The boys’ basketball season for Como Park Senior High School began in a classroom on a Saturday morning in September. Coach John Robinson cooked up a breakfast and served it to his potential players. Mentors and tutors spoke about study habits and academic eligibility requirements. There wasn’t a basketball in sight.
The season’s first practice on the court wouldn’t take place until November, after several more meetings of the Saturday morning “breakfast club” had set the stage for a culture change in the Como Park program.
Robinson, an educational assistant at Como, is serving his second year as the Cougar boys’ head coach. While his team showed improvement on the court during his first season, he was concerned about the grade-point averages (GPAs) of his players. He sensed a disconnect between reality and his players’ perceptions about college preparation.
Having been around the high school game since 2004, primarily coaching girls, Robinson has seen plenty of players succeed on and off the court, leading to opportunity in college.
Robinson was an assistant coach at St. Paul’s Central High School when his daughter, Angel Robinson, starred for a state championship team and received a scholarship to play and study at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. He was the head girls’ coach at Como for seven seasons, and won a conference title in 2015. Andrayah Adams was the star of that team and is now on scholarship at St. John’s in New York.
Those experiences inspired Robinson to raise the bar of academics for the boys. “I want them all to be eligible to qualify for NCAA basketball,” said Robinson. To reach that goal, many players needed to step it up, and the coach would need some support.
Kristy Pierce was asked to be the team’s academic adviser. Before coming to Como as a cultural specialist last school year, Pierce worked for the Minnesota Timberwolves in roles ranging from administrative assistant to being a member of the coaching staff to serving as the executive director of the Timberwolves foundation.
Pierce is with the Cougars for every event, practice and game. Before the players take the court for practice, they need to check in with Pierce and submit the daily monitor sheets that their teachers signed off on at the end of every class.
The daily accountability is the first step to grade improvement. Teachers can check “yes” or “no” boxes for five categories, including “on time,” “homework completed” and “positive attitude.” There is also room for comments that allow teacher concerns to be addressed or encouragement and praise to be provided.
Going through the monitor slips allows Pierce to catch problems early, redirect or use as a shining example of effort and success. While she jokes that the players might call her a pain, the truth is that her role is much more of the school mom for many of the boys.
“She’s always there for us,” said junior Brian King-Keller. “Some of the work she does might go unappreciated, but it crosses my mind a lot. I feel like I made a big change in my grades. She showed me that I can do it, and she made me really believe in myself.”
Sophomore Avery Reid, who plays on the junior varsity, said that the entire coaching staff puts grades before basketball. “We can’t play unless we’ve got the grades,” said Reid. The JV team is coached by Donnell Gibson, known as Mr. D around Como. With Gibson, Pierce, Robinson and varsity assistant Marlon McCoy all on the same page with their clear expectations, there has been a noticeable change.
In some cases, individual GPAs are up more than a full point from last season. Nine students in the program had a GPA of 3.5 for the first semester. Every player in the program improved their grades from the first quarter of the school year. A few who didn’t are no longer with the program. There are consequences.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride this season. The expectations set forth are challenging, causing bumps along the way, both academically and on the court. But it’s the sacrifice and the team effort that have made the journey rewarding.
For senior Kyrin Woodard, Como basketball has been the one constant and most motivating influence in his life. Not because of a winning record, (the Cougars were 7-13 as the Bugle went to press), but because of the relationships and the family that the Cougar program has become.
“Everybody sticks together. We never give up,” said Woodard. “Playing for Como, we have a bond. We’re playing for something more than ourselves. I feel like it’s all made me more mature. I care about school more. I know there are high expectations. It pushes me. It’s made me better in everything.”
Students first. Basketball players second. Teaching the boys of Como basketball how to work, how to be committed, how to persevere and how to be proud about doing the right thing on and off the court are now pillars of the program.
With a foundation based on those values, Robinson and his coaching staff are energized to continue the work for years to come.
“I’m happy with the way things are going,” said Robinson. “The kids have accepted and taken on the challenge and are helping to create a program that will be attractive to more student athletes. We’re working hard and we’re growing every day.”
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.