John Baxter '81 (2005)
When John H. Baxter takes the field next weekend with the nationally-ranked Fresno State Bulldogs, he does so as a nationally recognized guru of special teams play. He does so as the associate head coach of a team that finished 22nd in the 2004 final A.P. poll and is poised for greater success in 2005. Most significantly, he does so as a renowned innovator in his work to revolutionize the academic culture of collegiate sports programs and to rescue from extinction the notion of the student-athlete in big-time college athletics. Certainly it is an unlikely story, his journey from the gyms and locker-rooms of Loyola Academy to the fields of big-time college football. A self-confessed gym rat, John had always wanted to be a coach. In the coaches of Loyola Academy, he found mentors to facilitate that dream. Coaches Amato, Erlenbaugh, Wright, and Fitzgerald, among others, served as godfathers to a young kid who loved sports and, especially, the behind-the-scenes process of developing student-athletes and winning teams. After failing to make the basketball team, John stayed involved as a student manager. He thrived in the presence of coaches and athletics. He became a teacher's assistant in the PE department and by his senior year was running Loyola's intramural program. Whenever possible, he just hung around the coaches, absorbing and learning. They provided him advice, opportunity, and unbeknownst to them, role models for his future vocation. At Loras College, John volunteered as a student-coach while pursuing a degree in physical education. After earning a master's degree in education from Iowa State, John began a seven-year coaching odyssey, with stops at Arizona, Maine, Maryland, and Tulane. In December 1996, Pat Hill took over the reins of a Fresno State program that had sustained three straight losing seasons. At his inaugural news conference, he carried a USA Today article that revealed a more dubious distinction: the Fresno State football program had the nation's worst graduation rate. His first hire was John Baxter as associate head coach. John brought with him not only on-the-field expertise and experience. He also brought with him his Academic Gameplan, a personalized study-skills program that he had recently developed, published, and copyrighted. Fresno State would become the testing ground for John and his infant program. Eight years later, the turnaround on the field and in the classroom has been nothing short of stunning. In those eight years, John and the Fresno State staff have led the Bulldogs football success unparalleled in school history, with six consecutive bowl appearances, 38 wins in the last four years, and a national ranking. More impressive still, over those same eight years, John and his program have transformed the academic culture of the university's athletic program. John's work has not gone unrecognized. "Coach Baxter's relationship with his players has been highly unique," writes Kevin White, athletic director at Notre Dame. "And the results realized have been absolutely remarkable." The football team's graduation rate has doubled, producing 65 Academic All-WAC players in a program that had only produced nine in its history. In the 2004 NCAA report on academic progress rate (APR) of Division I football programs, Fresno State's 939 APR was rated 18 points higher than the national average, ranking the Bulldogs best among WAC schools and fourth in the western United States. John's Academic Gameplan is now used in more than 120 college and high schools nationwide.