Coaches Grapple with APR

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.8, September 2005,

In addition to feet and inches, minutes and seconds, and personal bests, NCAA Division I track and field coaches now have another number to keep an eye on when measuring their teams’ success—one that comes with potentially huge consequences. This past March, the NCAA released the first set of Academic Performance Rate (APR) scores, assigning a score to each Division I team in the country. Teams that fail to score high enough on their APR will eventually face stiff penalties, including loss of scholarships.

The numbers made public in March reflect the academic performance of each Division I scholarship athlete on a coach’s roster during the 2003-04 academic year. Each student-athlete can earn two points per semester—one by remaining in school and one by remaining academically eligible. At the end of the year, points are tallied and divided by the total points a program could have earned.

The NCAA set 925—or 92.5 percent of possible points—as the team and department minimum below which penalties might be imposed. That number, the NCAA says, represents an APR that would result in a 50-percent graduation rate among student-athletes.

More than half of Division I schools had at least one team fall below the cut point. Across Division I, about 10 percent of all men’s teams and 2.6 percent of women’s teams fell below the 925 cut point after a small-squad adjustment made by the NCAA. For track and field, the figures were 6.6 percent of men’s outdoor teams, 7.4 percent for men’s indoor, 3.1 percent of outdoor, and 3.4 percent for women’s indoor. In cross country, 4.9 percent of men’s teams and 3.6 percent of women’s squads fell below 925.

No penalties will be imposed until after the next round of scores is released in December. At that point, a team that has fallen below 925 and has an athlete who earns 0 points will be barred from replacing that athlete’s scholarship at the next awarding opportunity. A team has to have at least one 0-for-2 student-athlete to trigger penalties, the NCAA says.

Since programs with small rosters—cross country, for example—can be brought down more easily by a poor performance from one or two student-athletes than can larger-roster teams, the NCAA is giving a margin-of-error number below 925 at which penalties won’t be imposed on small squads. The reprieve is temporary, however, as the NCAA may eventually shrink or eliminate the small-squad adjustment.

In a key change this fall, the Division I Board of Directors voted to count academically eligible student-athletes who leave for to play their sport professionally, or for some other reason beyond the control of the athlete or the institution, as 1-for-1 instead of 1-for-2. The Board also voted to award a “1-for-0” bonus point to an institution when a student-athlete later returns and finishes his or her degree.

Coaches across the country are working to cope with the new scoring system, and the first hurdle has been figuring out exactly how the scores are calculated. A particular wrinkle for track and field—how to handle student-athletes competing in some combination of indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country—caused confusion that required the NCAA to revise its March scores.

For purposes of NCAA financial-aid limits, track and field and cross country are considered one team, and some institutions reported these student-athletes in only one sport, says Jennifer Kearns, NCAA Associate Director of Public and Media Relations. But because there are separate championships in the three sports, she says, the NCAA believes institutions should have the chance to earn a separate APR score for each squad. So, for example, a student who only runs cross country won’t be penalized because of poor academic performance by the indoor track and field team.

Institutions are being asked to create a separate cohort list of student-athletes for each sport, Kearns says. These are athletes who are receiving athletics-related financial aid and are on the team’s roster as of the first date of championship competition.

As the APR system undergoes further refinement, it’s clear that coaches have the looming penalties in the back of their minds as they recruit and mentor student-athletes. “The process has to begin in recruiting,” says Doug Molnar, Head Coach of men’s cross country and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field at Austin Peay State University. “You have to recruit solid student-athletes who understand the expectations in the classroom as well as on the track.”

Austin Peay’s initial APR numbers came out below the 925 cut point for all three teams, but Molnar says there were special circumstances, in particular a coaching change—the second in three years. That led to transfers, which count against the retention point. “I look at it not so much as an issue to tackle but as a goal to meet,” he says. “You want to get as close to 1.000 as you can. I see it as a mark to strive for and reach.”

Molnar also sees a twist that affects track and field more than major revenue sports at many institutions: Many of his athletes receive partial scholarships, some quite small, and these amounts don’t provide a big incentive to stick with the sport and the books if things get difficult. He’s heard other coaches in the sport wonder whether that could be an incentive to load up available financial aid on sure-fire academic and athletic prospects while neglecting those who might just need a chance.

“That’s always in the back of your mind,” Molnar says. “At another school as an assistant, I had a head coach whose basic philosophy was to recruit a bunch of solid kids and take a chance every year or two on a kid who didn’t have such good grades but who he wanted to give a shot at making it. Now coaches are going to think twice about giving that kid an opportunity.”

Dean Hayes, Head Track and Field and Cross Country Coach at Middle Tennessee State University, says that also affects how coaches counsel student-athletes on matters such as transferring or, in rare cases, leaving for a pro endorsement deal.

Hayes says MTSU had two Olympic athletes who were about to exhaust their NCAA eligibility but who were still a few credit hours away from earning their degrees. “I sent them to an NAIA school,” Hayes says. “Should I tell them they need to stay so my APR stays up? And what about a problem child who creates attitude and discipline problems on the team but does okay in school? Should I keep him for the APR?”

Coaches will in all likelihood continue to sort through questions about how the APR will affect their teams, but Molnar believes the measure itself is good for college athletics. “It’s another reminder to coaches that we need to pay attention to the books,” he says. “Every time I recruit a kid, I say, ‘Whether you’re an All-American, all-conference, or just have a PR, the big thing is to get your degree. If you can do that, everything else will take care of itself.’”