Xavier life coach helps players navigate the world beyond the arena

Goal: Widen their horizons, stay out of trouble
Russell: Life coach helps Xavier players grow
Posted at 9:00 AM, Dec 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-15 09:55:20-05

CINCINNATI - There are few things Gerald Yearwood relishes more than his weekly visits to Xavier University to spend time with the men's basketball team.

He knows hoops. He played for Division II St. Augustine's College in North Carolina many moons ago, but basketball isn't the only reason he studies the Musketeers' practices and games. His real specialty is leading discussions away from Cintas Center's bright lights.

With an audience of 14 players, scholarship athletes and walk-ons, Yearwood broaches an array of social situations. One minute he's talking about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest, the next it's Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes' stand against racial discrimination.

Yearwood encourages players' reactions and offers additional perspective. Probing and insightful, supportive and patient, Yearwood provides a unique service to Chris Mack's team.

He is the program's first life coach.

"He teaches us about things outside of basketball," senior guard Malcolm Bernard said. "He wants us to have a mind outside of just talking about, 'Oh, Tracy McGrady scored 30,' or 'Kobe scored 30.' He wants us to be intelligent young men and be able to discuss topics and understand how life works."

During the age of social media and within the fish bowl that is college sports, a life coach might be what any athletic program needs. For Xavier, Yearwood -- a consultant who started in August -- has become part of a larger initiative at the university.

When athletic director Greg Christopher was hired in May of 2013, university president Rev. Michael Graham requested an evaluation of the department's resources for student-athletes' leadership and personal development.

Programs already existed for the 300-member group, like a mandatory freshman fundamentals class. Christopher also started teaching a two-credit-hour class in athletic leadership.

As part of Xavier's cross-campus plan to reshape its development options, Christopher recognized an opportunity for a mentor. A recommendation from Susan Cross Lipnickey, Xavier's associate athletic director for student-athlete welfare, brought Yearwood -- her former colleague at Miami University -- to the forefront.

Gerald Yearwood, third from right, sits with Xavier staff members watching the Musketeers warm up for their game against the Colorado Buffaloes on Dec. 7. Xavier lost, 68-66.

"Gerald's piece (of the puzzle), or life skills, is meant to be a little bit of a trial balloon. He's starting to work with men's basketball. Depending on how this takes shape, we'd like to take some of the elements of what he's doing and incorporate it into our other teams," Christopher said.

So who is Yearwood?

For starters, he earned a sociology degree at St. Augustine's and a Master's degree in higher education administration at Syracuse University. He has devoted his career to both disciplines.

Most recently, Yearwood spent 18 years at Miami University, the final seven as its senior director of diversity affairs. His retirement was short-lived as he jumped at the chance to connect with RaShid Gaston and J.P Macura, Sean O'Mara and Edmond Sumner, while stressing the importance of making good decisions and taking education seriously.

"You may go to Europe and make some money (playing basketball). You may go to the NBA and make some money, and that's a great thing. But that's not longevity. That's the short term. So what are you going to do when the sweat is dry and nobody knows your name? And how are you going to use the education that you received at Xavier University to make a living?" Yearwood said.

"So that's kind of my role, and getting them to focus on leadership, career-building, motivation. We've talked about establishing positive relationships, not putting yourself in situations where it hurts you, it hurts your family, it hurts the institution. Most assuredly, it hurts your character."

Yearwood has conducted team sessions and one-on-one meetings to talk about, well, anything. He recommended a book to the entire group and an additional motivational book to Bernard, who dubbed Yearwood "amazing" and "a great guy."

Asked if Xavier players would shore up philosophical discussions among themselves without Yearwood, Bernard said probably not. 

"He brings that piece," Bernard said. "I don't think it's a must-do amongst our teammates to sit down and have discussions on topics like that. Our mindset is more toward basketball or other things outside of basketball instead of the world. I feel like I have a chance to sit back and look at what happens throughout the world and how it affects the world at the same time."

Bernard's college career has been circuitous. He started at Charleston Southern and transferred to Florida A&M before coming to Xavier for his final year of eligibility. In all his travels, he never has been part of a basketball program with a life coach.

Until now.

Christopher said Division I schools typically dedicate resources to the development and life skills of student-athletes, but each one approaches it somewhat differently. While Xavier has a life coach, Christopher said Big East Conference mate Georgetown, for example, has "one or two full-time staff members that are completely focused on leadership development."

There's more to the life coach than mental nourishment, though. Christopher said Yearwood may give Xavier a competitive edge.

Here's why: In a study of all 18 Xavier's sports programs since the university joined the Big East in 2012-13, Christopher and his staff found that teams that retained freshman athletes through their junior and senior seasons tended to finish in the upper half of the league standings and thus were poised to compete for championships.

In a nutshell, keeping athletes engaged and comfortable at Xavier has translated to more success on the playing field.

"We understand that our focus is 300 athletes and helping them graduate and helping them fully develop -- that's what Xavier's all about -- but we also believe that if you can make it to your junior and senior year and be a contributing part of the team, it's going to help us be a better team," Christopher said. "Not only team as in 'cohesive' and 'work together' but team as a competitive standpoint, too."

The timing for a life coach comes at an interesting juncture for Xavier men's basketball, as senior guard Myles Davis remains suspended indefinitely from the program.

Davis in November pleaded guilty to one reduced charge of disorderly conduct through a plea agreement in Hamilton County Municipal Court. He paid court fees and restitution to a former girlfriend after being charged twice for misdemeanor criminal damaging over the summer relating to broken cell phones and a dented car door. Davis also completed an anger-management course.

Yearwood's role at Xavier was planned well before Davis' legal issues and thus was not a reaction to that situation. He met Davis only once and never had a chance to talk to him extensively.

As part of development, though, Yearwood's presence is another avenue players can use for positive reinforcement.

"Let's face it, you'd be lying if you didn't say having (a life coach) in place, you'd like to cut down some of the conduct incidents," Christopher said. "You don't want to pick out any one person or one incident. The reality is, across campus, with close to 7,000 students, we're focused on our 300 athletes and their discipline and conduct. Over the last couple of years we've had a little bit of an uptick, especially around alcohol. That's been one of the ingredients of all the things we're doing around personal and character development."

An additional resource for alcohol matters is the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the leadership body of student-athletes on campus, which features peer-to-peer education. Each of Xavier's sports teams has at least two representatives in the organization.

Before Davis' charges, the last Xavier basketball player who made headlines outside of hoops was Macura. In May he pleaded guilty in Hamilton County Municipal Court to charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing official business for pulling down his pants at an Oakley bar and for possessing a fake ID.

Yearwood and Macura have built a good rapport.

"We've really created a little bond with each other," Yearwood said. "I love talking to him. I think he's a great kid. I really admire him a lot."

Another of Yearwood's duties has been addressing the impact of social media and helping players handle it. The growth of Twitter, and fans' ability to address men's basketball players directly, recently prompted Mack's ire at a pre-game press conference.

The subject was free throws. Xavier had been struggling at the line and some critics didn't hold back, blasting players individually.

"To the people that '@' our guys on Twitter, grow up. Get a life. Our guys are working on it every day. Nobody's trying to miss free throws," Mack said.

Yearwood has discussed with players how social media creates the constant state of being under a microscope.

"I gave them a scenario. I said, 'You walk into a Subway just to buy a sandwich. Maybe you're with your girlfriend. And people are there. And you're surrounded. People are texting other people that Edmond Sumner just walked in or J.P. Macura just walked in.' Now, let's flip it. You walk in and you and your girlfriend are having an argument. Now they're filming it. So you have to be cognizant of what you do at all times," Yearwood said.

"You're at a high-profile program. Let's get real; you're in the Big East Conference. If you're not doing the right things in between, it's going to be noticed."

Mack has noticed players' positive responses to Yearwood. The life coach's upbringing mirrors some of the athletes' backgrounds, Mack said, and his sincerity underscores his genuine nature.

"It's a love of his to watch young people mature, grow up and eventually tackle the real world. Some of the lessons that they learn on the basketball floor -- they're great, they apply. But there are also things outside of here that they really have to think about, that basketball shields them from at times," Mack said. "He's been awesome. He really cares about our guys."

Yearwood made the journey to Colorado for Xavier's most recent road trip. He spent a fair amount of time being visible in the hotel lobby when he wasn't accompanying the team to shoot-arounds, meals and the game against the Buffaloes.

He's always around for late-night phone calls or extra time after group discussions. It's all part of his plan to help Xavier basketball players maximize their potential on and off the court. 

"I think the best advice he has probably given me is more for us as a group: Play with each other, stay together. Don't ever fold. Have each other's back through everything," Bernard said. "And if your teammate is in a bad situation, grab him by the shirt and pull him out. Hold each other accountable and don't let one another get in bad situations that we don't need to be in."