Friday March 4th, 2005

NCAA president Myles Brand hailed Monday's unveiling of the first set of Academic Progress Rate (APR) data as "the implementation of the most far-reaching academic reform for intercollegiate athletics in decades." Hardly a college coach or administrator around the country would disagree.

But that doesn't necessarily mean they're happy about it.

The new, confusing metric had barely become public Monday before representatives of the schools whose teams were flagged as underperforming academically went into spin mode. Nearly everyone, it seemed, had extenuating circumstance to consider or justification for why the numbers weren't an accurate representation of their program. Others criticized the NCAA's haste in making the numbers public considering they're still very much a work in progress (schools have a month to report corrections that could change their score), they only reflect one year's worth of data (2003-04) and no penalties are being assessed until next year's data is collected.

"It's good that we're having this dry run," said Sandy Hatfield-Clubb, Arizona State's senior associate athletic director, "but the down side is, we're having it in front of the entire nation."

Before going any further, an explanation is in order. It may seem foreign now, but soon the acronym APR, much like BCS and RPI before it, will become a common part of the college-sports lexicon. The centerpiece of a wider academic reform movement begun under Brand. APR which tracks the performance of current and recent athletes is a more real-time version of the traditional graduation rate. Unlike graduation rates, these numbers carry consequences if a team underperforms.

How it works:

• Each scholarship athlete on a team is eligible for two "points" per semester, one for remaining in the program and one for retaining academic eligibility.

• A team's total points are divided by the total possible points to compute its percentage (i.e. 190 points out of a possible 200 = .950). The APR is that number expressed as a whole (950), with the maximum possible score being 1000.

• The NCAA's cut score -- what it considers to be acceptable -- is 925. Beginning next year, teams that fall below the cut score will be prevented from replacing the scholarship of any "0-for-2" athlete (someone who not only leaves the program but does so in poor academic standing), with a maximum possible scholarship loss of 10 percent.

• Next year's APR score will reflect data from both 2003-04 and '04-05, and by 2007 it will permanently include four years of data.

If this year's data were applicable, 29 percent of Division I-A football teams, 23 percent of Division I baseball teams and 19 percent of Division I men's basketball teams would be subject to penalties. But behind nearly every low score, there was a coach or administrator with an explanation.

"The major reason for our score is we had four of our five seniors leave school early last year to chase their dream of playing professionally," said Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes, whose team's 833 score fell among the bottom 10 percent nationally. "I'm not sure the score is a true reflection to the commitment and success we've had when it comes to education in our basketball program."

"Of the four years I've been here, they picked the one year that happened to be our worst," said Arizona State football coach Dirk Koetter, whose team had an APR of 887. "Over a four-year average, we'd be much better. The data they put out there, though, it's making it seem like were all a bunch of criminals out here not educating our guys, and that's not true."

Texas A&M was the highest-profile program that fell short in both football (887) and men's basketball (839). "In both cases, we made coaching changes, and some athletes decided to leave," said Aggies AD Bill Byrne. "In my 30 years in athletic administration, when there are coaching changes, you will have athletes leave."

All three make reasonable points. Whether the NCAA sympathizes with them is another story.

"These are tough standards, but we think they are fair," said Hartford President Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA committee that devised the formula. "We would urge coaches, administrators and presidents to use this year's warnings as an opportunity to correct behavior."

The stricter standards were enacted with the goal of motivating coaches to be more selective in the quality of students they recruit and to do a better job supporting them once they arrive. As recent studies have shown (nearly half of last year's bowl teams had a four-year graduation rate below 50 percent), there's a drastic need for improvement in both areas.

Critics contend, however, that the new system could have numerous unintended consequences that run contradictory to its intended mission, which will cause many schools to change certain philosophies. Koetter points to the example of players (oftentimes juco transfers), who, though they've exhausted their eligibility, coaches normally allow to remain on scholarship.

"You're doing those guys a favor by trying to help them get their degree," Koetter said. "The problem is, now they count against your APR [if they don't finish the degree]. It will make more business sense for a coach to say, OK, you did a great job for us for two years, but you're too much of a risk to go 0-for-2, so we're not going to give you any more aid.

"It's going to force coaches to be more ruthless."

One of the main complaints about the old graduation rates (which track an incoming class of athletes over a six-year period) was that they don't properly account for transfers and players who turn pro early. A player who transfers in and graduates doesn't count in the school's favor, while a player who transfers out but graduates elsewhere still counts against them, as does a player who leaves early for the draft (unless he comes back and gets his degree within a six-year window).

The new system is an improvement because a player who leaves the program in good academic standing at least attains one of the two possible points rather than nothing at all. Some, however, feel the change in methodology hasn't gone far enough.

"What concerns me is, we live in a world where transferring from one institution to another, or leaving the academic setting early to pursue professional opportunities, is not only embraced, it's promoted," said Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione. "We can't sit here and hold student athletes against their will just to make sure we have better graduation rates."

Powerhouse football programs like the Sooners' are particularly affected by players turning pro. Not just underclassmen, mind you: Seniors, who may be on track to graduate, also drop out of school after the fall semester to focus on draft preparation. That's far from the only situation schools are concerned about.

Among the athletes Arizona State lost APR points for this year were several swimmers who left school for a semester to train for last summer's Olympics; several baseball players who, as is par for the course in that sport, got drafted after their junior seasons; and two athletes who left school due to extreme medical conditions -- one was diagnosed with cancer.

The NCAA already has said they will establish a waiver process through which schools can appeal any scholarships lost because of unusual circumstances (including high numbers of NFL or NBA defections), but the criteria has yet to be determined, and some administrators foresee a scenario in which the NCAA will get deluged by hundreds of such requests.

"An example [of grounds for an appeal] would be a case where you had four or five members of basketball team that went pro in the same year," Harrison said. "This is clearly an area where you can appeal, but we'll want to look at your recent history and make sure this is really some unique situation. If you have had students leaving ineligible every year for the last five years, you need to show us this really is an inconsistency with your history."

Another reason the waiver process will be a hot-button issue is, as of now, schools will be able to appeal the short-term scholarship penalties but their overall APR score will remain the same.

This is important to note, because beginning in 2007, a school's APR data will be combined with its Graduation Success Rate (a soon-to-be-unveiled, modified version of the traditional graduation rate) to assess far-more severe "historical penalties." Schools that fail to stay above a certain mark over a four-year period will be issued a warning letter. If they don't improve, scholarship/recruiting penalties will be imposed the next year, followed by a postseason ban the following year, followed, ultimately, by the "death penalty."

Though Monday's numbers were technically for show, it's easy to see why they've sent a shockwave through the college sports community. And that's just what the NCAA wanted.

"You get three years [starting in 2007], and if you don't turn it around, it will have the most severe consequences imaginable for sports teams," Harrison said. "My fervent hope is that this will serve as a wake-up call to those schools [that are underperforming]. I hope no one will [face the most severe penalties]. Having said that, we looked both at football and basketball, and there are a handful in each sport where they're going to have to make a concerted effort to turn things around."

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