Feb. 7, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
It's just a tiny patch with a black `V' and an orange flame bursting through the top. From the stands, you can't make out the image. On television, the only chance to see what it might be is during a foul shot close-up. Even then, it's a tiny patch on the chest of the Tennessee's basketball jersey.
Only, not everybody has one.
"It means a lot," said freshman guard Trae Golden. "It's a little patch, but it really means a lot to us."
That `Vol Scholar' patch is an outward display of academic success, and it's only awarded to student-athletes who achieve a 3.0 grade point average or higher during the semester. The Vols have eight players who earned a patch this spring.
For Golden, he earned it on his first try.
"You go to class Monday through Friday and you really work hard to try and get good grades and stay on top of things on the basketball court," Golden said about his adjustment to the challenging balance of college academics and athletics. "To get that patch and say you've got above a 3.0 really means a lot."
That Fields, Hubert and Pearl all snagged a patch is doubly impressive. The three are enrolled in graduate school at UT while finishing their senior seasons of eligibility on the hardwood.
"I don't know if you have any other team in the country with three guys in grad school and two of them are playing heavy minutes and one is a key walk-on," Pearl said. "It's pretty special to have guys who are committed to academics and playing basketball at the same time."
Head coach Bruce Pearl has placed an emphasis on academics. It might sound cliché, but he's walked the walk. The travel squad requests that student-athletes bring schoolwork with them during trips, and the team sets aside study periods while on the road - even on game days.
And it's paid off with more than just a patch on a jersey.
"It's obviously a personal satisfaction and to see these guys achieve at such a high level, to have guys graduate," said Kelly Brock, UT's assistant director for counseling at the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center on campus. "Wayne (Chism) and J.P. (Prince) and Ryan Childress the last couple of years have really started that trend and set a great foundation for these guys to follow. Now the expectation is if you come to Tennessee and play basketball, the expectation is to get a college degree."
Or in the case of Fields, Hubert and Steven Pearl, a master's degree.
Fields transferred to Tennessee from UNC Wilmington with just one season of athletic eligibility remaining. He was able to avoid sitting out a season because Wilmington did not offer the graduate program he desired, so he became a Volunteer.
"There are a lot of expectations of me on the court and off the court, especially in grad school," Fields said. "The teachers expect you to know a lot and to give some of your knowledge out on certain topics in certain situations rather than undergrad, where you're just learning most of the time. In undergrad, you can hold an assignment off for about one or two weeks. In grad school, when you get the assignment, you have to start working on it or the workload will pile up on you real fast."
Fortunately for Fields and the guys, the support staff takes interest. Brock said that everybody is on the same page in terms of the importance of achieving success in the classroom is critical.
"Whether you're going to do an interview with media or getting your ankle taped or in weights, every single guy is going to be asking the same questions: How did you do on your biology test today? Did you get that paper ready for tomorrow?" Brock said. "Every single one of those guys. I don't know if there are many programs out there where everybody's on the same page and supportive."
Fields, who is at his third school, said the Tennessee basketball program has not been shy about ensuring student-athletes maintain a focus on the books.
For Fields, the motivation for stellar classwork comes from his basketball family.
"Coach Pearl preaches good grades," Fields said. "He made it feel like a purpose and it's special to get that Vol Scholar patch on your jersey. It's a symbol to me and my family and my accomplishments that I can be a Vol Scholar and play a high level of basketball, too."
For Golden, it comes from his biological family.
"To be honest, my mom makes sure of it," Golden said. "She calls me every day and tells me to make sure I'm taking care of my academics and everything is together."
For all the Vols, the patch is a sweet incentive. Brock said she is unaware of other schools that recognize student-athletes for high GPA through symbolic and public displays like the Vol Scholar patch. If this year's allotment of patches that were sewn onto the basketball jerseys is any indication, it's working.
"It's funny because they talk about it," Brock said. "You hear them come in at the end of November and then a month before school starts. It's all about the patch. What do I have to do to get a patch? If I get a B in this class and an A- in this and a C+ in this, does that get me the patch? I definitely think the Vol Scholar patch has played a significant role in encouraging them to really finish strong."