May 9, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Rand Rowland has always been relentless when it’s come to giving of himself.
A walk-on as a freshman and a member of the Iron Five scout team in his first three years on the Flats, the 6-7, 213-pound senior forward from Cleveland, Ga., will never pass up an opportunity to improve himself, his teammates and campus mates.
That was never more obvious than in early April, when he participated in the NCAA Leadership Forum, a three-day meeting (April 7-10) in Phoenix, Ariz., sponsored by the NCAA with the goal of bringing together a select group of student-athletes from around the nation to talk and work out issues facing college campuses, while teaching leadership skills. The 300 representatives are an exclusive group that passed a rigorous selection process. Tech’s director of Total Person Support Services Leah Thomas felt Rowland was a perfect fit.
“From the get-go, Rand has been very into things like this,” said Thomas. “He takes advantage of these opportunities. He’s definitely into the leadership development and doing something on a bigger level for athletics, so when I saw the nomination form come out for the leadership forum, I submitted his name. It was a big deal that he was selected, and it was a big deal that he’s taken advantage and attended these things. His desire and commitment to this side of athletics is evident beyond any student-athlete that I’ve seen in recent years. We’re going to see a lot more from him in this world.”
Rowland, one of hundreds of student-athletes nominated and three selected from the ACC, has always taken that initiative and the leadership role.
“Both my older brothers are definitely good examples of leadership,” said Rand, the third of seven siblings. “My oldest brother still calls often, checks on me, sees how I’m doing, if there’s any advice he can give me. Then, every time I realize how helpful that is to me it reminds me I need to call my younger brother and see how HE’s doing. So it’s definitely nice to be in between and kind of have an example and then be able to share that down the line. Family is definitely the strength for me.”
Rowland has taken on a similar role and found similar strength in his Georgia Tech family. He volunteered to join Georgia Tech’s Student-Athlete Advisory Board (SAAB) as a sophomore after talking then-men’s basketball representative, Aaron Peek.
“I didn’t really understand the big picture of college athletics,” he said. “Realizing that student-athletes actually have an influence on some of those decisions that go on, just made me think, ‘Being involved with this is a way I can help my school, I can help my teammates and help other athletes.’ That’s what got me really interested in it.”
He got so interested that he jumped at the opportunity to attend an ACC SAAB meeting before ever attending one at Georgia Tech.
“It definitely took some adjusting, because I didn’t know all the terminology,” he recalled. “I got there, and I asked several questions that were kind of embarrassing, because everybody else in the room knew what was going on, and I was trying to catch up. But I felt like that was a good experience to get my feet wet, to kind of understand what was going on and be able to bring some new things back to Georgia Tech. I also felt like if I offered anything, it was kind of an outside perspective having not been in SAAB before.”
While humbling, the experience also inspired him to do more, like the Leadership Forum.
“After the trip to the conference meeting I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this with people from the entire NCAA. That’s amazing,’’ he said. “Just a chance to get to meet other people in the same situation, but from different schools, I saw it as a learning experience. A trip to Phoenix was pretty exciting, too.”
Adjusting to the Leadership Forum was easy and, once getting over being inside while the sun shone outside, Rowland had no problem staying focused and getting involved.
“Usually I’m more quiet and reserved until I really get to know somebody. But [there was] something about this group of people, there was like an instant kind of connection,” he said. “You could call it kind of like that summer camp experience, like when you’re little you make friends with everybody at summer camp. So it was almost similar to that in terms of like, ‘We’re all here for the same reason,’ and it’s all like-minded people so the connections were easier.
“Obviously, in a group of 300 there’s going to be plenty of those more out-going personalities. Those people kind of pulled everybody out a little bit,” he said. “Once we started having the group discussions, some of the questions asked kind of forced you out of your comfort zone. Once you realized you were in a group of people who actually wanted to listen to you, you became more comfortable as the weekend went on.”
The daily activities also made people more comfortable and kept the attendees’ interest. Every morning at breakfast there was a guest speaker — one of whom was ESPN, Fox Sports and BTN basketball analyst and former Georgia Tech women’s basketball assistant LaChina Robinson. The rest of the day was spent primarily in meetings to discuss important issues facing college campuses, student-athletes and sometimes handling issues within a team. The exchange of ideas kept Rowland busy taking notes.
“On the first day I was like, ‘There are so many good ideas being said, so many brilliant people here.’ I decided ‘I just have to write everything down,’” he recalled. “I spent most of my time in meetings writing down what other people were saying, because I didn’t want to forget anything that was being said. I took several pictures of a lot of other people’s notes. I was trying to write down anything that stood out, whether it was recommended readings, other ways to keep learning, whether it was ideas that other people used at their school in terms of community service or in terms of improving the athletic community or just with their team. Anything I thought could help Georgia Tech athletics or Georgia Tech basketball. I was just writing and writing and writing.”
The organizers also took advantage of the competitive spirit of the participants, who were broken up into teams. When they weren’t putting their minds together in “Color Team Meetings” they were set against each other in fun competitions.
“You’re in a group with over 300 student-athletes, plus some coaches, plus some administrators, a lot of who were also athletes previously. Everything was competitive,” said Rowland, with a laugh. “Each Color Team came up with a chant, and so every meal somebody would be like, ‘Hey, where’s such and such team?’ That team, everybody would stand up and they would yell out there chant. So then every other team’s like, ‘We can’t be outdone. We have to show them and do our thing, too.’”
The competitiveness even carried over to a community service project, where more than 2,000 school bags were packed for local elementary school kids.
One of the most memorable events was a rock-paper-scissors tournament.
“Once you lost, you became the cheerleader of the person you lost to,” Rowland recalled. “So by the end of the weekend you’ve got one-on-one rock-paper-scissors, and each person has 150 people behind him yelling for him to win. That’s probably one of the most interesting things I’ve ever experienced. That’s something that everybody should try, rock-paper-scissors with 300 people.”
Rowland actually finished second overall, falling in the final when he put down scissors to his opponent’s rock.
“My theory is mix it up. A lot of people go consistently, they kind of have their go-to. So my theory is to mix it up, and you’ll catch them,” said Rowland. “It was kind of life-changing. I’ll never take scissors again.”
Rowland took plenty away from the forum, knowledge he can’t wait to share with his teammates.
“I think the biggest thing was just talking about how good leadership is really based off of strong individual relationships,” he said. “You have to know people and actually have genuine care and concern, almost a love for them. I feel like that’s something that I can do a better job of with my teammates, is not just being a good teammate, but being a quality friend as well.
“Another of thing was that sometimes when we’re going through something hard, either individually or with our team, or with our friends, you feel like your group or yourself is the only group or individual experiencing that problem,” he added. “That weekend, when we started to talk about stuff going on at each of our different schools, I realized there’s always somebody else or another group that’s going through the same as I am or my team is. So there are people that I can reach out to and get help from. That was really encouraging. We all exchanged contact information so anytime something’s going on that I’m not sure what to do I now have a group of people who have been recognized as leaders that I can reach out to and get advice from.”
The experience is something unique and one he’d gladly do again.
“I would love to go back. I would love to go once a month and just be reminded of things that are important and have that opportunity to learn from other people,” he said. “But also I wish every one of my teammates and every other athlete at Georgia Tech could experience that, because it’s just such a profound thing. I know a lot of times in church you go to a church retreat. They call it ‘The Mountaintop Experience.’ This was like the athletic and academic equivalent of ‘The Mountaintop Experience.’
“Especially after talking to the people that were there that weekend, I just realized what kind of company I was in,” he added. “To be there, I was like, ‘THIS is an amazing group of people. I’m by far not at the top of this group.’ So to be able to learn from them and then try to take what I’ve learned and try to help my campus here has just been an amazing opportunity.”