Coaching Management, 13.10, December 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1310/bbsanctions.htm
College recruiting has always been about what a prospect can contribute to a team. That’s mostly meant what he can do on the field, with academics a small part of the mix. But at the NCAA Division I level, academic potential and team contributions are linked more closely than ever now that student-athletes can directly help or hurt their teams by their classroom performance.
When the NCAA released the first batch of academic scores this past spring under its Academic Progress Rate (APR) system, 29 percent of football teams had scores that would put them in danger of scholarship losses if the penalties that could be imposed as early as this winter were already in effect. Many more schools didn’t make the cut of 925—a score that the Association says translates into a 50 percent graduation rate—but were within the margin of error being used for the system’s first few years.
The threat of penalties combined with the embarrassment that would accompany failure to meet the academic standard has led to a change in recruiting. “We’re definitely taking fewer chances now,” says Troy Rothenbuhler, Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator at Bowling Green State University. “In the past, you’d take chances on some kids hoping that you could keep them eligible. Now, we’re going to take fewer of those, because down the road, it’s going to catch up to you.”
The numbers made public in March reflect the academic performance of Division I scholarship athletes in all NCAA championship sports during the 2003-04 academic year. When more years of data are available, scores will be based on a rolling four-year tally. Each student-athlete can earn two points per term—one by remaining in school and one by remaining academically eligible for competition. At the end of the school year, points are tallied, divided by the total points that the program could have earned, and multiplied by 1,000 to establish the APR score.
Since the first round of scores came out, the NCAA adjusted some scores to reflect quirks such as incorrectly reported data, incompletes in certain courses for particular athletes, and schools that use term calendars instead of semesters. When those were applied, along with the margin of error, about 26 percent of football teams would have faced penalties, a higher rate than any other sport.
Then in August, the NCAA allowed for circumstances beyond a team’s control to be taken into account. These include athletes turning pro before graduating, a personal or family illness, or the student’s major academic program being canceled. The Committee on Academic Performance, however, also specified that other circumstances would not receive such consideration. Among them are an athlete dropping out because of a coaching change, loss of scholarship, lack of playing time, or academic or disciplinary suspension. The ultimate aim is to help ensure student-athletes graduate, which is the same goal recruiters want prospects to have, Rothenbuhler says.
Bowling Green’s 929 score is above the cut, but the APR system makes clear that a prospect’s academic potential has to be more closely scrutinized. “We’re evaluating transcripts better and trying to get them sooner so our academic coordinator can look at them and decide whether these guys are going be able to graduate,” Rothenbuhler says.
According to Rothenbuhler, Bowling Green recruiters have already eliminated some prospects who might have been considered in the past. For other prospects, coaches are looking more carefully at their junior year in high school, thinking improved grades signal that the young player will get serious about schoolwork when he realizes he could earn a scholarship. They also interview school personnel and parents, looking for signs that the student-athlete will be academically motivated in college.
“You have to make sure that they want a degree, and that they want to go to class, not just that they’re a great player and they want to play football,” he says. “You have to know if they’ve got a support system at home that’s going to push them through class, and that education’s important to the kid.”
For some Division I programs, the new APR system serves as a way to show the world they’re paying attention to academics. “It hasn’t changed recruiting for us. It’s given us a lot of credibility, though,” says Pat Hill, Head Football Coach at Fresno State. “There aren’t many state schools that have the academic record we do when everyone’s evaluated the same way.”
When Hill took the Fresno State job in 1999, he set out to improve the program’s academic performance, which two years earlier USA Today had labeled the worst in the country. Three days a week, Hill and his staff meet with all freshmen and any upperclassmen who have a GPA below 2.2 to go over assignments, grades, and upcoming tests. When the first APR scores came out, Fresno could point to its 939 score as proof of improvement. The Bulldogs ranked second in the Mountain West Conference and fourth among Division I programs in the west, so Hill welcomes a system for showing off the turnaround.
“The APR is all about what you are doing to keep kids on track to graduation,” Hill says. “It’s accurate. It’s immediate. There are a lot of people who don’t like the APR because the numbers don’t favor them.”