A generation ago, St. Lawrence University men's hockey coach Joe Marsh stood at the front of a classroom.
The subject was not hockey, but math. It was 1976 and Marsh found himself coaching and teaching at the New Hampton prep school in New Hampton, N.H. From there, he went to the Choate School in Connecticut in 1980. He still taught and still coached.
When a coaching position opened at St. Lawrence in 1983, Marsh left the school and the classroom for his future career as a head men's hockey coach. His teaching took on a less traditional form.
"We teach all the time, it's just a very unconventional classroom," Marsh said. "Appleton Arena is a classroom. (The coaches) have always wanted to be considered part of the educational process."
For 22 years, Marsh was resigned to his role as hockey coach, teaching the intricacies of the college games to his players. But he wanted something else.
"There's some great stuff out there that has nothing to do with what we do here," Marsh said. "It can enhance it; It can augment it. If you had a rough week at practice, you know what, hang your stuff up and pay attention to other things. You may find some things that have great rewards separate from (hockey)."
Heeding his own advice, Marsh sought an old, but familiar position: the front of the class.
"I wanted something different, something fresh," he said. "At my age, I've seen enough Xs and Os to last me a lifetime."
GETTING THE ITCH
Marsh first wanted to get back into traditional forms of education four years ago at a coaching convention.
There, former two-time Maine governor Angus King spoke.
He told the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, an Irish explorer who famously saved his crew when ice engulfed their ship during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
"Two years they were trapped, and he got them out alive," Marsh said. "The story's incredible and he can really tell it. I got talking to him afterward. We struck up a little bit of a friendship and I thought I'd be really interested in doing this stuff someday. I thought that 'someday' was not anytime soon."
Less than a year later, Marsh approached former St. Lawrence University First-Year Program director Steve Horwitz about helping teach one of the courses.
"I didn't think there was any way, shape or form I would end up doing it," Marsh said. "He actually came to me and said 'Well, we have this one program where we might have room.'
"I was like, 'Whoa.' I started thinking that if the door opens you have to think about doing it sooner than later."
But Marsh needed help, first. He found Peg Cornwell, a Community Based Learning professor at St. Lawrence. With Cornwell in place, Marsh became the only ECAC Hockey coach to also teach a required undergraduate course.
"She helped me out so much," he said. "She was only here for one more year, though."
Cornwell's husband, Grant, became president of Wooster College. Marsh needed someone else to help him teach a first year program.
Marsh approached mathematics professor Patti Lock.
"I knew him. I had spoken to him, but we weren't close friends," Lock said. "I happened to see him at a social event. He said he was looking for a teaching partner."
Lock accepted, taking the reigns of the course, titled, "Having an Impact: Leadership, Teamwork and Motivation."
"Patti Lock is an unbelievable teacher," Marsh said. "She loves to teach."
Lock helped Marsh and co-professor, assistant golf coach John Pezdek, learn subtler approaches to teaching in the classroom, delivering material and various ways to help make the course enjoyable for both the professors and students.
"The first question we had the first year we did it was, 'So are we going to beat Clarkson this year?'" Lock said. "The students quickly learned it's about the course; It's about talking about the readings; It's about seeing what we can learn from all these different areas. All three of us have a lot to say on the topic."
St. Lawrence instituted the First-Year Program 22 years ago. Today, it is required for every freshman in their first semester.
Students attend class with the same kids they live with in their dorm.
Most classes hold around 30 students. The one taught by Lock, Marsh and Pezdek had 50 students in the fall semester.
"We have a large group because we're happy with a big group," Lock said. "It's wonderful."
Marsh added a Community Based Learning requirement for the course. Each student must volunteer with an organization in the community. Students have volunteered at the Ogdensburg Boys and Girls Club, organic farms and Meals on Wheels, among other organizations.
"That was really Joe's push," Lock said. "The students, even though they might gripe, they all say it's one of the best things about the course. So many of them keep doing it after they're done."
Each professor is also responsible for academic advising for a portion of the class. In Marsh's case, that's 17 students. The trio decided to split the class evenly, and all the grading is done the same way.
"This is a course on leadership and motivation, which makes it plausible for me to do it," Marsh said. "I don't have a Ph.D., but I've coached for a lot of years."
Lock said Marsh doesn't skimp on his portion of the students, nor does he allow hockey to interfere with his classroom responsibilities.
"He says he's gotten very good at grading on the bus," Lock said. "Mostly, he just cares so much about the students and helping them have a successful experience here and build character and understand the importance of integrity. He wants to get it right."
For Marsh, getting back in the classroom was a challenge, but Lock and many other faculty helped him overcome a 22-year teaching gap.
"The teachers, they've helped me really develop," Marsh said. "These people are just fabulous. It's allowed me to develop contacts and friendships with the faculty, which has, in turn, helped me advise my (players). I get better feedback from them and they know how we run things here."
Marsh awards numerous athletic scholarships each year to players with Division I-level talent. He makes sure they all know why they're really at St. Lawrence University.
"They're college hockey players, but the operative word should be 'college' and not 'hockey,'" Marsh said. "I want this to be an experience that transcends hockey.
"There has to be that moment — if you want to call it an intellectual awakening or whatever it is — but somewhere along the way we tell our guys, 'You have to get it. The sooner you get it, the better.' By getting it, I mean your education is something you're responsible for and not something you're entitled to. As soon as they get rid of that mentality all together and start becoming more responsible for everything they do, that really improves everything.
"There's a lot going on in their lives and it's pretty important that they get it. Nobody is going to hand it to them. That's the intellectual awakening we want them to have."