Why the South Alabama kicker is on a bowl committee

On Feb. 29, a small group of big-time officials running college athletics dialed into a teleconference to discuss bowl eligibility and the NCAA's process of certifying bowl games.

Among the who's who on the call: Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, and -- South Alabama's kicker.

Even he couldn't believe it.

"I'm not going to lie," Aleem Sunanon said, "I'm going to be straight up honest with you: I was terrified in the first teleconference. I looked at the roster, I see director of athletics, commissioners ... and I'm here because of what?"

"I think I recall maybe on roll he was there," ASU's Anderson said with a chuckle, "but after that he disappeared."

"However they select them I have no idea," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said.

"The more the students can have a voice, I think the better off we'll all be," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know if it's the South Alabama kicker I'd pick, but to have someone's voice in there is pretty good."

South Alabama might argue it's better than good.

This unheralded Sun Belt kicker might have more brains than brawn, but that's exactly who should be making the decisions that affect the sport. Sunanon's task: give his perspective on one of college football's most polarizing debates -- What record is bowl-worthy? The bowl working group, which has one representative from all 10 FBS conferences, hopes to answer that question by June. Sunanon, the lone student on the committee, has experienced both a historic moment playing in the school's first bowl game in 2014 and the disappointment of last season, finishing 5-7 with no reward.

Last season, three 5-7 teams were deemed bowl eligible because of their high academic progress rate scores. Sunanon proposes that an academic standard be permanently tied to bowl eligibility.

He cares about (gasp) football and class.

"When I look at it, I believe that these 6-6 teams should be the bottom line because you don't want to be rewarded for a losing season," he said. "That's what I felt strongly about because you should get a reward for being a successful team, but at the same time -- because we were one of the 5-7 teams but apparently our APR wasn't up to par with all of the other schools that had a much higher rate than us -- but I believe that academics should hold a stronger part.

"I feel like if you put a little bit more emphasis on the academic portion of it," he said, "you'll see a lot more success, whether it's GPA or the graduation rate, whatever it is."

This perspective, of course, is coming from an athlete who graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in professional health sciences and is currently working on his master's in public administration with a concentration in health care -- not one who opted to leave early for the NFL draft.

And get this -- the student he replaced on the Sun Belt's Student Athlete Advisory Committee, Louisiana Lafayette tight end Evan Tatford, decided to forgo his seat at the table because he got accepted to dental school.

Enter Sunanon, who is now not only on the bowl working group but will also be the Sun Belt's SAAC representative at the NCAA's annual leadership forum in April.

"He had really identified himself as a leader on campus and then with our conference," said Kathy Keene, deputy Sun Belt commissioner. "Obviously with him playing the sport it just felt like a natural fit. He's very well-spoken, he's very outspoken, he's extremely engaged and very approachable. He'll do well in a setting like that. He has really set himself up to be a part of the governance process over the next couple of months, and he'll make a nice impact on that committee."

Sunanon has been making an impact since he was recruited.

Like the time he booted a 46-yard field goal to send the game, which the Jaguars won, into overtime against San Diego State.

Or the time he nailed a school-record 12 field goals in a row.

Or the time he helped lead a community outreach program to help an ill boy sign a national letter of intent with their football team.

"We signed him four years ago and realized he probably wasn't the strongest leg in the world, but we knew when we had him in camp he was the coolest under-pressure guy we had seen, and sure enough he turned out to be that guy," South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. "He already is and will be that type of person where I can see him being on the board of some great company in the United States. He has people's best interests in his heart. They couldn't have picked a better student-athlete to represent us in that position."

South Alabama didn't even win that historic bowl game in 2014. The Jaguars lost 33-28 to Bowling Green. No matter -- they were playing in their first bowl game since the program's inception in 2009.

Sunanon has a commemorative football in his room signed by all of his teammates from that 2014 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. He had to go out and buy a case for it because friends would come into his room and try to throw it around.

"The team that we had that year, it was something special," he said. "With that being inaugural and everything, it was a special team, so you can look back at that in 10, 15 or 20 years and just relive those memories through looking at those names of the people."

That team, though, earned its bowl bid with a 6-6 record.

Now Sunanon can help determine if that should continue to be the standard. He said he intends to speak up next time he meets with the committee.

"By design we make them comfortable," Anderson said. "That's intimidating. We have Evan on our football oversight committee and he comes in, but until he's in the room and you make them comfortable, they're a little shy because it can be intimidating in that room.

"I really applaud the fact the ad hoc working group has a student-athlete member," Anderson said.

The voice of the student-athlete is important -- as long as it's heard.