May 24, 2013

Oxbridge setting the bar high in South Florida

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For billionaire Bill Koch, the finish line is a moving target.

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

He holds three degrees from MIT. He won the America's Cup in 1992, leading the crew of America Cubed, then he led the sport's first all-female crew three years later. He lends personal history collections for display to a multitude of museums. And he's building a 420-acre personal Western town in Colorado for his enjoyment with friends and family.

At age 73, his bucket list is just getting longer.

It is the family man in Koch that prodded him to put up $50 million to start a private school, Oxbridge Academy, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Koch's eldest son is 27. He has a 17-year-old daughter, a 16-year-old stepson, a 15-year-old son, a 13-year-old daughter, and a 7-year-old daughter; he jokes that if he wanted to, he could have another biological child.

It is this private school project that he believes will change education in the area. The ripple effect will alter athletics in a talent-rich region.

"It was a simple decision for me," Koch said. "I wanted my kids to get the best education possible, and I didn't want them to go to boarding school. In this area, the schools are not very good at all. [Schools] with good environments, teaching kids to separate what is real from what isn't, are places that encourage good behavior, teach ethics and earning what you receive, as well as having a focus on athletics.

"The only way that I felt all of those goals could be met was to start my own school."

Koch purchased a closed Jewish Community Center that came complete with a pool, a full-size gymnasium, indoor squash courts, tennis courts and more. The purchase saved millions in start-up costs for building material and construction, which allowed Koch to hire the best teachers and coaches money could buy.

In its third year of operation, the school is receiving 600 applications for 150 spots per class. It originally planned on opening with just a freshman class, but demand forced a sophomore class as well.

The money is nothing to Koch. His grandfather was Harry Koch, who founded the Quanah Tribune-Chief newspapers and was a founding shareholder of Acme and Pacific Railway. His father was Fred Chase Koch, who founded Koch Industries, an oil refining company that grew to be the second largest in America. Bill Koch sold his shares in Koch Industries to his brothers after they had a falling out and started Oxbow Industries, which is an energy developing holding company. Based on the most recent Forbes estimate, his net worth is just over $4 billion.

Koch doesn't expect to see a return on the seed money for the school. Even for a shrewd businessman, the expense was immaterial because he could stop making money and still open 80 more schools at the same price point.

"I view this as an investment in children, and that is the best investment I can make right now," he said. "But while investing in my kids, I will also be investing in 500 or 600 more every year.

"I probably will never get that money back, but by funding this it will allow children to separate perception and reality. It will encourage teamwork. It will make them leaders, as well as productive members of a group that can manage and solve problems. They need to know how to think for themselves and act accordingly."

HOW THE PAST IMPACTED THE PRESENT

Koch sat on the bench for the MIT basketball team his first seasons on campus. He watched his brother, David, from afar and did not like it.

The experience set the course for his future and shaped the foundation of Oxbridge Academy.

"I learned so much in the classroom in terms of separating perception from reality and ignoring what others think in search of the truth," Koch said. "But I didn't learn a damn thing about teamwork in that environment. I learned that from sports. I had to learn some hard lessons from watching, and it pissed me off. But I took away a lot from seeing the interaction of others in our improvement."

MIT was not a basketball power. Koch described the team as one small-college All-American -- his brother -- and then a group of nerds that wouldn't make an intramural team at most other colleges.

Then the program hired a new coach, Jack Berry, and Berry turned the team around with a single play.

"There are things that cannot be taught in the classroom and lessons that can only be learned through athletics."
- Bill Koch, Oxbridge Academy founder.
"He would only run that one play," Koch said. "He would always say that we weren't smart enough to learn any others because we would overthink them and make the game too complicated. It was simple, and we played to our strengths."

The team won one game the first year Berry was leading the program. It won more than half of its contests the next -- which was Koch's junior year -- and then his senior year the team set a single-season winning streak that stood until 2011 en route to a 17-4 season.

That senior season changed everything for Koch.

"When I saw what we could do with marginal talent by working together, I immediately believed in the power of sports and teamwork," Koch said. "There are things that cannot be taught in the classroom and lessons that can only be learned through athletics."

It is required of every student at Oxbridge Academy to participate in a sport or become a member of an athletic club. There is a no-cut policy for junior varsity and club-level groups to ensure every child with an interest has an opportunity to be a part of a team.

Athletic director Craig Sponsky said his job is made easier because of the top-to-bottom support.

"We have great leadership with a great vision," he said. "Mr. Koch believes that athletics play a major role in the development of maturity. He wants to ensure that we have the best athletics to match the best academics.

"We all want the experience to be a positive, life-changing, long-lasting, unique, challenging blend, and we are uncompromising in our mission to do that. The vision and leadership are backed by the resources to make it possible."

FOOTBALL NOT FIRST

Koch did not want Oxbridge Academy to have a football program. He played rugby and had to have both knees replaced because of it.

It was not until he saw a business plan for the sport that he was swayed.

"Kids at Oxbridge are encouraged to petition the school to start new sports or clubs, but we need a critical mass to really get the process started," Koch said. "I had a student approach us with 27 names of boys interested in starting football as a sport, so we made him submit a business plan so that he knew what was involved in creating a team.

"Most schools are run for the benefit of the teachers union or upper management, but our motto is that kids come first, and when we saw that this was a venture that the students were taking seriously we moved forward and supported the program."

Support at Oxbridge Academy is more than ordering jerseys and chalking a field.

The school will open next season in a new, 1,500-seat stadium complete with the same synthetic turf being used in Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills. It is also building a 4,000-square-foot weight room.

Oxbridge Academy also didn't hire just any coach for the start-up endeavor. Sponsky hired former Delray Beach (Fla.) American Heritage coach Doug Socha.

Socha was 22-5 in two seasons as the head coach at American Heritage, reaching the state finals both years. He also spent six seasons coaching at the University at Buffalo before moving to the high school ranks.

In 2011, American Heritage won the Class 3A Florida state championship behind Socha. It had players such as Greg Bryant go on to sign with Notre Dame, Tyler Provo with Syracuse, Roderick Johnson with Florida, Marcus Davis with Auburn, Darrion Richardson with SMU and Xavier Swinton and Jake Giordano with Miami (Ohio).

Socha knows talent, and he understands when opportunity knocks.

"They presented me with a real vision to blend unbelievable academics while fully supporting football," Socha said. "Craig and Mr. Koch, as well as (Oxbridge Academy President) Mr. (Bob) Parsons emphasize athletics, and they want to have a big-time program."

CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE

To start the 2013 football season, Oxbridge Academy will play its first varsity schedule as an independent member of the Gulf Atlantic Football Conference. The Thunder Wolves likely will have mixed results without any seniors on the roster.

The program is on track to enter 2015 as a member of the Florida High School Athletic Association, and with enrollment tracking well it figures to challenge the top of Class 3A with powers such as American Heritage, Madison (Fla.) County, and Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) University School.

"With the stress on athletics, I believe we have a chance to compete right away," Socha said. "We have a chance to do this the right way, and that was the appeal for me -- to build my own program.

"We will have a 365-day plan of action. There is a chance to create a culture, and I want that to be built by kids with a passion for development."

The school operates on a block schedule, allowing for time to complete classwork as well as periods for lifting and conditioning throughout the day.

Still, in an age when we are seeing new schools created solely for the purpose of developing athletes with a bare minimum of academics, Oxbridge Academy is no diploma factory. Socha knows that the rigorous plan for football will fit in with the beliefs that are being cultivated at Oxbridge. He likened the program to a college preparatory academy.

"Our top line is academics, and our kids will be challenged in the classroom before they ever get to our athletic teams. To be successful here, there will be sacrifice. We want it to be family, schoolwork, athletics and then social life. We have to attract kids who want things in that order.

"We are going to get kids and send them to college," he said. "We did that at American Heritage, and we will do that here. But I think that we are better equipped at Oxbridge to ensure that these kids are ready for it. Between the academics, the conditioning and the level of athlete in this area, there is no doubt we will have big schools, Ivy League schools, all types of schools interested in our players."

The first group of prospects that figures to break through with scholarship offers is years away.

According to Socha, three players are already in the system who he feels have the potential to play at the next level -- class of 2015 athlete Tre Gabriel and two 2016 prospects, receiver Will Koch and lineman Dori Schwartz -- with more expected to enroll and be on campus soon.

Attracting talent to the school is where the rubber will meet the road.

Within a 45-minute drive, Oxbridge Academy will compete for players with public football power West Palm Beach (Fla.) Dwyer and private schools such as American Heritage, Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas, University School, West Palm Beach (Fla.) King's Academy and West Palm Beach (Fla.) Cardinal Newman. Further south are a pair of private school options with strong athletics, Miami (Fla.) Belen Jesuit and Miami (Fla.) Columbus, as well as a litter of public schools loaded with talent.

Bill Koch and Socha share the belief that a winning culture will create its own cycle of success and that alone will draw players to Oxbridge Academy.

"It is a hell of a lot more fun to win than lose," Koch said. "Winning something is such a thrill, and being a part of an outstanding team is something people want to be involved in. We expect to compete immediately and are working toward that end.

"The secret to success in athletics is simple: Be committed. If you want to be a championship team, you have to have the passion and love to work your tail off, and those are the kids we will attract."

BUILDING A TEAM

Koch continually looks to the past to help shape Oxbridge Academy's future.

As the leader of the crew during the America's Cup, he was consistently striving to improve the team and the boat. That included cutting several of the best sailors and making modifications to the ship hours before a race.

"One guy cannot win a race for you, but he can lose it," Koch said. "Hotshots often blame someone else, so we looked at attitude, teamwork and sailing ability, in that order, to pick our team. We had the best team, but we didn't have the best sailors; and that is something I took away and try to implement -- the team is the star."

The job of finding the right pieces falls to Sponsky.

"We are turning away four kids for every one we take," he said. "We have to ensure that we are finding the best people to put in front of those kids.

"When you are asking the right questions, it becomes pretty evident who is in it for themselves and who is in it for the kids."

"Our top line is academics, and our kids will be challenged in the classroom before they ever get to our athletic teams. To be successful here, there will be sacrifice. We want it to be family, schoolwork, athletics and then social life. We have to attract kids who want things in that order."
- Doug Socha, Oxbridge Academy football coach.
The coaching staff does not lack star power.

Katie George coaches volleyball. She was a Division I player for Mercer University and was named Freshman of the Year in the Atlantic Sun Conference. She was a four-time team MVP and a four-time academic all-conference player.

Doug Prutow is the director of college counseling and the swim coach. He came to Oxbridge Academy as the sixth-winningest coach in New Jersey history, and he has had many former swimmers perform for USA Swimming.

Meredith Anderson was a professional golfer for five years after her career at Vanderbilt. She coaches the sport at Oxbridge. Stan Ross led Princeton University to the 1997-98 lacrosse national championship and has taken over that program.

Juan Bustabad recently took over the baseball program; he was a first-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1980, and after his career ended he became a hitting coach and manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins organizations for the last 20 years.

Fabienne Combe was the top-ranked singles and doubles player for the Pre Nationale French tennis team from 1987 to 1990. She is now leading instruction for the Oxbridge Academy team.

Dwayne McClain won the 1985 NCAA basketball championship with Villanova. He was drafted by the Indiana Pacers and then went to Australia, where he averaged 25 points, seven rebounds, and five assists per game. McClain was hired to start the basketball program about six months before the school opened. He said that Koch is clear in the mission.

"I played AAU basketball with Patrick Ewing and against him when he was at Georgetown, and he was the best player I have ever been around," McClain said. "If he was unable to do the work required here, we wouldn't have interest in him. It is that simple. If you can't cut it and get it done right, then we don't want you.

"We are first and foremost an academic institution; we are improving in all aspects. Once the word gets out about Oxbridge Academy, everyone will see the quality of player we get and develop."

When that happens, the finish line will again stretch out of sight for Koch.

"I am pleased with where we are, but I know that we can improve," he said. "I don't like to think of things as a finished product because I believe in continuous improvement. You can always get better, and staying the same is simply never good enough."




 

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