlete learns on day one. Life skills are "any technique or tool or idea, that develops into a usable necessity, by connecting to or demonstrating, it's long term purpose or usefulness."
For example, he has the football players keep an up to date scoreboard of how they're doing in each class.
"If they can't keep score in Occupational Therapy 250, let's not talk about handling $10 million. They are learning the life skill of keeping score and making adjustments. Every time a number changes, so does their situation. They must learn to improvise, adjust and adapt as the business environment changes."
The Trojans are engaged and have responded. After Baxter's initial workshop, the players came up with their own name for the Academic Gameplan. They call it USC-G, which stands for Useful Skills for Champions - Gameplan.
"When I first came here, I was always injured and felt
unmotivated to go to class," said redshirt sophomore CB Brian
Baucham. "Since Coach Baxter has come around, he's turned the whole
outlook around for me and my teammates. I'm in class everyday and always
on time. I went from the dog house to competing for a starting
Kiffin sees it too. "I love that we get to give our players something more than what most places do, which is football and academic support. This is a whole lot deeper than that and I see our guys reaction to it."
Baxter is not trumping Student Athlete Academic Services (SAAS). USC-G is an additional learning tool.
"We have to help add value to what our advisers and learning
specialists are doing for our players," Baxter explained.
John Baxter has a clear mission statement. "These kids are going to become thinkers, communicators, competitors and through that learn to become men for others."
At the end of every lesson, Baxter wants the kids to summarize what they've learned, so he'll appreciate Brian Baucham's summary of his initial experience in USC-G.
"On and off the field, I feel like I'm a better guy."