Junior Colleges: Where Opportunities Knock – November 2007

Last season Shannon Bobbitt (Trinity Valley Community College) and Alberta Auguste (Central Florida Community College) became the University of Tennessee’s first junior college signees since – well most couldn’t remember when last it happened. (1977, by the way.) How’d it work out? Just ask Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Insell.

“First time ever Pat took two [Junior College] kids and what happens? She wins a National Championship. Did those kids play a major part in them winning that? Absolutely. Would she have won it without them? Who knows?”

“But she won it with them.”

If asked, Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood can offer a “Reader’s Digest” version of how the 5’2” Bobbitt became Tennessee’s starting point guard: “Necessity,” he quoted, “is the mother of invention.”

The slightly longer version of the story starts with the UT program engaging is some pre-season self-reflection in the face of injuries and a player’s unexpected transfer. “We didn’t have the type of point guard play that we felt we needed to go all the way,” explained Lockwood. True, they had been able to camouflage it in the past, ask other players to step up, but they were all aware they needed to solve the problem of that missing piece. “One of the things we talked about was the immediate help that could come in from the junior college ranks.”

This was new territory for the program but Lockwood, who had worked with several JUCOs on the men’s side, had experienced what he called “both the bitter and the sweet” of the process. There was much discussion about the risks, of chemistry issues, pressure, timing and expectations. Most junior college players only have two years of eligibility, so in all honesty they should enter a program where they’re expected to — and can — start. They also have to “get it” right away, said Lockwood.

“By ‘getting it,’ I mean understanding what’s expected in that program, how you operate, what’s us what’s not us,” he said. “Everything from the tempo of practice to your off-season work ethic to academics. If you’re not careful, they become very good one-year players.” Which was exactly what Tennessee was not looking for. “We needed somebody who was going to start and impact us for two years. And we all realized, hey, if it’s the wrong move it could all blow up in our face. The worst thing is to bring somebody in and they fail. That’s bad for everybody,” said Lockwood. “It’s bad for the kid. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for the JUCO.”

A combination of fate, need, availability and just plain good timing brought Bobbitt to Lockwood’s attention. That then started the research process. “We talked to Shannon, we talked to others about Shannon, starting with Ed (Grezinsky, Bobbitt’s high school coach), and going to as many people was we could that knew her and knew about her. And everything kept coming up good. The more we delved in to it, the better we felt.”

When Bobbitt arrived on campus in the summer, there was a coordinated effort to support her through the academic and athletic transition to Division I. But Lockwood gives Bobbitt an enormous amount of credit for her eventual success. “With her abilities and her passion for the game and her willingness to come in and accept everything – she made us all look good. There’s pressure on everybody,” he added, “but you bet there’s pressure on [Bobbitt and Auguste] to perform — both on the court and off. They have done so much for Junior College players. It’s just incredible, with their level of success and their commitment to working. They’ve really opened doors for people, and we’re proud of them for that.”

While Bobbitt’s successful transition may have captured the media’s attention, junior colleges (and their coaches) have spent decades opening doors for their students. Junior college’s roots go back to the Chautauqua movement in late 19th century in New York State. Around the turn of the century, groups from established colleges and universities would travel around the nation, visiting small towns that did not have access to upper-level schools and offer courses in the arts, science and literature.

Over the years, they’ve evolved into two-year post-secondary schools whose main purpose is to offer academic, vocational and professional education. Inherent in the junior college mission is providing practical education to students who for various reasons fall outside the typical profile of a four-year college student – be it because of academic or “life” reasons. Which is probably why they have long had to contend with a reputation — deserved or not — for low academic standards. That being said, a junior college graduate with good grades can often transfer to a four-year college and obtain a bachelor’s degree. In the case of a student-athlete attending a junior college because they were a non-qualifier, they would need the required 62-68 hours for their associate’s degree, as well as 48 hours of transferable credit.

No one has studied the graduation/move on rates of JUCO female athletes, but one has to wonder if the numbers would be as impressive as those in the NCAA, especially in light of the poor national rate of retention at the junior college level. Consider that, after 30-plus years of coaching at Central Arizona, Lin Laursen can count 138 players who’ve moved on to major universities. Michael Landers, Bobbitt’s coach at Trinity Valley, need only look at the previous year’s team to identify seven of his players who joined Division I programs that then made last year’s NCAA tourney. In fact, run your finger down a roster of current and past WNBA players, and you’ll find a surprising number with JUCO’s as part of their pedigree: Yolanda Griffith (Palm Beach), Sheryl Swoopes (South Plains), Amanda Lassiter (Central Arizona), Betty Lennox (Trinity Valley) and Elaine Powell (Pearl River), to name a few.

Coming out of Tennessee’s Loudon High School in 1977, grades were most certainly not the issue for Bernadette Locke-Mattox. “My GPA was great,” said Locke-Mattox, currently an assistant coach for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. The problem was she wanted to move to the next level of basketball, but her high school team still played three-on-three. “I wanted to get better at five-on-five, and it was a great opportunity to go to junior college and learn that system.” She played for two years at Roane State under coach Andy Landers and, when she graduated in 1979, followed him as he moved to coach at Georgia. Once there, she became the first Georgia player to earn All-American and Academic All-American honors. “There’s a lot of great things going on at the Junior College level,” reflected Locke-Mattox. “You have a lot of great players who are leading and having very successful lives – not just on the basketball side, but in their careers.”

In 1989, there was no doubt in Bridget Pettis’ mind that she was one of the top players in the country. “My goal was to play Division I basketball with the best in the world,” said Pettis. Recruited by Marian Washington to play for Kansas, her grades weren’t good enough for admission. “Growing up in my situation, I had so many distractions,” recalled Pettis. “I was young at the time, and not really focused on school.” Attending Central Arizona meant she still could hold on to her dream. “The doors weren’t closed, I just needed to focus. That word echoed throughout my whole JUCO career. Even though you have the talent and you have this skill and all these things that are given to you, it still takes an amount of focus to achieve those things. This experience was there to teach me how to center in and focus.”

Pettis suited up for Carol Ross at Florida during the 1992 and 1993 seasons, graduating as the program’s record-holder in every three-point category. She played professionally abroad and then became a member of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in 1997. This past season, she helped the Mercury earn a WNBA championship, serving as an assistant coach. “Some people might look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s a set back. You played two years at JUCO,’” reflected Pettis. “No, it was actually the best route for that I could take to get to where I am now. I don’t regret anything. It helped me get this far. It was a lesson that was well taught and well learned for me. And maybe,” she added, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t take that route.”

University of Houston coach Joe Curl is a big believer in the junior college players, and not just because he coached at Trinity Valley for three years. He just point to Sancho Lyttle as an example of what JUCO’s can do for international and developing players. Lyttle came to the States from St. Vincent, in the British West Indies, “a great athlete who had incredible potential,” noted Curl. But, she had only played netball, never “American” basketball. “I give her junior college coach (Wade Scott, Clarendon) all the credit in the world for her development.”

“The junior colleges are worth their weight in gold. I’ve always believed that. In Sancho’s case, to get over the hurdles she needed to be able to be successful at the D-1 level junior college was absolutely priceless. Small town. Small classes. A coach that could drill her on the fundamentals of the rim, the backboard, her footwork. And she had the heart, the brain to do whatever she was asked.”

Houston weathered a few SEC and Big 12 storms before they signed her in 2003 “and the rest,” said Curl, “is history. She came in here and took us to a #3 seed in the NCAA tourney, a #8 seed, I believe, in her senior year and was a #5 pick in the WNBA draft. I think she improved a lot while she was here, but I really felt her real basis of who she is right now as player and a person…I give a lot of credit to Wade Scott and the program he had there.”

Lin Laursen is pondering the opening to her Hall of Fame induction speech in Knoxville, and it goes something like this: “I’d like to thank my shoe sponsor, Payless…”

Curl knows whereof she speaks. “When you go in to a junior college as a coach, you learn very quickly that you’re going to drive the damn bus, you’re going to have five bucks a meal, you’re going to have a brown bag lunch on the way to the game,” said Curl. “You’re going to drive from Paris frickin’ Texas to Houston in six-and-a-half hours, get off a bus and play. Then drive back home that night and expect those kids to be in class the next day.”

“We’re paid to teach at this college,” said Laursen. “Coaching is a side stipend. But that’s why the coaches are here. Everybody always says, ‘Well, how many full rides do you have?’ No. We have money and I have to divide it up. I have to be an accountant and banker. That’s why we’re perpetually having fundraisers. Coaches come in and say, ‘What’s your per diem?’ I don’t even know what that means,” she deadpanned.

As for her players? “They get it all here – free tutoring. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday night they’re in study hall. They’ve already run this morning at 6am, and lifted. And I will see them on the floor at 3pm. And that’s the way it is.”

Of course, her team will have enormous turnover every season because, well, junior colleges are two year institutions. “I brought back two players this year,” Laursen explained. “I have ten freshmen. We’re turning the team over 60-70% every year. Every year you’re rebuilding, reloading, re-, re- re-. But I guess that the fun and excitement of it. People say, ‘Lin, you’ve won three national titles, you’ve been in four final fours, why do you climb the mountain?’ Well, some people will say, ‘Because it’s there.’ My answer is, ‘No, because WE’RE here. The 2007 crew is here, and it’s a whole new climb.’”

Michael Landers sees several issues facing the JUCO level. Not surprisingly, graduation and helping students move on is at the top. There is also a huge difference across the country in terms of the importance of the junior college athlete from one institution to another. “I’m very fortunate to be at a place where our President thinks that women’s basketball is extremely important,” said Landers “that we should be visible; that we should be leaders on the campus. And he gives us the financial means to do that. We have a faculty and staff who are very, very supportive of our young ladies, who help them to become successful on and off the court. There are other places within our conference where that’s not the case.”

“One that we work on almost on a daily basis,” he continued, “is trying to get respect and credibility for our level.” Not surprisingly, that entails battling people’s preconceptions and stereotypes. “Just because a kid is playing at the junior college level does not mean that they’re a criminal or a villain or a horribly bad person. It does not mean that they have no education skills whatsoever. A lot of times they were kids that were never made to go to school, they were not pushed in high school, were not held accountable for their own performance, and they were just passed along until suddenly, now they have to take the SAT or the CT and they can’t function on that test because they weren’t prepared for it.”

“I’ll be honest,” he said, “there are a lot of kids in junior college that have had a troubled past – on and off the floor. I think that, a lot of times [university] coaches take what their past was and won’t forget it. They don’t understand that these kids are trying to make the most of a second opportunity. If they can survive in a good, solid, junior college program where the coach is trying to instill discipline, academic responsibility and accountability for your actions, then in most situations that kid is going to be prepared to be successful at the university level.”

“What we tell our kids is they made mistakes in high school, and they can’t blame it all on someone else, because they had the opportunity to do things. But when they come to a junior college, this is their second chance. They can still meet their educational goals and their athletic goals at a university. They’ve just got to take a different route to get there. We tell them all the time – this is your second chance. You can blame anybody but yourself now. And there are a lot of kids that come through and take advantage of that chance.”

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