Graduates On The Gridiron: Wood, Pitre Make The Balance Work

This story is part of a series of stories celebrating the 50th anniversary of NCAA Division III and the 25thdiii-50th-anniversary-logo-2024.jpg anniversary of Pacific University becoming a full Division III member.


Rob Wood (left) and Isaiah PitreFOREST GROVE, Ore. — College athletes have just four years to compete in the sport that they love and that window seemingly closes in the blink of an eye.

Injuries, academic challenges and other factors can place roadblocks in the way of competing in all four of those seasons. So when a student-athlete is offered an exception to extend that window, many do all they can to take advantage.

When Rob Wood ’22, MBA ’23 discovered that he had two years of football eligibility left after receiving his undergraduate degree, he prioritized both the sport he loves and his education.

Wood received an extension on his four-year eligibility window after missing most of the 2019 season due to injury and because the NCAA extended all student-athlete eligibility after the COVID-19 pandemic.

It would have been easy to pick up another minor or two and carry a minimal amount of credit hours to finish out his playing career after receiving his bachelor’s degree in business in May 2022. Instead, Wood graduated in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in business and enrolled in Pacific’s Master of Business Administration program.

For Wood, a defensive back from Oakland, California, who finished with 47 tackles in 2023, biding his time with another minor just didn’t feel right.

“I wondered if it was really worth it, if it was going to be beneficial, or if it would feel like a mostly sports decision,” he said of pursuing another minor. “But playing football and getting my MBA felt like they went hand-in-hand and made me want to pursue a higher degree in business.”

Wood’s teammate, Isaiah Pitre ’22, MSW ’24, faced a similar decision thanks to the additional year of eligibility both players received due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A social work major, Pitre continued his educational journey in the university’s Master of Social Work program.

“It’s definitely not easy,” Pitre said of the balance of athletics and graduate studies. “I got the trust from my coaches to say, ‘I’m gonna figure this out and what it’s going to look like because I want to get my master’s and I want to use all of my eligibility.”

Continuing one’s playing career after receiving an undergraduate degree is not unusual, but pursuing a graduate degree as part of that process is. According to a report by the National Football Foundation, there were nearly 3,000 graduate students on college football rosters in 2023, accounting for just under 4% of total players. Most of those were at the Division I FBS level. NCAA Division III institutions reported just 118 players pursuing graduate degrees.

The nature of Pacific’s Master of Business Administration program made the balance for Wood much easier. With classes every other weekend on Pacific’s Hillsboro Campus, the team’s schedule caused little conflict with his master’s classes.

Isaiah Pitre (Left) & Rob Wood In Action During 2023 Football SeasonEven with the favorable class schedule, Wood had to make sure that he regularly communicated with professors and coaches to make sure he was meeting all expectations. “I developed a good reputation for being on top of things and being a good communicator with my professors,” he said. “A lot of the professors I had in the MBA I also had as an undergrad. That helped.”

Jennifer Yruegas ’96, dean of the College of Business, was heavily committed to helping Wood and other student-athletes make the balance work.

“Understanding that student-athletes like Rob have demanding schedules, we work closely with them to tailor their coursework and class schedules in a way that complements their training and game commitments,” Yruegas said. “This bespoke approach allows for a manageable balance.”

As an undergraduate social work major, Pitre had the advantage of being enrolled in the Master of Social Work’s advanced standing track. That allowed for additional flexibility in meeting all of the program’s requirements over his remaining two years of eligibility. The balance, however, was more challenging in Fall 2023 when Pitre had a semester-long internship during football season.

That often meant leaving his internship site at 4 p.m., rushing to campus and joining practice already in progress. “I missed a meeting or two here and there, and I would hear what I needed to hear out on the field from coaches,” Pitre said. “Or if the meetings were in the middle of the day, I would take an extra 15 minutes to check film or read the new plays. I would take it in and learn on the fly.”

The balance worked brilliantly for Pitre. The wide receiver from Oakland, California, earned Second Team All-Northwest Conference honors after making 33 catches for 624 yards and seven touchdowns in 2023 and remains on track to graduate in May 2024.

Pacific head football coach Ian Falconer emphasized that the goal for his staff, and for all of Pacific’s 24 sports, is to make sure that student-athletes can excel to the highest of their academic ambitions.

“Isaiah knew this was the route that he wanted to take and, in the end, chose Pacific with our MSW in mind. He is passionate about helping others and wanted to be at a place that embraced those values in academics and athletics,” Falconer said. “Rob made a great choice in pursuing his MBA. He is the epitome of someone who stacks good decisions and then watches as his goals become reality.”

Reflecting on his last two years, Pitre believes that what he and Wood have been able to accomplish typifies the NCAA Division III philosophy allowing student-athletes to focus on their academic programs with the athletic experience augmenting the academic experience.

“It emphasizes that you are here to get a degree. You are here to learn. You are here to figure out what it is that you want to do in the world and prepare for that,” said Pitre, who played junior college football and had a preferred walk-on opportunity at Oregon before coming to Pacific. “But at the same time, you have a passion for a game that you love.”

Wood, who completed his MBA in December 2023, believes that pursuing his graduate degree ultimately made him a better football player and will pay further dividends as he pursues a law degree. As he looks back, Wood would not change a thing.

“If you have an injury or a setback where you are not able to play for a season and get that year back, using that to get a higher degree is so worth it,” Wood said. “It’s definitely worth it at the Division III level. You get the best of both worlds.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2024