CLEMSON — Some familiar faces from days past are popping up in classrooms around the Clemson University campus, all working on unfinished business.
Tigers stalwarts Terry Allen, Wayne “Tree” Rollins, David Davis, Keith Jennings and more than 20 others have come back to finish their degrees courtesy of Tiger Trust — an IPTAY funded program through the athletic department to help them get the last several credits they need for their undergraduate degrees.
The effort helps with NCAA academic metrics and further affirms the commitments between Clemson athletes and the university, according to the duo who runs the program.
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Tiger Trust started under now-Anderson University Athletic Director Bill D’Andrea before his retirement from Clemson a few years ago. It’s run out of the athletic department’s academic support offices in Vickery Hall by former Tiger women’s basketball great Barbara Kennedy-Dixon and longtime track coach Wayne “Cheech” Coffman. The duo networks with former Clemson athletes and talks to them about what it would take to come home and finish their degrees.
Individualized plans are drawn up and progress is watched closely by Coffman, who did double duty as an academic adviser to football players for much of his three decades at the university. Some, such as Rollins, are able to complete their work online, but many others come back to campus and take classes like any other undergraduate.
Kennedy-Dixon, who dominates Clemson and ACC record books, apparently doesn’t let anyone give up once they’ve started.
“You know what? Barbara is something else,” said Keith Jennings, who left Clemson in 1989 and spent several years in the NFL as a tight end. “She is a super lady, and I know now why she was such a great basketball player here. She bring that work and dedication to the academic side; you know that and so you don’t want to let her down, because you know it’s from her heart.
“And Cheech, too. The way he helps you handle the school load is great. He’s always checking on you and getting things set up.”
A big hurdle for most athletes is discovering that college has changed a lot since they were last on campus.
“When I first came back, I felt a little overwhelmed,” said Davis, who had a cup of coffee with the New York Giants before returning home to Columbia to embark upon two decades of law enforcement work and high school football coaching. “It was the pace students keep now; everything is computers now, and when I was here it was blackboards. But I sat down with a few of the tutors here in Vickery Hall and they explained some things, so it’s been pretty smooth since.”
Coaching opportunities played a role in bringing Davis back. He helped out with Clemson’s defensive linemen last season and got a good look at how Dabo Swinney runs the football program. Davis said that experience, along with finishing his Parks, Recreation and Tourism degree, has prepared him to chase college coaching jobs after he graduates in August — an option he wouldn’t otherwise, because colleges require coaches to at least have bachelor’s degrees now.
David Kopp left Jack Leggett’s baseball program in 2007, after being drafted in the second round by the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent five years in that organization before moving onto the Detroit Tigers’ farm system for two years. He finished his pitching career last year in independent ball with the Long Island Ducks.
Like Davis, Kopp is back on campus as a volunteer assistant coach and knocking out the last semester of work he needs to get his degree in May — with an eye on a college coaching career.
“The Tiger Trust Fund is an incredible asset to our university,” Kopp said. “It allows for college students that play professionally the opportunity to come back, complete your degree and not worry about the rising costs of college tuitions. Without a doubt, I would recommend this program.”
Rollins left Clemson in 1977 for a long, productive and lucrative NBA career guarding the paint for the Atlanta Hawks and other teams. He then made the transition into assistant coaching jobs in the league. His reasons for finishing up his degree skew more toward pride and getting his kids off his back.
“All four of my kids have their degrees and graduate school and more,” said Rollins, who is working on his degree online from his Orlando, Florida, home. “They tease me all the time about leaving school (without his degree),and I tell them Dad went to work so they could get the best educations.”
Rollins is grateful for the living basketball afforded him and his children, but that life didn’t allow for academics because of the schedule. Now, at age 60, he wants to finish what he started.
“I was supposed to be the first in my family to graduate college, but that didn’t work out. … Hopefully I’ll get this done this time.”
Kennedy-Dixon and Coffman both beam with pride in these athletes.
“I know a lot of the guys are intimidated to come back, but they are accepting the challenges and saying, ‘I can do this,'” Kennedy-Dixon said.
The Tiger Trust is similar to programs at Indiana University, the University of South Carolina and other schools. Steve Duzan, associate athletic director for academic services, said the program will always be available to those who need it, but he said the real success story would come from it not being needed at all.
“As long as we have ex-students who meet the criteria, we would love to see them come back to Clemson and finish their education through the Tiger Trust program,” Duzan said. “A real positive, though, is I actually see this program shrinking over the next several years. I know that sounds like a crazy statement, but with our recent graduation rates, with the most two recent publications being at 91 percent, we are seeing fewer and fewer students who will need the services of the Tiger Trust.”
This article was written by Mike Eads from Anderson Independent Mail, S.C. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.