UWF Sports: More Than the Locker Room

Ben Johnson, Staff Writer

The University of West Florida is a small school that feels like a big school in a small city that feels like a big city. Pensacola is often associated with a few, compared to the rest of Florida, average beaches that are often visited by students during spring break.

However, UWF is beginning to be the first thing associated with Pensacola instead of the beaches, and beginning to be more than just that small university you pass when driving over the Escambia River Bridge. 

UWF has slowly gained traction in the sphere of “good” schools to attend that are in Florida, and one astonishing development has pushed its way out into the light of day that seems a bit strange compared to the University’s size – that is the UWF sports program. 

It is unexpected that UWF would have a strong presence amongst the college sports world, especially when West Florida’s football team has only existed for six years.

UWF proves to be a powerhouse in collegiate athletics around the board and is typically dominant in the Gulf South Conference. 

According to goargos.com, since 2010 UWF sports have won 35 GSC titles out of a possible 96, 43 postseason titles out of 124 awarded, and have had at least one team represented in a GSC tournament. This does not seem like a small, negligible school.

What is most impressive, though, is the atmosphere within the sports program. It is easy for the players and coaches to seek nothing but wins to prove athletic dominance within the GSC but also within the state Florida. 

It seems that this is not the case, however, and that the UWF sports program focuses not only on developing skilled, talented athletes, but also developing skilled, talented citizens that can perform outside of the court or field. 

West Florida men’s basketball coach Jeff Burkhamer emphasizes to the athletes under his tutelage the importance of being well-equipped for life after graduation.

“We get speakers to come in and talk about life; teach them how to buy a house and the importance of credit,” Burkhamer said. “I want to help them after basketball.”

Most students, faculty, and general fans of UWF sports only see the excited, impassioned coach Burkhamer during a 40-minute basketball game, but typically do not see this side where he actively tries to instill the players with character-building teamwork and life-lessons that they can use for the rest of their lives. 

Pete Shinnick, football coach for West Florida, mirrors Burkhamer’s desire to make better athletes, better students, and better people. 

“We have three goals for the program,” Shinnick said. “Our first goal is to help each player become a better husband, father, and employer/employee. Our second goal is to have them graduate within four to four-and-a-half years. Our third goal is to play good football.” 

It is striking to think that the last goal on a coach’s mind is to play great football. It is often thought that coaches require numbers in the win column before anything else gets done, but Shinnick believes that the players themselves are more important than necessarily winning games.

One of the star players of the football team who lead West Florida to a Division II national championship, quarterback Austin Reed, believes in the same goals and qualities that Shinnick espouses.

“They don’t just try to win,” Reed said. “It’s about creating good, young men and the program is driven by faith.

It is never enough for coaches to have sets of goals and values unless they are teaching those goals and values and the players actively pursue those same values. Reed is one of the many football players and UWF athletes that latch onto their coach’s words and use them for their life. 

Star UWF women’s basketball forward Danielle Norquest finds solace in the basketball program’s attitude toward helping players with whatever needs must be met, including academically. 

“On the academic side, [UWF coaches] propel you forward, they support you, and they give us all the resources necessary,” Norquest said. “Coach Yelton really does have [our] best interest at heart.” 

Norquest believes in the program and vision that women’s basketball coach Stephanie Yelton and her staff are attempting to strive toward, because Yelton and her staff are actively pursuing character-driven basketball, character-driven academia, and character-driven life.

“As a staff and as a program we want to offer something more than basketball,” Yelton said.

Yelton and her staff have one simple way to build teamwork and overall personal character among the student-athletes – community service.

“We have a goal in our program that we want to do at least one community service project once a month,” Yelton said. “That could be an array of things; it could be a trunk-or-treat for kids, it could be sending cards to military [personnel] overseas, or it could be visiting the Ronald McDonald House.”

The second part of Yelton’s goal of “More Than Basketball” is meeting with her students weekly to talk about topics that do not include basketball. These topics include how their schoolwork is going, how to set goals and achieve them, and how to grow to meet personal potential. 

“We talked about how gossip is detrimental to teams, businesses, and groups,” Yelton said. 

It is, ultimately, what happens off the field or court that challenges the student-athletes of UWF to pursue quality characteristics that will aid them after college and for life. 

“Throughout sports you develop skills like time management and overall discipline,” Norquest said. “I think this has gotten me out of my comfort zone and makes [me] an all-around person.” 

It is easy to look at a university’s sports programs and say, “they just want to win” or “the athletes are just a means to an end.” However, at West Florida, the coaches in the sports program do not give a possibility of those statements being true. 

Each coach and each coaching staff have specifically stated goals for their individual program to make students better people and better athletes. 

While training and playing the game is an essential portion of why the player and coaches are on a team, a large portion of the time that players and coaches are together is spent teaching and learning life lessons and how to build their character to be better people within the workforce and their families. 

UWF is truly beginning to make an impact on the rest of Florida in terms of size, athletics, and prestige. However, UWF is creating a much larger impact elsewhere, and that is within the student-athletes that have coaches who are strategically attempting to make them better people after graduation. UWF is creating an atmosphere of character-driven excellence that permeates the classroom, fellow students, faculty, and the greater Pensacola area. 

What is so special about a small school in a small city? The fact that there are big coaches impacting young student-athletes’ lives in a big way that will change the way they live their lives outside of college.