For speedy Trinity wide receiver Chris Stewart ’21, a fast start can be the difference between hitting paydirt or getting bogged down in tight coverage.
And, thanks to Trinity football’s series of academic initiatives, Stewart’s academic career is off to a fast start, too. Stewart is part of a football team that’s risen its cumulative GPA from 2.817 to 3.012 over the past four years, along with improved team retention rates and academic progress rate, according to athletic department officials.
Stewart, a finance major from Conroe, Texas, chose Trinity over multiple Ivy League schools for this academic rigor.
“I got to stay in Texas, and still go to a prestigious school? Perfect fit,” Stewart says. “Trinity was right under my nose and I didn’t even know it.”
Trinity’s academics have always been a major recruiting point for head coach Jerheme Urban ’03, now in his fifth season at the helm. But Urban hasn’t rested on Trinity’s existing laurels, including a current ranking as the No.1 university in Texas, according to College Consensus. Over the past four years, Urban has implemented four unique academic initiatives, meant to challenge his players to be leaders in the classroom, as well as on the field.
Urban, a nine-year NFL veteran, has Trinity football poised for success in the classroom, too.
“Texas Division III football has exploded, and that makes it competitive to recruit,” Urban says. “So, what’s been separating us from other schools is actually how selective we are. We can show kids smaller class sizes, we can show them all this academic support, and we can be honest with them that they’re going to be challenged academically—but the type of kids we want here at Trinity, they’ll embrace that.”
First, the team holds a writing-intensive summer bridge program for first-years, every summer, two weeks before the start of classes. This helps incoming first-year students understand the expectations of college level writing, as well as the time management skills necessary to be able to turn in quality work.
“The biggest thing I took from the bridge program was learning to go to office hours,” Stewart says. “If you show your professors you care, they’re willing to work with you, and that’s the best way to get one-on-one time with them.”
The bridge program also gives players like Stewart the chance to bond as first-year students before Trinity’s campus fills up.
“I’m glad we did this, because we connected with all the other freshman before all the other students got to campus, and we would have gotten a bit lost,” Stewart says. “And for football, we got to work out and get to know each other.”
After the bridge program, football players also go through the first-year academic success program, run by Assistant Coach Paul Michalak. This requires players to keep an up-to-date calendar, meet weekly to go over all of their upcoming assignments, and talk about how they are doing in class with the coaching staff. Throughout the semester, they work with every professor to keep an accurate tab on their graded assignments, and to discuss upcoming assignments.
Stewart, right, attends Dr. Li Yiu's management of organizations class in Marrs McLean hall.
Urban’s third initiative is an innovative one: having his student-athletes sit in first two rows of every class.
“You don’t want to be the last guy in the line for interviews, so we don’t want you being the guy in the last row for class,” Urban says. “If you’re on our football team, we expect you to be a leader in the classroom.”
And sitting in the first two rows allows football players to take advantage of Trinity’s ideal, 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
Stewart says, “This forces you to pay attention. The professors can see your face and recognize you more easily, and they can see that you’re in attendance every day.”
Through this requirement, Stewart has developed close relationships with professors such as Luis Martinez, Trinity’s entrepreneurship director.
“He’s really energetic,” Stewart says. “He lets us come into class and just get to work. He lets us take initiative, start our own businesses, and he’s just funny, man.”
Urban’s final initiative has been transitioning to morning practices. This “helps free up the rest of day for academics” and also keeps his players out of the Texas heat.
“The research on practice performance in the morning is through the roof, and it also primes your system to go be a great student the rest of the day,” Urban says. “And this is a two-way street: my players have their afternoons and evenings back, and I get to see my kids at dinner, too.”
Stewart, just a sophomore, is turning into an impact player for the Tigers.
Having practice in the morning also gives players like Stewart the freedom to control the rest of their day. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Trinity: getting practice out of the way in the morning,” Stewart says. “You have to be a morning person, so it’s not for everybody. It’s tough getting up early, but it really gets you going through the day.”
And as challenging as these academic initiatives are, Stewart says he can’t imagine what his life would be like if he hadn’t come to Trinity.
“I’d probably be at some school up in Connecticut, freezing my butt off, man,” Stewart laughs. “I’d be playing football, still, but I’m a Texas man, for sure. And it would be tough on me: no Whataburger, no southern food, I wouldn’t be able to watch the Cowboys. I’d be a completely different kid.”
Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity's Brand Journalist, and he does not like the Cowboys.