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Irish Q&A: IMG Academy

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In March, Notre Dame secured its first-ever football commitment from this elite athletics-centered prep school in the heart of Florida. We reached out to the school to get more insight into their philosophy and their process.

Student Sports

When Tony Jones Jr. pledged his services to the Irish on their just-concluded Junior Day weekend, Notre Dame secured its first-ever football commitment from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. This elite athletics-centered, co-ed prep school has been in operation since 1978 and offers football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, lacrosse, golf, and track and field programs. Specifically of note for Irish fans, though, is that over the last few years IMG has become an increasingly significant player on the Division 1 football scene. In the 2014 - 2015 graduating classes, recruiting fans will recognize Bo Scarbrough, Michael O'Connor, Deondre Francois, and Mirko Jurkovic. The 2016 class alone includes five-star recruits Shavar Manuel, Saivion Smith, and Malik Henry, and four-star recruits Isaac Nauta, Rashuan Smith, Kahlil Ladler, Tavares Chase, Tyler Gerald, Malik Barrow, and Tony Jones.

While many student-athletes start their high school experience at IMG, others are established football stars, such as former Notre Dame target and California native Malik Henry, who transfer to IMG Academy to finish their high school careers and polish their skills with an eye towards making an instant impact at the next level. Opinions abound about this aspect of the school, as you might expect, and not all of those opinions are complimentary. Anecdotally, we can say that a number of Irish fans assume that it's a feeder school to Southern colleges, that academics are given perfunctory attention, and that a school that's so open about putting a strong focus on athletics is a potentially troubling development in the prep sports landscape. These opinions aren't limited to Notre Dame fans, either; as many prep schools do, IMG Academy has faced some tension from local public school coaches who are skeptical of its mission.

We did a little bit of research into the school, and while the potential to earn a Division 1 scholarship is certainly one of the primary drivers of attendance at IMG, there's definitely more to the experience there than the casual observer might think. For example, among their alumni's university destinations are Oxford, Stanford, West Point, Notre Dame (not counting Jones), and most of the Ivies. And there are, after all, worse things in the world than giving a kid a better chance to earn a college scholarship, through whatever avenue that might occur. Seeking understanding beyond our assumptions, we reached out to IMG to get their first-hand thoughts and they were gracious enough to respond thoughtfully to our questions. Without further ado, then, we present our Q&A with IMG Academy. The questions were a group effort from the OFD staff, and they were answered by Co-Managing Director Chip McCarthy.

How do you decide who is a fit for the school, and specifically for the football program? It's presumably fairly easy to approve of the athletic potential of high-profile recruits, but is there some kind of screening process for the next level of athlete?

We have a comprehensive application process at IMG Academy, similar to what you would find at a university. All prospective student-athletes must submit a completed application, including academic records and references. Much like a university, it’s competitive because there are a limited number of spots available in each sport every year. What may be surprising for many is we do not screen for athletic talent; we are looking for the right fit for our culture. We are looking for student-athletes who possess a strong commitment to academics, athletics and personal growth. Passion for sport is a must, but ability can vary greatly.

We have advisors in each sport who meet and spend time with every family who is interested in attending IMG Academy to make sure it is the right fit for everyone. It’s a challenging curriculum, both academically and athletically, that really demands a level of maturity and time management that often isn’t expected of student-athletes until they reach college. But for the student-athletes who buy into the program, it is our mission to ensure it becomes one of the most rewarding experiences of their lifetime.

I'm not a teacher, so this is my amateur impression, but a quick read through the core curriculum that the academy publishes on their website looks like no joke. Notre Dame certainly won't have any problems with their students not meeting core requirements, at least.

You have an agreement with the Florida High School Athletic Association that you won't recruit students within Florida, but you do actively recruit outside Florida. What can you describe about the process to recruit out-of-state prospects to the Academy? Does the travel schedule of your teams come into that at all or is that strictly determined by a search for quality opponents?

That’s correct; we do not recruit in the state of Florida. In fact, as our program has grown and our reputation has gained national and international attention, we have found we need to do very little in the way of active recruiting anywhere. The individual success stories of kids graduating from IMG Academy and making their way to top college and university programs speaks for itself and tends to attract families who are looking to grow the secondary education options available to their son or daughter.

Many people don’t realize how uniquely diverse our football program is! We’ve had players on our team from Denmark, China, Germany, Japan, Mexico and more – all looking for the best opportunity to develop and be seen by college coaches for a chance to fulfill their dreams at the next level.

As for travel, our number one priority is to find opportunities for our individual student-athletes and teams to compete at the highest level on a regular basis. If it were about winning, we wouldn’t seek out the toughest opponents. It’s about developing the student-athlete and preparing him or her for life’s challenges.

IMG founded the Pendleton School in 1999. What factors were considered in the decision to change the school's name from the Pendleton School to the IMG Academy in 2012?

IMG Academy has been in existence for 35+ years, though it has undergone significant evolution in the last decade. We once partnered with The Pendleton School to provide an on-site academic curriculum, before wholly owning the school and fully integrating them into our Academy program some years ago. The result is an ideally integrated delivery model that includes academics, athletics, character development and social responsibility. We also once had a collection of sport academies under individual names. When we fully integrated the school, we made the decision to also unify our sports programs under the IMG Academy name. We’ve found this has resulted in a much clearer understanding of who we are and aligns us more closely with a university model. Our student-athletes are now part of one cohesive student body and community and school spirit is higher than ever before.

The original entity was Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy - tennis fans will remember Nick as the coach who groomed Agassi, Courier, and Seles for stardom, among many others. So while the name "IMG Academy" is relatively new, they have indeed been at this for a long time and that seeming newness is misleading. I thought it had opened in the last couple of years myself before I started researching.

You share some pretty impressive statistics in your brochures - 98% of IMG Academy graduates attend college and most of the rest jump to professional sports, 60% attend Division I universities, 30% attend top-100 USNWR schools, and 57% are awarded athletic scholarships. Are you able to share any additional insight on your students at the next level, such as college graduation rate of IMG Academy alumni or percentage of non-athletic-scholarship alumni who receive academic or social responsibility scholarships?

Like most high schools, it is difficult to track statistically the success of graduates at the next level. In 2014, five IMG Academy graduates went on to become NCAA champions: UConn’s DeAndre Daniels - 2014 NCAA DI basketball title; USC’s Doris Chen - 2014 NCAA DI golf individual title; Virginia’s Danielle Collins -2014 NCAA DI women’s tennis individual title; Duke’s Laetitia Beck - 2014 NCAA DI golf team title; and Virginia’s Pablo Aguilar – 2014 NCAA DI men’s soccer title). Academically, we are proud of our countless alumni who go on to become Academic All-Americans (i.e. Dwight Powell, ’10) or even Rhodes (i.e. Zak Boggs, ‘05) or Fulbright (i.e. Alexander Campbell-Ferrari, ’08) Scholars.

You've defined an academic integrity policy with substantial consequences for violators. Notre Dame fans are well-acquainted with this concept after last year's "Frozen Five" academic dishonesty suspensions; a common complaint among our fans during that saga was an apparent lack of transparency even between different groups within the university. In the unfortunate incidents where you've had to apply your policy, how do you balance the competing information needs of teachers, coaches, parents, and external audiences with the privacy of the student and the integrity of the process?

To truly be integrated from an academic, athletic and social standpoint, our means of communication must also be approached collectively. Decisions affecting a student-athlete’s continued enrollment for any reason are taken very seriously by our Discipline Committee, which is comprised of representatives from all key stakeholder groups. We have a very low-tolerance policy that does not give way to talent. We have a responsibility to not only do what is best by the individual student-athlete but also what is best for the overall welfare of our student body, particularly as a boarding institution.

The "collective communication" idea is interesting, and I wonder how much Notre Dame's honor code process might resemble that. It's not possible or, honestly, legal for a university to tell everybody everything, but to call our process murky would be an understatement. A little extra communication could go a long way.

Finally, some people may be skeptical of the educational mission of a school that places such a strong emphasis on athletics. How would you respond to such skepticism?

What we’ve been able to accomplish is creating a delivery model that allows a student-athlete to excel in all areas of development – academically, athletically and socially. We have made athletics and everything it represents – from teamwork to leadership to perseverance – part of our education. We’ve created an ideally balanced day where student-athletes are put in a position to excel in the classroom and in their sport with countless academic resources at their disposal much like they will find in the college setting.

For us, having everything in one place continues to be one of the biggest draws as student-athletes don’t have to spend time commuting from school to practice to the gym and so forth. And their teachers, coaches, nutritionists, trainers etc. are in constant communication with regards to the student-athlete’s best interests.

And that will wrap it up. We're very grateful to IMG Academy for providing us this uncommon opportunity to dig a bit deeper into what makes one of the nation's most elite prep schools tick!