New Coach Propels Formerly Failing Students to Third Grade Levels

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by Con Chapman
Lifestyles Editor

Safety Greg James has dinner with Madeline, the tutor matched with him by Coach >>.
Safety Greg James has dinner with Madeline, the tutor hired for him by Coach Diggs.

RUSSELLVILLE, Kentucky. When Joe Ray Diggs was hired to turn around the moribund football program at Southwest Kentucky State College, he found a team in disarray. “There were guys who hadn’t received a paycheck in months,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s no way to run a football team.”

But more daunting was his discovery that half of the players on the depth chart were academically ineligible, a fact that Dean Floyd Morglin had concealed when trying to recruit the embattled coach from Western Montana University. “It wasn’t exactly a lie lie,” he says as he searches for le mot juste. “It was more of a bad lie, like in golf.”

But Diggs, a former philosophy major who aced his senior seminar in epistemology with a three-page paper entitled “How We Know We Know What We Know,” decided to meet the challenge head on. “Knowledge is critical–also thinking,” he says as he leans back in a chair in his office to watch game film. “I take my commitment to kids seriously, unlike a lot of higher-paid coaches who have staff to handle intellectual stuff.”

So Diggs makes a promise to families of high school seniors on recruiting visits. “Football is only part of college,” he tells Mr. and Mrs. Karlof Evashevski, proud parents of 270-pound McDonald’s All-American nose tackle Morton Evashevski from Gary, Indiana. “There’s also an academic part, which is why you see a lot of buildings around campus.”

But Diggs’ sales pitch to parents isn’t mere puffing—he makes them a promise straight from the heart. “If you send your boy to Southwest Kentucky,” he says to the Evashevskis, looking them squarely in the eyes, “I’ll have him reading at the third grade level by the time he graduates.”

Educators say the ability to read at a third grade level is critical to success in fourth grade, when two-hand-touch-below-the-waist rules give way to tackle football that introduces young boys to the joy of concussions. “They’re really cool,” says former Northern Michigan tight end Claude Urquart as he chats to a gaggle of boys running junior spring football drills. “You see purple stars against a brown sky–without the risk of taking drugs.”

Diggs denies he’s aiming to move up to a Division I school with more academic integrity, however. “I’m interested in my next game, not my next job,” he says as he reaches for his calculator to figure out the average yards per carry of a high school senior who gained 2,500 yards in 500 carries. “They’d have to offer me a whole lot more than I make now to get me to leave. Here’s my cell phone number in case you know of anybody that’s got money burnin’ a hole in their pocket.”