San Diego State tailback Larry Ned is seventh in the country in
rushing (136.2 yards per game), and Toledo tailback Chester
Taylor has scored 15 touchdowns, tied for best in the nation.
Indiana's Antwaan Randle El, after a one-game experiment gone
awry at wide receiver, has returned to being the most dangerous
quarterback in the Big Ten. That these players are even on the
field this season is a result of their accomplishments in the
classroom: They all graduated in four years despite entering
college as partial qualifiers.
In 1995 the NCAA rejiggered its rules for determining an
athlete's freshman eligibility by instituting a sliding scale
that factors in a player's standardized test score and his
grades in a high school core curriculum. A prospect who meets
one but not both of the criteria is commonly known as a partial
qualifier. He's permitted to receive an athletic scholarship and
practice with the team as a freshman, but he may not play in
games that season and loses a year of eligibility.
In 1997, seven months before Ned, Taylor and Randle El entered
college as members of the second class admitted under the '95
rule, the Division I membership passed a modification allowing a
partial qualifier to earn back his fourth season of eligibility
if he got a degree in four years. The close vote (173-145) on
that change reflected the spirited debate on it. The clinching
argument in favor of the modification came from an NCAA
committee of student athletes, who stressed that the change
would reward work already accomplished.
"It's difficult for anybody to graduate in four years," San
Diego State coach Ted Tollner says, referring to Ned, who earned
his degree in criminal justice in May. "The average student here
does it in 5.2 years. To be below the norm when he comes in and
graduate in four years is quite a feat."
Surprisingly, few student athletes have benefited from the 1997
rules change, because the NCAA leaves it up to each conference
to determine how many partial qualifiers may be admitted. Among
the six conferences that have automatic berths in the Bowl
Championship Series, the SEC allows its teams to enroll two
partial qualifiers in football per year. The Big 12 and Pac-10
permit one each, although several Pac-10 schools refuse to take
any. The ACC, Big East and Big Ten leave the matter to the
"If we started taking a lot of partials, it would be equivalent
to saying we're going to win at any cost and let the academics
slide," says Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, whose
football program has had only one partial qualifier since 1996.
Neither the NCAA nor any conference has bothered to track
partial qualifiers to determine their success rate in the
classroom. "I'd love to know [that and more]," NCAA director of
research Todd Petr says. "Nobody has asked us to look at it."
If the schools look, they may find that it's an opportunity
worth offering to a larger number of marginal students. Earlier
this year Toledo's Taylor graduated with a degree in sports
administration. He's now pursuing a second degree in recreation
and leisure. (As with any fifth-year senior who has already
graduated, partial qualifiers must take a full load of courses
during their final season.) Without the incentive of playing a
fourth season, Taylor says, "I would have graduated, but I don't
know if I would have been as quick. There were times in the
summer when I would have been back at home instead of here
Because he stuck around in the summer, Taylor got to stick around
in the fall.