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How to cut bacon? Ask a Gamecock

South Carolina's athletic director Eric Hyman, right, watches an NCAA college basketball game between South Carolina and Furman with his wife Pauline on Friday, Dec. 5, 2008, at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. Pauline Hyman teaches an etiquette course that is part of the school's CHAMPS/Life Skills Program, a growing discipline in NCAA athletic departments. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
South Carolina's athletic director Eric Hyman, right, watches an NCAA college basketball game between South Carolina and Furman with his wife Pauline on Friday, Dec. 5, 2008, at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. Pauline Hyman teaches an etiquette course that is part of the school's CHAMPS/Life Skills Program, a growing discipline in NCAA athletic departments. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

In college, Victor Payne thought nothing of stabbing a steak or chugging soda straight from a 64-ounce bottle. What good were manners for a 300-pound TCU guard busting open holes for LaDainian Tomlinson?

"You find out," says Payne, now a 30-year-old businessman from Jasper, Texas, "there's more out there than football. You better be prepared."

And that's why Payne is grateful he took part in a seminar called "Manners Matter: No Runs, No Drips, No Errors." It was created by former TCU and current South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman.

Hyman first held an etiquette class at Miami of Ohio, where he was athletic director from July 1995 to February 1998. He carried it along to TCU and continued it since joining South Carolina in 2005. In Hyman's view, his athletes must prepare for more than a rushing linebacker or a 3-2 curveball.

"You have a better chance to be hit by lightning than you do to play professional sports," Hyman said.

The etiquette course, taught by Hyman's wife, Pauline, is part of the school's CHAMPS/Life Skills Program, a growing discipline in NCAA athletic departments.

Schools have long provided tutors and training tables to keep their athletes on track to graduate and healthy. But what happens when the pros don't call? Athletes consumed with practices, meetings and weight training need to know how to write a cover letter or how to act at a business lunch.

"We've come a long way from days when life skills was wear a tie on a team bus," said Becky Ahlgren-Bedics, the NCAA's associate director of education services who oversees the governing body's life skills efforts at 627 schools.

There's no one-size-fits-all in this developing field, Ahlgren-Bedics says. While one school may offer financial advice or how to pick the best cellphone plan, another shows the difference between a salad fork and a fish fork.

That's where Pauline Hyman, a sociology professor and certified etiquette expert, comes in.

"Do people dread eating with me? Yes, they think I'm judging them every single time," she says.

For South Carolina's sophomore athletes, she is.

Each one gets a 24-page book that's as much a must-read as coach Steve Spurrier's football playbook or their Accounting 101 text.

She details the place setting, complete with three glasses and four forks.

She lays out the proper way to cut bacon (although if it's crisp, it's acceptable to eat with your fingers), how to correctly squeeze a lemon wedge on your fish and advises that gravy should be used "sparingly, and exclusively, on the dish for which it was intended."

There are dinner party do's and don't's, the importance of thank you notes and tips on tipping.

While these skills won't get the Gamecocks that one extra touchdown or that key late basket with time running down, good manners are smart business and could make a difference in a slumping economy.

"The job market's tightening," Pauline Hyman says. "When you graduate, how do you distinguish yourself from other applicants. You've got to have some tools that make you stand out."

Each fall, the department holds its etiquette dinner, a formal gathering attended by players and coaches. Spurrier and wife, Jerri, were recent guests with South Carolina's head ball coach crawling under the table to retrieve a dropped utensil — an example of how not to act at a dinner party, Hyman said, laughing.

The Hymans say South Carolina's manners' seminar doesn't replace skills learned at home, or that parents these days haven't slackened on courtesy and etiquette.

"They enhance what's learned at home," Eric Hyman said.

South Carolina's athletic department has other life skills seminars. Freshman attend a mandatory meeting that includes a defense attorney, the county's top prosecutor, a judge and others to discuss the consequences of misconduct.

Upperclassmen are counseled on the right clothes to wear to search for a job, and go through mock question-and-answer sessions with prospective employees.

"There is a value, there is a reason why we do it," Eric Hyman said.

Other schools take similar care in teaching athletes.

The University of Miami in Florida also holds an etiquette dinner as part of a one-credit freshman experience course open to all, but with a special section for student athletes, said Roger Bell, the school's associate athletic director/academic services for varsity athletics.

"Many of them will go to banquets while they are here, so we want them to be comfortable," Bell said.

Miami's course also teaches balancing a checkbook and managing time during hectic days.

Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III has continued the tradition of his father, former Hoyas coach John Thompson, that players wear sports jackets and ties in public. They conduct themselves with class and grace and bearing, Thompson say.

"What we've done here is nothing earth-shattering," Thompson III said. "We just help them through that process and make them understand this is a time of growth and learning in ways many more than just what happens on the court."

South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley didn't really think much about manners coming to college, confident his family did a pretty good job. But Smelley enjoyed the seminar and thinks it will carry with him well past football.

"I don't think I knew how to set my plate the right way, but I guess that's something you learn a little bit," Smelley said. "It was fun, though."

Payne, TCU's massive guard, discovered that, too. As a senior and realizing his football days were done, Payne thanked Eric Hyman for the skills learned far away from the Horned Frogs practice field.

At banquets, Payne is confident and prepared. He holds his knife and fork like a pro and appropriately sips his drink like a businessman.

"It's helped me more than you'd know, more than I could've realized back then," he said.

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