WASHINGTON – Tucked inside the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland, College Park is a plaque honoring Athletics Director Debbie Yow that reads, “I want it to be that if you compete at Maryland and stay at Maryland, you graduate.”
Most Terrapin athletes are meeting Yow’s standard, but one team that calls the center home is not: men’s basketball.
School officials are at a loss to explain why, even with a million-dollar academic support program, most of its men’s basketball players consistently fail to graduate.
At the same time, a handful of other elite basketball programs, including others in the Atlantic Coast Conference, have shown that higher graduation rates are within reach. The answer, some say, transcends tutors, counselors and computer labs.
At Maryland, scholarship players have struggled to graduate throughout the 17-year tenure of head coach Gary Williams. This year, a National Collegiate Athletic Association report found that just three of 10 scholarship players on the men’s basketball team is earning a degree in six years.
“The game becomes more important than the education,” said Charles Wellford, a criminology professor who serves as head of the university’s Athletics Council. “That seems to be a characteristic of this program.”
Maryland is far from alone in its struggles to keep men’s basketball players as focused on their homework as they are on the hardwood. Nationally, only 43 percent of scholarship players graduate, according to U.S. Department of Education data in the report. The Graduation Success Rate (GSR), a separate four-year NCAA formula, pegged the number at 58 percent.
Some elite schools, however, are excelling both on the court and in the classroom. The University of Illinois, the ninth-ranked team in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and last year’s NCAA Tournament runner-up, achieved a perfect 100 on the GSR.
The Irwin Academic Services Center at Illinois offers all of its student-athletes resources typical of Division I-A programs. With an annual budget of about $800,000, the center employs 11 full-time staff members and two graduate assistants, said Tom Michael, assistant athletic director for academic services. The university plans to double the size of the center and hire a learning specialist by next year.
Maryland provides a similar array of services. With a $1.2 million budget, the academic support unit includes 14 full-time staff members and an academic counselor for each team.
But Maryland’s GSR indicates men’s basketball is not benefiting. Only 30 percent of players who enrolled from 1995-98 graduated.
“This is a team that has a tremendous support system,” Wellford said. “Obviously that hasn’t translated into higher graduation rates.”
The latest victim was Chris McCray, the team’s co-captain and leading scorer, who last month was declared academically ineligible for the rest of his senior season.
Williams, despite repeated requests, declined to comment on the Terps’ graduation rates or his recruiting practices.
The head coach is protective of his team, said Jamie Zeitz, assistant director of media relations for men’s basketball.
“We have a lot of players who come back and graduate after their playing careers are over, and the formula doesn’t include them,” Zeitz said. “We don’t feel the formula is fair.”
Jim Harris, chairman of the university’s Academic Support and Career Development Oversight Committee, said the committee is concerned about the rating, but satisfied with the range of academic services.
These services are not the key to keeping players focused academically, Michael said.
“I think what it comes down to is the relationship with the coaching staff,” Michael said. Illini coach Bruce Weber makes it clear from his first meeting with a player that he values academics, Michael said, initiating a “trickle-down effect” that shapes how seriously players take their studies.
Roy Williams, who led the University of North Carolina to the national title last season, is another coach who is “unyielding” in stressing academics when recruiting players, said John Blanchard, senior associate athletic director of student-athlete services at North Carolina. In fact, recruiting might be the most important influence on a school’s graduation rate, Blanchard said.
“You have to recruit students whose abilities are in line with the expectations of the team,” he said. “But you’re not always sure what you’re going to get.”
The NCAA data show that North Carolina is getting — and graduating — good students. The school received a GSR of 82 — second only to Wake Forest University’s 100 among ACC schools.
“There’s no magic program,” Blanchard said. “Our success comes from the environment set by the institution and the coaching staff. It’s not necessarily any particular service, but the staff that works with basketball is outstanding.”
Basketball staff face a unique challenge: a rigorous schedule. At the University of Washington, players miss chunks of class due to road games, said Rick Mulcahy, assistant director of student-athlete academic services. The team, ranked as high as seventh this season, is away from Wednesday to Sunday every other week for 10 weeks — yet nine of every 10 players still earn a degree.
To keep players’ grades from lapsing, the team’s academic coordinator and academic counselor travel with the team, proctoring exams and holding mandatory study sessions. Back at campus, “faculty liaisons” attend players’ classes while they are on the road, taking notes and studying with players when they return.
In July and September, most incoming freshman football and men’s basketball players must attend mini-classes and study skills sessions, imbuing them with a sense of academic awareness.
“The message is that their first step onto campus is not for sports, it’s for academics,” Mulcahy said.
Ultimately, graduation rates depend on the ethic of the entire athletic department, he said.
“It’s like a team culture,” he said. “If you say academics is No. 1, but it’s really No. 2, the players internalize that.”
At Maryland, some officials blame the team’s low graduation rate on how often players leave school for professional leagues. This is not completely accurate, Mulcahy said. After Huskies guard Nate Robinson decided to turn pro last year, he still went to class and tutoring — even when he didn’t have to. Robinson, now a New York Knick, wants to eventually complete his degree, Mulcahy said.
In the past, schools did not face a penalty for performing poorly in the classroom. Fifteen years ago, academic services for student-athletes were scarce, said Michael, a four-year letterman for the Fighting Illini in the early ’90s. But under the NCAA’s new Academic Progress Rating (APR), teams that fall below a 50 percent graduation rate could lose up to 10 percent of their scholarships and, ultimately, their NCAA membership.
Yow said Maryland will meet the APR minimum for men’s basketball when the ratings are released March 1. Williams will get a $700,000 bonus and an extra year on his contract if the Terrapins achieve a satisfactory APR and reach the NCAA Tournament, according to the terms of the new four-year, $1.6 million deal Williams signed in December.
Still, Yow is disappointed by the team’s anemic graduation rate, especially because student-athletes overall graduated at a record 70 percent this year, she said. But she wouldn’t say what officials are planning to do to remedy it.
The Athletics Council is scheduling a meeting with Williams to discuss the graduation rate, Wellford said.
School officials have set a goal for Williams’ squad: to have one of the top graduation rates in the nation among public institutions. But first, Yow wants to see them reach the national average within the next five years.
“It’s not a programmatic issue,” she said. “They can do better.”
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