UCLA football’s ‘books and ball’ philosophy pays dividends

Ask UCLA defensive lineman Jacob Sykes to tell you about philosophy and he’ll spin you a tale of a dinner party once hosted by Socrates at which the guests try to define eros, or “love.”

“One idea that was interesting was that people were split in half at creation,” Sykes said. “And that’s why we always want a counterpart. Because we’re looking for our whole.”

If UCLA were a person split in half at creation, its two pieces might be football and academics. The football team is unbeaten and No. 9 in the Associated Press college football rankings and the school is the No. 1 public university in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings.

UCLA has 19 players on its roster who are in graduate school. Their undergraduate degrees range from economics to art to applied mathematics – and they’re proving there could be a correlation between players’ level of education and the success of a team.

“We’re as proud of that as we are of our record,” UCLA head coach Chip Kelly said of the graduate school players. “They’ve made a commitment to get their undergrad degree and now they want to continue to further their career. Their mindset is what I’m really impressed with.”

Two of the most commonly cited “smart” players on the team by coaches and teammates are Sykes and linebacker Shea Pitts.

Sykes earned an applied mathematics degree from Harvard before transferring to UCLA and “may be president of the United States some day,” according to Kelly.

Pitts finished his political science undergrad work in three years, earned a master’s degree through UCLA’s Transformative Coaching and Leadership Program, and is now working on a second master’s through UCLA Law.

He’s a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is awarded to the nation’s top football scholar athlete. It’s Pitts’ second year as the Bruins’ representative for the honor.

“He’s the ultimate competitor whether it’s in the classroom, in the weight room, on the practice field,” Kelly said. “He wants to be great at everything he does. What sets Shea apart from other people is he’s just such a driven individual.”

Advanced degrees or not, UCLA players are typically book-smart in school and then cerebral when it comes to football.

For example, three out of five starting offensive lineman on the most recent depth chart have completed undergrad work. As a unit, that line has helped the offense to an average of 505.7 yards of offense per game, which ranks them 12th in the nation in that category.

“Guys here at UCLA are very smart guys. Guys who are going to go the extra mile to find the extra tape, look at the different cues,” said linebacker Bo Calvert, who has an undergrad degree in political science. “But I think now being able to have guys who are more experienced in football, you see that a lot more on display just because guys are calling things out.”

Calvert cited a situation in the Washington game when Laiatu Latu – the former Husky who ranks first in the country with 1.08 sacks per game – warned him he was about to get cracked.

“But I was ready for it,” Calvert said. “Being able to have guys that can work well together and can show you things even when they’re not in your position is great.”

The academic experience of the upperclassmen and the intangibles that come with it have a trickle-down effect on the team. The standard is set for incoming players, whether freshmen or transfers.

Kelly said he’s seen freshmen with football acumen that come into the program and benefit from the hardworking mentality of upperclassmen. Other incoming players who don’t naturally possess a high football IQ are smart enough to put in the work to compensate for that.

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It’s all part of the “books and ball” philosophy Kelly has coined and cultivated in his time at UCLA. And this season, the grade book and the win column are coming together in a way that could make Socrates smile.

“The fun part is the journey. You can have fun with everything you do,” Sykes said. “You’re out here with a good group of guys and you’re in the classroom with great students. Winning is fun, but you’ve gotta find the fun in everything to enjoy the process.”

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