June 1, 2009
By Brandon Shell
Many collegiate student-athletes chose to pursue a professional career within their respective sport. While the perks of earning a living as a pro athlete boast an understandable allure, that choice can often mean leaving one's academics endeavors unfinished.
A new trend, however, is being set by numerous former University of Tennessee student-athletes such as Jason Witten, C.J. Black, Tony Harris, and C.J. Watson. These former Volunteers have returned to school--during and/or after their pro careers--to complete their degree requirements, thus setting a precedent any Big Orange fan can be proud of.
Through the resources available at Tennessee's Thornton Academic Student Life Center and its highly successful Renewing Academic Commitment (RAC) Program, former UT student-athletes now have a great opportunity to complete their goal of a earning a college degree.
The RAC program was created in the late 1990s to help former Tennessee student-athletes who were out of eligibility return to school and obtain their college diploma. In order for an athlete to be admitted into the RAC program he/she must pass an admission test administered by RAC Coordinator Dan Carlson. Once accepted into the program, the athlete receives a scholarship to cover tuition, books and fees. The athlete also works at least 10 hours a week for the UT athletic department to compensate for the scholarship aid.
Coaches and administrators can be very influential in assisting the former student-athletes with their decision to return to school. In some cases, a simple call from a coach can persuade an athlete to take the leap and return home to good ole' Rocky Top.
This was the case for former Vols point guard Tony Harris (1997-2001). Despite multiple conversations with Carlson about returning to finish his degree, the timing was just never right for Harris. That is, until a phone call from current UT head basketball coach Bruce Pearl helped persuade Harris to take the step and finish what he had started 10 years ago.
"He knew he should do it, and I knew he could do it," Pearl said. "It's easy to come up with a bunch of reasons why now is not a good time. Tony deserves all the credit for finding it within himself to meet a goal he set out to accomplish when he first came to UT.
"Certainly we're all very proud of him. Now he's a college graduate, and that will serve him well as he moves forward with his life."
He should and he could. This time, Tony decided it was time to break from playing pro basketball overseas and time re-establish the pursuit of his degree. Circumstances were such that Harris had to leave his wife and daughter in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., but getting his degree was something he had always wanted to do, and he felt he could wait no longer.
The transition back to college was much smoother than Harris expected, thanks to Carlson and the RAC program, which helped him re-acclimate to college life.
"It felt easier this time because I have matured a lot, and there was less pressure--and no basketball--which allowed me to concentrate solely on academics," Harris said.
The return to school was a success for Tony, as he graduated with a degree in Psychology in December 2008 and plans to coach basketball--hopefully in Memphis.
When asked about any advice he would give to a former student-athlete considering a return to school, Harris' response was simple.
"Do It! It is the best decision you could make, and a milestone everyone needs to accomplish. It feels good to complete something we all dream of, even if it (happens) a little later than we thought."