By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
Thursdays, for 30 minutes, the University of Alabama football team meets. In a room alone, the team and coaches divide into four groups, and for half an hour, the doors close and the discussion begins.
Inside, the players open up Â- the outspoken ones, the soft-spoken ones, the freshmen, the seniors. But in this discussion, down-and-distance, downfield blocking and down linemen take a backseat. Formations aren't brought up and offensive schemes are not discussed. For once, football isn't on their minds.
It might be a discussion on punctuality, or the importance of family. Maybe it's about girls, or dealing with death.
The men who talk to them aren't their coaches, they are mentors and friendsÂ--human beings, for once. For half an hour, opponents aren't as important as the dangers of drugs, or the values of community service.
For half an hour, winning isn't everything.
The Thursday gathering is a weekly meeting of the University of Alabama's "Winning with Character" programÂ--a purchased curriculum that has been in place for almost two years with Alabama's football program. Each week, the team divides into groups based on classification, and coaches put aside the clipboards to discuss pressing issues in the players' lives.
The round-table format of the "Winning with Character" program, coaches say, gives the players the opportunity each week Â- if only for half an hour Â- to gather as friends, as students, and as men, all of whom share the same problems.
"The biggest thing for me is to have the ability to be around these kids and have them be around each other not necessarily seasonally, but when you're not on the road recruiting, and meet on something other than football," said Alabama head coach Mike Shula, who heard about the program through Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "I think it's important to talk about things. These are issues that they are all faced with now, and I think it helps our coaches understanding our players and our players understanding our coaches in a non-coaching environment."
The University of Idaho is located 2,451 miles from Tuscaloosa. Among its professors sits a professor of physical education and the director of its Center for Ethical Theory and Honor and Competition in Sport, Dr. Sharon Stoll, who has been studying morality in sports for over 20 years. To think that a female professor almost 2,500 miles away could have such an impact on a major college football program might seem odd, but Dr. Stoll's research into the psychology and philosophy of sport reaches far beyond Alabama.
Dr. Stoll has spent the last few years honing her researchÂ--which often focuses on moral reasoning and athletes' psychology to determine how predisposed they may or may not be to certain on and off-the-field actionsÂ--into the "Winning with Character" program.
The idea for the program, Dr. Stoll says, was not exclusively hers. Instead, some of college football's most powerful men, the leaders of some of the NCAA's most well-known institutions, went to her.
"I didn't go to them, they came to me," Dr. Stoll said. "I developed the program because coaches asked me; I didn't have to crack anything. They wanted the program because they knew they had problems and thought I might be able to help them."
The "Winning with Character" curriculum is designed with each athlete's current issues in mind. The program is intended to impact athletes each year they are in college, starting as soon as they arrive on campus. The curriculum has been picked up by some high schools, with its cost ranging from $2,500-5,000 annually. The cost for the college curriculum is $25,000.
Training and ongoing support for each program's facilitators is provided through the program. Pre-test and post-test evaluations of the athletes are conducted, and their progress is monitored through grading and reporting.
While the high price tag may have diverted some smaller schools, more major programs are picking up the curriculum every year.
"I have never had to convince anyone of anything," Dr. Stoll said. "Winning with Character set the price for the curriculum. I wrote it with a lot of input from the coaches. They wanted a specific program, and I developed it.
"The coaches believe it works and good things have a tendency to get picked up by other coaches. The power of the curriculum is not in my words, it is in those coaches who believe that this is an important thing to do. Their role modeling and their belief in the importance of character education is what makes all of this work."
While "Winning with Character" may not be the only character development program available to college athletes, Alabama coaches say that it is easily the most relevant.
While not limited strictly to football, the high stage that college football provides makes for the perfect vehicle through which to use the program. A slew of arrests in the last year have brought character issues to the forefront of newspapers alongside stats and scores, including discipline issues involved with the high-profile October 14 brawl between Florida International and Miami. A lesser-publicized fight between Dartmouth and Holy Cross prompted police action the same weekend, and arrests have been made nationwide for driving under the influence and drug charges involving college football players.
A big part of the relevance that "Winning with Character" provides that other programs do not is its flexibility, including the ability for the program to be re-written as quickly as new issues come up, with the new material originating almost 2,500 miles away from Stoll herself. If fighting is an issue, it can be added. Drinking? Done. Anger management? Just a phone call away.
"Sharon Stoll's done a great job," said Tim Bowens, Alabama's assistant director of football operations and the program's facilitator on campus. "Dr. Stoll's been great with us. Any time I have a question or there's an issue I call her and say, Â`Hey can you come up with a chapter on this?' and she'll say, Â`Yeah I'll pull a couple students together and we'll draw up something and get to you in a couple of weeks.' We've already got two volumes, and when the next one comes out, it'll be in there."
Having the weekly discussions tailored to current issues keeps the athletes on target, Bowens said, so much so that sometimes the meetings focus on a single page of the curriculum.
"[Dr. Stoll] told us when we first started, she said do it how you want to do it, do it how you see fit, it's up to you how you do it, and we wanted everybody involved so that's why we did it," Bowens said. "They tailor it around how you want to do it and whatever area you want help in."
"The real world moves fast...very fast, and the problems of today may not be the problems of tomorrow," Dr. Stoll said. "The coaches live in this real world, so when they see an issue or a problem and want some help in how to address it in a teaching of moral education direction, they ask me to write, and I write.
"I have been blessed to be able to do this in a constructive way that is helpful to these coaches. Again, though, these words that I write have little meaning unless they come from the coaches. They are the people important to this process."
A Model Program
At Alabama, the coaching staff and program's facilitators have taken "Winning with Character" an extra step above and beyond some of the program's original clients. The curriculum for the course is designed to meet the needs of each player's class standing, beginning with freshmen. But in the early years of the program's existence, schools would begin the program with the freshman class and withhold the information from its upperclassmen, who would have been picking up the material in the middle.
Alabama's coaches have put every player in the program from the beginning, even if it meant juniors and seniors would only have a year or two of the material. Other schools around the country, Bowens said, are taking notice.
"Other schools are following our curriculum, the way we're doing it," he said. "Georgia's in their fourth or fifth year, so all their kids are now in the program, but they lost two or three classes without the program. We wanted even our seniors, they only have one year, and X amount of chapters to cover, but we want them to have a chance to talk about character and those things. We wanted to include everybody and do it as a team.
"We wanted to do it a little differently, we wanted all of our kids to get it, so it's a little different than most people are doing, and I think everybody else, Iowa and some others, are doing it like we're doing it now because they want all the kids to experience it."
In addition, Tide coaches are making another changeÂ--soon, the program will be expanded, and instead of covering the standard four classes, it will cover five, to include redshirts and fifth-year seniors.
"If we can get kids to think before they act in whatever situation they're in, they recognize who they represent and what are the consequences if they make certain decisions, to know what's right and what's wrong," Shula said. "Everybody's been given a conscience and everybody knows right from wrong."
Both Shula and Bowens said that in addition to providing valuable information regarding character issues on and off the field, the "Winning with Character" program has also made an immediate impact on the leadership of the Alabama football team. The round-table format of the discussions puts coaches and players on the same level, and the familiarity of the other players involved, they say, can bring some of the quieter players out of their shell.
"Our kids enjoy it," Bowens said. "Some of them are in a shell because they don't like to talk about personal things, some of them it's an outlet; they get a chance to talk. They know when they're in there talking, in that room, that's it. What we talk about in that room, that's it, it stays inside those walls, and I like that for our kids' sake, they know they can talk to our coaches about things, but at the same time be developing character."
At Alabama, "Winning with Character" is not alone in its quest to develop the character and morality of Crimson Tide football players. Alabama's players also have available Life Skills classes, Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, chapels and Bible Studies with former Alabama player and Chaplain Jeremiah Castille.
The abundance of opportunities to connect outside of a huddle has made a difference in the University's players, Bowens said, even if it's not always noticeable.
"A couple years ago, something came up with a player, and he said, Â`Coach, you know I thought about it. It just came in my head. It was funny I just thought about it, I don't know why.'" Bowens said. "Little stuff like that makes you appreciate it."
And with college football's arrests and suspensions marking their place alongside wins and losses in the local and national media, Alabama coaches know that the importance of the "Winning with Character" program will continue to grow, with its impact steadily more noticeable.
"These kids have a big target on their shirts, especially on this campus, where everybody knows who they are, and they have a great opportunity to do things right and make someone else feel better about themselves," Shula said. "If you can get a bunch of people doing that and have people watch them do that, then it can make this a better place."