Friday, July 14, 2017

The Georgia Way

By John Frierson
UGAAA Staff Writer

Leigh Futch asks Georgia student-athletes a simple, three-word question again and again: "What's the dream?"

If the dream is to play running back in the NFL, Futch, the UGA Athletics Director of Student Development, wants them to fulfill that dream and also be prepared for life when their NFL career comes to an end. The work she does on a daily basis is critical to making sure the players maximize their off-the-field opportunities at the University of Georgia.

If the dream is something like becoming a financial advisor, running a dairy farm or becoming a neurosurgeon — whatever Bulldogs long to see themselves doing once their playing careers are done — she helps those dreams become a reality.

That's the mission of The Georgia Way and its career development program, believed to be the only four-year mandatory program of its kind in collegiate athletics.

"It's not just life after football," Georgia football coach Kirby Smart said, "it's what you're doing while you're here to prepare for life after football.

Futch was Georgia's Director of Compliance before being recruited by Georgia's administration to build The Georgia Way from the ground up. One of the first areas she tackled in her new position was figuring out how to better prepare student-athletes for what's next after the final whistle has blown — whether that's right after they graduate or after a 15-year pro career.

"Historically with athletic departments, career development has been one of those things that has looked good on paper, but really doesn't happen," she said. "In most cases, there has been no formal or structured programming in place designed specifically for student-athletes and their high demand lives; it has just been more piggybacking on what's being done through campus career centers."

There's most definitely a structured program in place now. All Georgia student-athletes go through it, beginning soon after they arrive on campus with personality-based assessments that tap into their interests and strengths.

"Life after athletics sometimes happens a little sooner than we would like," Futch said, "so we wanted to make sure that from the time they hit the door at Georgia, we are exposing them to resources that will help them for the rest of their lives.

"It might not seem important to you on day one," Smart said, "but by the time you get to the end of your college career and you've seen two or three of your buddies who were good players go off to the NFL and not make it, what's your plan now? You'll start caring a whole lot more about those handshakes and meetings and the different business environments we're going to put you in.

Former Georgia football All-American and current UGA Athletic Board member Jon Stinchcomb said comparing what Georgia had in place for student and career development when he was a senior 15 years ago to what's in place now, "It's like comparing a guppy to a blue whale.

The program consists of four years of small steps — "It's not drinking from a fire hose," Stinchcomb said — from picking a major and building a resume, to networking events and internships. On Monday, The Georgia Way hosted a financial literacy program for all student-athletes enrolled in summer school; later this month the program will host a dining and clothing etiquette event. At the the end of the month, the football team will travel to Atlanta for an exclusive career networking event with nearly 40 companies and agencies.

Another benefit of the program is all student-athletes are given business cards, which can seem like a novelty at first.

"Those are awesome," said senior tight end Jeb Blazevich. "I hand those out to anybody.

A risk management and insurance major, Blazevich has bought in totally to The Georgia Way and what the career development program has to offer. Blazevich has never met a stranger, so networking functions are about as fun for him as running onto the field at Sanford Stadium.

And those business cards? Not too long ago he met someone at a local restaurant that's in the insurance business.

"I was able to whip that bad boy out of my wallet and go, 'Here you go', and we were then able to email back and forth," he said. "I think that's an extremely useful thing.

Plan, prepare and pursue now, so that whether it's one or 1,000 miles down the road you're not asking yourself, "So, what now?"

Student-athletes' schedules make regular internships tough to do, even in the off-season, but one-day shadowing opportunities and short-term internships are common. In May, senior defensive back Aaron Davis and junior wide receiver Steven Van Tiflin participated in a week-long internship with the NFL Players Association in Washington, D.C.

"We were able to shadow people, but the main thing we did was just visit with all these different employees there, all these positions," said Davis, who already has earned a finance degree. "It was all definitely way more sophisticated a place than I expected. ... Once we got there we learned about all the different branches that they have: marketing branch, legal team, player development and a lot more."

Other internships happening this summer include several in the fields of finance and wealth management, and at the other end of the spectrum is offensive lineman Aulden Bynum who this month is interning with Northeast Georgia Livestock.

"The way they try to accommodate the athletes is so impressive, because it's not like one size fits all," said Stinchcomb, who played eight seasons in the NFL (winning a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2010) and is now the Director of Operations for the Atlanta-area non-profit NG3. "The breadth and the scope of the resources and the opportunities is one of the most impressive things about it."

Just last week, Futch said she spoke to a swimmer interested in biostatistics, another athlete wants to own a farm and another she talked to about working in aerospace engineering.

"The Georgia Way is a broad based program, but we are very intentional about individualizing the process for our players," Futch said. "Where are you in your process right now and how can I help you get to the next stage?

"So much of what I do is, let's talk to people who are successful in this industry and then figure out where you need to start. Our players are highly competitive individuals and they want to be the best in whatever they choose to do; their careers after athletics are no different."

For more information on The Georgia Way and its career development program, visit

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