Professors and Athletes Enjoy Special Bond Through Team Faculty Advisor Program

July 14, 2015

Stonehill College prides itself as much on the success of its athletic programs as on the academic achievements of the student-athletes who bring that success onto the field of play. It’s a level of commitment that has consistently been recognized as among the highest in NCAA Division II athletics.

Professor Richard Gribble, C.S.C., gathers the men’s and women’s cross-country teams for a moment of reflection before a meet.

Each of the past five years, Stonehill has been ranked in the top six of about 300 Division II schools in the Collegiate Power Rankings released by the National Collegiate Scouting Association. Rankings are calculated by averaging graduation rates, academic rankings provided by U.S. News & World Report and the overall strength of athletic programs as determined by the Learfield Sports Director’s Cup. The College has also won the NCAA Division II Presidents' Award for Academic Achievement each of the first three years of the program's existence.

One of the ways in which Stonehill has been able to maintain success in these areas is through the importance it places on the relationship between faculty members and student-athletes. The most prominent example is the Team Faculty Advisor (TFA) program, which was created a decade ago.

Essentially, the TFA program pairs a faculty member with each of Stonehill’s 20 varsity athletic teams. It has resulted in strong connections between the athletics program and professors from a wide array of disciplines – from religious studies (Professor Stephen Wilbricht, C.S.C./baseball) to business administration (Professor Brian Glibkowski/men’s soccer). Philosophy Professor Constantinos Mekios, a former college athlete himself, fills the role for men’s basketball, and the women’s soccer team benefits from the guidance of Maura Tyrrell, professor of biology.

The goal is to provide the student-athletes from each team with advice, assistance or any other resources they may need to balance their responsibilities and succeed during their four years at Stonehill.

Head cross-country and track & field coach Karen Boen believes that this program puts the focus on being student-athletes rather than just students or athletes. “The TFA program is a ‘go-between’ for the students and coaches,” Boen said. “Sometimes [coaches] see the students primarily as athletes, while professors only see the academic side. The TFA helps personalize the student and gain insight into all that goes into being a student-athlete.”

Since the program’s inception, it has grown to be much more than just a tool for professors to help student-athletes balance their responsibilities and commitments.

The Importance of Being Involved in Students’ Lives

Anne Mattina, professor of communication and department chair, along with Rev. Richard Gribble, C.S.C., a professor of religious studies, are two of the longest-tenured team faculty advisors, and they also serve as the best examples of how successful the program can be.

Gribble, the TFA for the 2013 Northeast-10 and East Region champion men’s and women’s cross-country teams, joined the program after he was asked by a student-athlete who saw him frequently jogging around campus. The decision to become a TFA was an easy one for Gribble. “I love anything that has to do with working with students,” he said. “I think it is important to be involved in other aspects of students’ lives so that they don’t see faculty members solely as someone trying to impart information [to] them. They need to see that there are people who care about them outside of the classroom.”

 When Gribble started, he viewed his role primarily as a “big cheerleader.” He makes it to one or two meets each season, and has even been known to show up at an occasional practice to speak with the team. But even early on he made it clear to the team that he is there in a time of need as well. “This program gives the student-athletes someone to talk to, whether it is about life and death, injury, frustration or anything else,” he said. “They know that I am always available, and I hope they see me as a friend outside of the athletic department.”

Growing Attachment to Teams Strengthens Bonds

Professor Anne Mattina with the women's basketball team.

Mattina has been the TFA for the women’s basketball program since 2007. Like Gribble, she joined the program after being asked by a student-athlete. Mattina has had numerous women basketball players in her classes over the years, and that was one of the driving forces for her to become involved with the TFA program. “I always admired the work ethic of the players, both in class and on the court,” Mattina said. “I wanted to be able to contribute to their successes in any way that I could.”

When Mattina first joined, she was unsure exactly how involved she was supposed to be or what exactly she was supposed to do. Her first couple of years consisted of occasionally baking cookies for the players and showing up at Merkert Gym to support them on game day. Yet, like Gribble, she has seen her role expand and evolve over time.

This past season, Gribble began incorporating weekly meetings at the Grotto on campus as a way for the team to relax and reflect prior to its meets. The routine proved to be beneficial to coaches and student-athletes alike. “The kids ended up really liking it regardless of their religious background,” Gribble said.

In recent years, Mattina has become more heavily involved with the women’s basketball program as well. She traveled to Italy with the team in 2008, and had a chance to spend 10 days with the players, their families and head coach Trish Brown. Mattina then made another trip with the team, this time to Ireland, in May 2012. Brown has even asked Mattina to sit on the bench as a “guest coach” on several occasions, an experience the professor described as “fun, but too intense.”

A Connection That Helps Athletes Balance Their Responsibilities

Each summer during her time at Stonehill, senior forward Asia Ewing ’14 hosted a team barbeque in her hometown of Westford, Massachusetts. It is through occasions such as this, along with the trips to Europe, that Mattina has been able to bond with the players and their families.

Ewing, who graduated last year with a communication degree, has seen firsthand the effect that TFAs can have on the experience of student-athletes at Stonehill. In addition to Mattina’s support of her and her teammates on game days, Ewing cites Mattina’s helpfulness in the classroom as a key factor in helping her balance her classwork with her basketball commitments. “Anne is always flexible and understanding of our demanding schedule,” Ewing said. “She does not penalize student-athletes for missing class because of games, and is always willing to help us catch up on what we missed.”

Ewing’s former teammate Amy Pelletier ’15 nicely summed up the many ways in which a TFA can help a student-athlete and a team in general. “This program is so important because it provides student-athletes with an additional avenue of support and mentorship,” she said. “Not only does Anne come to all of the games, but she is also someone we know we can go to if we have a question about class or need help with anything, school-related or not. It is a win-win situation.”

A Rewarding Experience for Faculty

Professor Gribble (left) with the coaching staff and 2013 captains of the women’s cross country program.

Aside from the positive impact this arrangement has on the student-athletes, there is no question that the TFAs and coaches benefit as well. 

“Father Gribble has become a dear friend to my husband and me and is always willing to lend an ear when I face a challenge with the team or a question about academics,” Boen said. “He served at my mother’s funeral Mass, and although I originally looked at him as a professor and a priest, I now view him as a mentor and a friend.”

Gribble echoed Boen’s sentiment. “I have known Karen, her husband and assistant coach [Rich] Hart a long time. From time to time we will go jogging together and talk about all kinds of things. We have a great relationship.”

Boen’s athletes are just as supportive of Gribble as he is of the cross-country team. When Gribble was presented with the 2013 Louise F. Hegarty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the whole team went to the ceremony. “When we heard that he had won the award, we were all ecstatic,” said former team captain Trent Fontanella ’14. “We already knew how much he meant to our team, so it was great to see that the rest of the Stonehill community recognized all of the good Father Gribble does.”

Mattina and Gribble are both extremely grateful that they have had the opportunity to help shape the lives of Stonehill student-athletes. “This program gives me a way to connect with students during an important part of their lives,” Mattina said. “It allows me to get to know them and learn about them in a way that I don’t necessarily get to inside the classroom.”

For Gribble, or “Father Gribz,” as he is affectionately known by the cross-country teams, the time spent with his student-athletes is invaluable. “The best part is hanging out with the kids,” Gribble said. “I get a lot out of the fact that they really know someone cares. It is really fun to share their joys throughout all of their success.”

Stonehill College has distinguished itself among its peers as an institution with both long-standing athletic success and a tradition of academic excellence. Since its inception, the Team Faculty Advisor program has allowed student-athletes, coaches and faculty members to work together to create an environment in which Stonehill is able to maintain its reputation as a premier academic institution while also fielding top-notch athletic programs. At the same time, the program has fostered lasting relationships between everyone involved. As Pelletier said, it is a win-win situation.

– Wes Popolizio, assistant director, Office of Athletic Communications