Aug. 2, 2003
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –
Mike Mathews has played on national television countless times during his career as a member of the Florida State men’s basketball team. He has played in front of thousands of fans in some of the most historic arenas in the country. He has played in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and traveled to the top of the world to play in the Great Alaska Shootout.
But he walked on no bigger stage and played in front of no more adoring fans than when he was awarded his bachelor’s degree Aug. 2 in the Leon County Civic Center – the same arena where he has helped the Seminoles to victories over powerhouse teams such as Duke, North Carolina, Iowa and Miami.
As Mathews walked across the stage and received his undergraduate degree in sport management during summer commencement ceremonies he realized the end of one journey and the continuation of another journey.
By earning his degree Mathews became only the second men’s basketball player in Florida State and Atlantic Coast Conference history to enter school as a partial qualifier, graduate in four years and earn back his fourth year of playing eligibility. Because he did not meet NCAA regulations as a full academic qualifier when he first arrived at Florida State as a freshman he had to sit out his first competitive season. Now that he has earned his undergraduate degree, he will play as one of five seniors on the Seminole men’s basketball team during the 2003-04 season.
“I knew that I could accomplish the goal of graduating in four years that I had set for myself when I first came to Florida State,” said Mathews. “I didn’t realize how hard I had to work when I was a freshman. As the years went on I realized I had to buckle down to graduate on time. I paid for taking it easy early on in my academic career but I was determined to play four years of college basketball.”
Playing basketball has always come easy to Mathews who enters the season as one of only eight players in Florida State history to have blocked 100 or more career shots. Coaches from Michigan, Michigan State and Georgia among others were lined up to talk to the 6-10 post player who chose to sign with the Seminoles after a post-graduate year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. He was generally regarded as one of the nation’s top 15 big men entering the college ranks in 1999.
In addition, the Blountstown, Fla. native was a local player who had gone to high school at Florida High that was located at the time on the Florida State University campus. He was one of top prep players in the state as a senior and averaged 12.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 blocked shots in leading the Seminoles to the state class 2A championship game.
“Coming to Florida State was a dream come true,” remembers Mathews. “I had grown up watching Florida State and the great teams they had when I was young. I always wanted to be a part of the tradition. I liked everything about the school and was anxious to play as a freshman because I could contribute to the team.”
But Mathews’ dream turned into a nightmare when he was unable to achieve a qualifying score on the SAT. He enrolled as a partial qualifier, received a scholarship and was able to practice, but could not play in games or travel with the team during his first season.
“Realizing that I really couldn’t be a part of the team was hard,” said Mathews. “I knew I could do some things on the court that the team was lacking in at the time. I felt I could be a presence.”
Mathews found himself equally frustrated in the classroom during his first year at Florida State. As a freshman he was undisciplined academically, rarely attended sessions with his tutors, never did any extra work outside of class and the rarely studied. He went to class and study hall only because his practice time depended on his class attendance.
“Consistency in studying and consistency in going to my tutors was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome when I was a freshman,” said Mathews. “When I first got to Florida State, I didn’t study and I really didn’t want do much of anything except play basketball.”
“I am very proud of Mike and what he has accomplished in graduating from Florida State University,” said Kevin White, an associate director in the Athletic Academic Support Unit. “I commend Mike on the change in attitude towards his academic life. He has proven himself to be a fine young man who can overcome almost anything he sets his mind to.”
“Kevin has been a big time help and has meant a lot in everything I have achieved academically,” said Mathews. “He encouraged me not to give up and encouraged me to keep trying to do everything I did well whether it was academically or athletically. He has motivated me to do well since I set foot on campus as a freshman. I thank God for Kevin White because he made sure I was on course.”
Once Mathews realized that earning back his fourth year was up to him, and only him, he began to put as much effort into his study habits as he did into his practice habits.
“I didn’t start studying until the end of my sophomore year,” said Mathews. I realized that if I studied I could do well in class.”
His professors also noticed a change in his academic performance.
“Mike was always in class and always in the front row,” said Dr. Cecile Reynaud, a professor in the education department at Florida State. “He seemed sincerely interested in the material and participated in class discussions on a regular basis. I was impressed with him as a student because he took the time to communicate with me and keep me updated on his hectic schedule.”
Mathews began to see an improvement in his grades and his dream of playing a fourth year for the Seminoles began to become a reality. Mathews earned a 3.5 grade point average and was named to the Dean’s List as well as the ACC Honor Roll following the spring 2003 semester.
“Doing well in class has made me feel really good and helped with my confidence in all areas of my life,” said Mathews. “I realized last year that if I had been studying all along my grades would be better than they are. I realized that if I had been studying all along it (graduating) wouldn’t have come down to the last class.
That last class – a math class – has been Mathews’ nemesis throughout his academic career. Try as he might, math has never come easy to him.
“Math has been a problem for me as long as I can remember,” said Mathews. “My confidence is kind of low when it comes to math. When I first got here, I didn’t do too well in my math classes. But, the past couple of semesters, I have done better. It is something I have had to work really hard at to be successful in.”
The fourth of five children born to Jessie and Gussie Mathews, he and White devised a strategy to help raise his confidence, defeat his toughest opponent and earn his degree as the graduation clock ticked towards zero. Mathews worked with his tutor everyday for two hours before his math class in the second summer session to put him over the top.
“I had to make myself like math this summer in order to do well,” he said. I had to meet with my tutors sometimes twice a day to work on the material I was not comfortable with. I talked to my teachers to get extra help. I used to get frustrated with algebraic equations and give up on the problem. I have changed my outlook with help from a lot of people and feel that I can work through many of the problems that used to bother me. I have worked at learning the material and I am proud of that.”
Mathews, who became the second member of his family to graduate from college, credits his sister and former Seminole Delvon Arrington with inspiring him to reach his goal of graduating which he calls the most memorable moment in his life.
“My sister called me almost every day and stayed on top of me every step along the way,” said Mathews. “She continuously checked on how I did on every quiz, every test and every paper I had to turn in. She pushed me even as far back as prep school when she drove from New York to Virginia to make sure I was doing what I needed to in the classroom. She was always on top of me to make sure I was doing well in my academics.
“Delvon was also an inspiration to me,” said Mathews. “I learned from what he went through when he was here. I saw how hard he worked to earn his degree and I knew I had many of the same goals he had.”
Arrington, incidentally, was the first player in ACC history to enter school as a partial qualifier, graduate in four years and earn back his fourth year of playing eligibility. He capped his collegiate career when he became the Florida State’s all-time assist leader and led the Seminoles to a victory over No. 1 ranked Duke during the 2001-02 season.
With his degree in hand Mathews has his sights set on the upcoming basketball season – his second under head coach Leonard Hamilton.
“We are welcoming Mike back with open arms,” said Hamilton. “I am glad for Mike and his family that he has earned his college degree. That’s something you can’t take away from him. I am also glad for our team because he gives us added depth and strength. He has been in our system for a year and he has made the adjustments we have asked him to make.”
“I didn’t want last year to be the end of my playing career at Florida State,” said Mathews. “I’ve been here four years and I haven’t helped our team hang an NCAA banner yet. I want to come back one day, see a banner hanging, and know I helped earn that banner. That’s what I thought this summer and it helped me earn my college degree.”
As his playing career at Florida State continues, there will be more appearances on national television, more games in front of thousands of fans and more trips to some of the most historic arenas ever built.
And though Mike Mathews has many goals in mind during the upcoming season, he has already reached his greatest goal of becoming a college graduate.
By Chuck Walsh
Florida State Sports