Chip Kelly Wants College Graduates for His Team

It’s a term we hear daily – in the paper, on the news, all over the internet – and around NCSA, a term we use thousands of times a day; “student-athlete”.  For the majority of student-athletes at the collegiate level, senior year means their last snap, last serve, last at-bat, or last free-throw as an elite competitor.  It also means, and most importantly means, the year that student-athlete receives their college degree.  As a young man or young woman going out into the world after college, nothing is more important than that piece of paper.  Record-breaking seasons and MVP stats are incredible fetes, but not even comparable to earning a college degree and putting it to use.

We often equate the need for a degree to those student-athlete who won’t be going pro.  Why is a degree important if you’re next step is getting paid to play your sport – having nothing to do with what you studied in school?  The average career of a pro football player – 6 years.  The average career of a pro baseball player – 6 years.  The average career of a pro basketball player – 6 years.  This means, for the majority of student-athletes going pro, by the age of 28, it will be time to find a new career – to find what you’re really going to do with the next 40 years of your life.  How you’re going to support yourself, maybe support a family, and contribute to society.

The Wall Street Journal took this notion a step further in an awesome article published last night.  A college degree is not only necessary for life after college or life after the league in order to get a job, but NFL stats indicate strong study habits and degree-earning prospects produce more successful pro football players, hands-down.  There is a trend amongst some of the most decorated coaches and franchises in the league to seek out and consider first and foremost those football players on track to earn their degree heading into the draft.  This is a really interesting, really great read, only further emphasizing the “student” in “student-athlete” is the real word to be valued – even in the NFL! :

The Philadelphia Eagles’ Personnel Strategy: Targeting College Grads

Six of the Seven Players the Team Drafted This Year Are on Track to Graduate


PJ-BU933_SP_GRA_G_20140520172737The rookies whom the Philadelphia Eagles drafted this month can recall the same odd occurrence: the time an NFL team grilled them on whether they opened any books—besides their playbooks—during their years in college.

Armed with science and a bit of logic, the Eagles have quietly scoured the college ranks for something that has little to do with 40-yard dash times or bench-press abilities. They want players who have earned college degrees.

“When you look at people who are successful in any profession, it always goes back to college graduates,” said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. “We found NFL players are no different.”

When Beau Allen, a 325-pound nose tackle from Wisconsin, toured the country before the draft to visit with teams, he got a question or two about academics. Most teams didn’t ask much more than just what kind of student he was. Then he sat down with Chip Kelly, the Eagles’ radical coach.

Kelly began peppering him with questions about why he chose his major (business), what his hardest class was and why (“I’m not much of an accounting guy,” he said. “I always struggle with it”) and how he learned in the classroom—that is, what professors needed to do to get through to him. Allen pegged himself as a visual learner, someone who likes to write everything down in a notebook to memorize it. A computer won’t do.

After the Eagles drafted him in the seventh round, Allen arrived in Philadelphia to see that every player was given—uh oh—a tablet computer in which to see the playbook. Players were taking screenshots to better memorize plays. Allen was slightly panicked until he saw his stylus had a pen on the other end, and that the team gave him a notebook, too. Yes, Allen thought, the Eagles cared about how he learned.

Allen, who made the Big Ten Conference’s all-academic team while at Wisconsin, is one of six Eagle draftees to be on track to graduate out of the seven players they selected. In today’s game, that is unusual: This year, 98 college players went pro after their junior season, a record that marks a 34% increase from 2013 and an 85% increase from 2010. (That total doesn’t include players who had playing eligibility left but had already graduated.)

Philadelphia’s philosophy of pursuing graduates was born when Roseman, the Eagles’ general manager since 2010, and Kelly, the team’s second-year coach, each discovered that teams with the most college graduates are overwhelmingly successful. Kelly learned this late in his coaching tenure at Oregon, when former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, whose son played at Oregon, mentioned in a talk to Oregon players that in the 2000s, the two teams who happened to have loads of graduates were the Colts and New England Patriots. Those teams dominated the first decade of this century.

“I didn’t know he’d take it this far,” Dungy said, jokingly.

In a private conversation later, Dungy, now an analyst for NBC, told Kelly that his research showed players with degrees were more likely to earn a second NFL contract and make more money. He told Kelly “the guys with degrees have what you are looking for. They are driven. If it’s between two players, a degree might tip the scale. But at the time, I don’t think he was even thinking of the NFL.”

But before Kelly even arrived in Philadelphia, Roseman was doing his own research. Each year, Roseman and his lieutenants take the last four teams left in the playoffs and do reports on them—studying their players’ height, weight, background and virtually everything else. Through those reports came evidence that the most successful teams had many college graduates on them. When Roseman and Kelly joined forces, the plan was clear.

The trends over the last five drafts are startling. Studies show that teams who select players who spent five years in college—and thus almost always have a degree—win big. Of the three teams with the most fifth-year seniors drafted, two of them met in February’s Super Bowl: the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who went 4-12, took the fewest.

The team that drafted the most players who stayed just three years on campus? The New York Giants, who have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. The Colts, Patriots and Washington Redskins, who have five total playoff appearances in the last two years, have taken the fewest three-year players, who rarely have college degrees.

Kelly said a degree is more than proof of intelligence. “It’s also, what is their commitment?” he said. “They set goals out for themselves and can they follow through for it? A lot of people can tell you they want to do this, this and this. But look at their accomplishments.”

The Eagles say they want players who are prepared, and a degree confirms that. Take wide receiver Jordan Matthews, a Vanderbilt economics major whose study habits translated perfectly to the NFL.

Before meeting with the Eagles ahead of the draft, Matthews slipped into Vanderbilt’s film room and watched a few Eagles games from last season—which he did with every team he met. Matthews was able to have an informed conversation with Kelly about the intricacies of his offense, something seldom done in the slog of pre-draft interviews, where some players meet with dozens of teams. The study habits paid off: The Eagles took Matthews in the second round.

Those close to Kelly say the degree is largely valued for one reason. “Coach Kelly is an offensive genius,” said former Oregon receiver Josh Huff, whom the Eagles took in the third round this month. “You have to be on the same level as him because you have to know why he’s doing what he’s doing.”

Huff said Kelly’s offense can be so complex, and understanding every nuance of it is so crucial, that uninitiated players can’t be tolerated. Kelly’s offense often relies on a no-huddle approach in which the ball is snapped quickly to catch the defense off guard. But it can catch the offense off guard, too.

“In this offense you have to know absolutely everything,” Huff said. “If you have to think about it for a second, the ball will be snapped and you’re going to be looking dumb.”

No wonder the Eagles are going after the cap-and-gown crowd.

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About the author
Aaron Sorenson