MISSOULA — When Montana volleyball coach Jerry Wagner was hired in 2006, shortly after the Department of Athletics began its current streak of academic success, he entered a world of academic support mostly unrecognizable from the one he remembered.
Wagner began his Division I coaching career at Montana in 1988 and assisted legendary coach Dick Scott for three seasons. At that time, coaches’ duties, worries and focuses were geared heavily to the athlete side of the student-athlete balance.
“We didn’t know much about our players’ lives on campus except for when they came to practice,” Wagner said. “Everything else they did, including academics, was pretty much on their own at that time.
“I think Dick got their grades at the end of every semester, but that was it. So things were far from where they are now.”
How times have changed. Montana has a four-member academic services staff that helps guide the Grizzlies toward degree completion, ground will be broken shortly after spring commencement on a new student-athlete academic center next to the Adams Center, and the department just posted its 17th straight semester with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better.
“Things have changed a lot, and they needed to change because so much now is tied to your student-athletes’ ability to stay on your team,” Wagner added.
“Obviously the players back then were good students and came here to get a degree, but there is a lot more emphasis now from the NCAA from the standpoint of eligibility. Back then I don’t know how closely things were scrutinized by the NCAA.”
Montana rose above a 3.0 after grades from the 2005 fall semester came in, and the Grizzlies have not dipped below that mark since.
Semester-specific GPAs — like last semester’s 2.92 — have come in under 3.0, but the department’s cumulative mark (or the average of the entire collegiate GPA for its student-athletes) has held steady and is now at 3.02.
“Everyone knows the standards and what the mission is and understands what student-athletes go through to combine athletics and academics. Everybody understands their role and how they fit in and how they can help make things as manageable as possible,” Wagner said.
“When that all fits together, you string together the type of success we’ve been having within the department.”
Seven of the department’s 12 teams had semester GPAs of 3.0 or better in the fall.
The women’s cross country team posted a GPA of 3.53, the fourth time in the last five semesters the team has set the standard for the department.
The women’s soccer team had a 3.38 and Wagner’s volleyball team averaged a 3.29. That gives Wager and third-year Griz soccer coach Mark Plakorus the distinction of never having a semester with their teams posting a term GPA below a 3.0.
In fact, the soccer team’s low-water mark in six semesters under Plakorus has been a 3.19, a big reason the team has captured three straight National Soccer Coaches Association of America Team Academic awards.
Plakorus’s team of 32 had 28 players post fall-semester GPAs of 3.0 or better, by far the highest percentage of Montana’s teams with at least 10 student-athletes.
Kris Nord’s tennis team had the best men’s-program GPA for the fall of 3.28, while Steve Ascher’s women’s tennis team came in at 3.08. The women’s track and field team had a fall GPA of 3.26, women’s basketball a 3.06.
Men’s cross country (2.88), women’s golf (2.87), football (2.74), men’s basketball (2.56) and men’s track and field (2.54) all had semester GPAs under 3.0.
Montana’s student-athletes had a fall-semester GPA of 2.92 while taking an average of 13.71 credits. UM undergraduates as a whole posted a GPA of 2.81 while taking 11.71 credits.
— Montana Sports Information