A winning combination

Student-athletes congratulate school-age children at a Neighborhood Longhorns Program scholarship banquet.
Student-athletes congratulate school-age children at a Neighborhood Longhorns Program scholarship banquet. Courtesy of Texas Athletics

In the fall of 1991, even as the Texas Longhorns were asserting themselves academically and athletically, former women's basketball head coach Jody Conradt knew they were capable of more.

In fact, Conradt believed, it was their duty to do more, and she sought to create a program in which student-athletes could have a medium for outreach.

And from this belief, the Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP) was born.

"I believed that our student-athletes had to be made well aware of their privileged position. They had a responsibility to give back," Conradt said.

Conradt, along with then-women's athletics director Donna Lopiano, men's athletics director DeLoss Dodds and then-men's basketball coach Tom Penders, initially devised a program that allowed student-athletes to serve their community through service.

"[Our first major project] was going to involve cleaning up the (basketball) courts." Conradt said. "We were going to put new nets up, paint the backboards and make it a gathering spot for athletes to come in contact and get together with people in the community."

School-age children at a softball event
Future Longhorns attend a Neighborhood Longhorns Program softball event in 2010. Photo: Courtesy of Texas Athletics

In the 20 years since, the program has grown significantly and has awarded more than half a million dollars in scholarships to students.

NLP is now housed in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, and 85 percent of the program's funding comes through fundraising initiatives.

The NLP provides services to more than 5,000 students in second through eighth grades at 30 schools throughout the Austin community. With a partnership between the Austin Independent School District and UT Athletics, NLP is able to offer children real incentives to excel academically. Through various reading and leadership programs, students are rewarded with opportunities to attend UT sporting events, and even meet with coaches and student-athletes.

Baseball coach Augie Garrido, women's basketball coach Gail Goestenkors and softball coach Connie Clark each direct reading and leadership programs for NLP students.

"The old saying is, 'You can't be what you can't see,'" women's athletics director Chris Plonsky said. "So the role modeling that our student-athletes provide to the children in the Neighborhood Longhorns Program, shows them to work hard and make good grades in school. I do believe that our student-athletes truly appreciate serving as role models for the 5,500 people in that program."

Through serving the NLP, Longhorns achieve a greater sense of purpose than any victory on a court or field would ever provide. NLP provides UT student-athletes the ability to not only inspire fans, but truly change lives.

Coach Rick Barnes at a YMCA event
Coach Rick Barnes at a YMCA event in San Antonio in 2008. Barnes is trying to win $100,000 for NLP through the The Infiniti Coaches' Charity Challenge. Photo: Courtesy of Texas Athletics

"It is great for our student-athletes to get out and share their experiences, and give some help to young people who have the drive and abilities to be really good citizens," men's athletics director DeLoss Dodds said. "One thing that higher education has done on this campus and campuses all over is be a place for first generation students to go and have success that is something that can change your world."

However, as the program continues to grow, so does the need for outreach. Any student on campus can be a mentor, and anyone in the community can become involved.

"I think it is a little bit overwhelming to see how this program has sustained itself and how it has grown." Conradt said. "But at the same time I think we are ready for the next step. I would like for us to become a program that people look at when they think about making charitable contributions and gifts, because I think that we are all understanding of how important education is to young people and how it changes the world that we live in -- in a very positive way."

Men's Basketball coach Rick Barnes has taken the initiative. This spring, he's competing in The Infiniti Coaches' Charity Challenge so the Neighborhood Longhorns Program has a chance to earn a $100,000 donation.

The contest features other prominent men's basketball coaches around the country, and the coach who receives the most votes wins the donation for his respective charity.