Academic performance in the classroom equals athletic prowess on the football field

By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor
Academic Coach Megan Sula Rix chats during a recent game with one of her tutoring students Cameron Dominguez.
Academic Coach Megan Sula Rix chats during a recent game with one of her tutoring students Cameron Dominguez.
Photo by Bill Burris, Photography for Kings County

Lemoore’s varsity football team is enjoying considerable success on the playing field this season, winning its first eight games by convincing margins. It turns out the team is also enjoying success in the classroom, thanks to at least one new coach and the mantra that success in the classroom equals success on the field.

In an age when football players are known more for their brawn than their brains, Lemoore’s varsity squad is turning that belief on its head, and thanks in large part to a head coach that understands the importance of academics and a new “academic coach” who demands excellence, the entire varsity football team has accumulated an impressive overall grade point average of 3.23.

Megan Sula Rix is nearly always on the sidelines, this time with players, left to right: Darnell Foster, Roger Wilson, Marquise Love, Zac Frazier, and Reggie Davis.
Megan Sula Rix is nearly always on the sidelines, this time with players, left to right: Darnell Foster, Roger Wilson, Marquise Love, Zac Frazier, and Reggie Davis.
Photo by Bill Burris, Photography for Kings County

It turns out that if one of Tiger Head Coach Shannon Pulliam’s charges isn’t performing up to expectations, which at Lemoore High and most other high schools in California, means at least a 2.0 GPA, then he’s shipped off to tutoring where a 32-year-old English teacher named Megan Sula Rix takes over.

Sula is no stranger to athletics and coaching. She currently is an assistant for the girls’ volleyball team, and while a student at Lemoore High School, she was a three-year varsity volleyball player. She’s been in the Lemoore Union High School District for five years and has taught 10 years overall.

Football players are required to maintain at least a 2.5 to avoid mandatory tutoring assistance.

Students not meeting expectations are required to attend tutoring at least two days a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays – with Sula Rix, where she cajoles, pushes, checks grades, and provides snacks, all in an effort to boost an athlete’s academic prowess.

And it’s been working. There were originally 16 students required to attend tutoring two days a week, and most of them raised their GPA enough to exit the program. Many still make an appearance once in a while for a little extra help from Sula Rix.

And it all started with a football coach who read an article about an academic coach in a sports magazine and thought that might be a good idea for his program. “I read about this program in a magazine that took one of their teachers and made her an academic coach. They made her an official part of the team - and she was a coach.”

Pulliam made a friendly visit to Sula Rix, gave her the article to read, and asked her to become part of the coaching staff. He made clear that he had given all his coaching stipends away with the assumption that the academic coaching job would begin next school year. Instead Sula Rix decided she’d like to give it a shot this year.

“I thought of her because she’s a sports person,” said Pulliam. “We decided to make her an integral part of the team. When I asked her about it she was ecstatic and jumped right into it. Her eyes lit up and she asked me if I was serious.”

The Tiger coach is pleased with the outcomes. Many of his players who attended tutoring improved from a low 2.0 GPA to above a 3.0. “At first they were reluctant,” he said, “but now they understand it and they know it’s an important part of the game right now. Just to see the look on their faces. She really cares about the kids. They know she’s there to help them,” he said.

“When Shannon approached me at the beginning of the year, he let me know up front that he had already given out all his coaching stipends,” said Sula Rix.  “So in his mind he was kind of projecting this idea to roll out next school year. After I read the article I became so excited by this idea of a varsity football coach placing academics over athletics that I told Shannon that I would do it for free this year, and instead of taking the entire team I would take the gentlemen who had between a 2.0 and 2.5 GPA because that was something that was manageable for me. Next year it will be the whole team.”

The way tutoring works is simple. Football players with a cumulative GPA between 2.0 and 2.5, are required to come twice a week to Sula Rix’s classroom where every day she checks their current GPA, checks to see if they have work and checks if they’ve communicated with their teachers.

“I began with 16 gentlemen and by the end of the first six weeks I only had four left because the other 12 raised their GPAs over a 2.5,” she said.  While those who raise their GPAs are no longer required to attend, many still do. Just last week she had nine students show up for tutoring.

If their GPAs drop again after the next six-week grading period, they are required to return to tutoring.

“In the beginning it was a little difficult,” remembered Sula Rix, “because at first I didn’t think they understood what my role was going to be. I think they saw me as someone who was just going to nag them about their grades. They weren’t thrilled because most of them are upper division kids giving up their off-campus lunch rights to attend study hall twice a week.

“I’m very honest with Shannon and I told him this program was not going to work unless he went through with the idea that I was part of the program. And that’s when I really started being present on the sidelines and having him acknowledge my name every single day at practice.”

Sula Rix also visits team practices to talk with Pulliam about kids who may not be showing up. He will stop practice and call them out, demanding that they attend tutoring. “He dropped everything,” said Sula Rix. “He follows up 100 percent. This program and any academic program would not work unless you had support from the coaching staff.”

One student who has benefited is 16-year-old Cameron Dominguez, who credits Sula Rix for boosting his academic credentials and raising his GPA from a 2.6 to a 3.4. “It’s helped me tremendously and I know it’s helped a lot of my teammates,” said Dominguez after one of Lemoore’s recent Friday night blowouts. “A lot of the time you’ll see these football players and they don’t really take their school as seriously as they should. And with Ms. Sula Rix helping us out, its one less thing to stress out about and one more way to get that win at the end of the week.

“It’s a good environment, and I get my work done and she (Rix Sula) is just incredibly helpful. Whatever you do she’s going to give you as much attention as she can. She’s going to do anything she can do to help you out as a student - and as an athlete.”

Lemoore’s football team has been riding high this season and will face El Diamante on Thursday night hoping to improve their season to 9-0. On November 7, the Tigers could very well face Hanford in a battle of unbeaten football teams. While the Tigers may certainly have the muscle to defeat the Bullpups for the West Yosemite League championship, they just may be able to outsmart them as well, thanks in large part to Academic Coach Megan Sula Rix.

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