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At SOU, athletic success is driven by character

The old adage that sports build character isn’t necessarily true, according to SOU Athletic Director Matt Sayre.

“There are studies that show the longer someone is involved in organized sports, the lower they score on ethical tests, unless you purposely teach character values,” Sayre said.

Since becoming athletic director in 2010, Sayre and his coaches have made the topic a major focus of the program, and the results on and off the field have been notable.

“I thought character-driven athletics would be the key to our success, and it is,” Sayre said.

SOU’s character-driven athletics program strives for balance in sports, classrooms and the community, admitting high-achieving students with strong values, and intentionally teaching character within the context of sports.

“We’re not beating our students over the head with the idea of character values,” said Bobby Heiken, SOU’s associate athletic director. “It’s in the coaches we’re hiring and the students we’re recruiting, the way we coach, the way we behave, and the behaviors we encourage.”

SOU athletics is currently on a run of successes on the playing fields and in the classroom that goes unmatched at SOU. The Raider football team played in back-to-back national championships, the women’s basketball team has played in the national championship, and men’s basketball, volleyball, wrestling, cross country and track and field are fixtures at the national championships.

Those winning performances put SOU sixth in the NAIA Director’s Cup rankings of the top athletic departments in the nation following the 2014-15 year – the university’s best-ever finish. And SOU was No. 1 in the country following strong showings by its fall sports teams this academic year, and is poised for another Top 10 finish.

“We’re redefining what it means to be an athlete here,” said Sayre, who was named the Cascade Conference Athletic Director of the Year following the 2014-15 season. “All the coaches are very serious about character-driven athletics, and it has made our department a really positive place.”

Heiken added that the focus on character in the athletic programs has benefited the entire university.

“It’s exactly what you want in a college,” he said. “The student-athletes live in the dorms and in the community. They participate, and they work hard. These students are coming out as leaders in the community and anywhere they go in the world.”

SOU belongs to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which focuses on and tracks five core values for all of its schools: integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership, which involves working for the greater good. Sayre said the first step is to find students who already embody those core values.

“We really target the academically high-achieving students and those who buy into those core values,” he said. “With these student-athletes, there aren’t as many problems off the field or with the team, and we win games. Plus, they’re more fun to coach.”

Sayre said he is most proud of the response he gets from teachers and community members about the athletes.

“I love hearing people tell me what good, respectful men and women are on our teams,” he said. “They represent SOU and the Rogue Valley in positive ways, and we’re all so proud of them.”

Balancing the highly competitive nature of college sports with a strong focus on character isn’t as hard as one might think.

“It is all connected,” Sayre said. “We find that our students do better in class, on teams, in the community and life. Our athletes’ retention and graduation rates are higher than average, as well.

“Winning games is a side effect of the values, academic work and service learning they’re embracing.”

Heiken added that the strength of SOU’s athletic teams, and the athletes’ growing reputation as strong performers and students, are attracting more students of the same caliber.

“We’re bringing in good students, and we’re turning out great students, not just great athletes,” Heiken said. “So much has changed over the years, and I’m really proud of where SOU is in terms of athletics right now. The fact that we’re able to win and be competitive across the board is an impressive thing.”

Reposted and updated from the Spring 2016 issue of The Raider, the SOU Alumni Association magazine