The Evolution of the Infamous NCAA Graduation Rate

The NCAA started calculating graduation rates for its member institutions back in the early-to-mid 80’s.  I was an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee then and can recall some remarkably unjust flaws in how those rates were calculated.

Here are a couple of “for instances” during my tenure at UT.  A player many fans will remember from those days is Dale Ellis, a 20-year veteran of the NBA.  There are a couple of stories in my book, Life’s A Joke (which can be purchased through this website), about Dale, but one in particular deals with his pursuit of a college degree.

Dale’s mother, Lucille, wasn’t as much of a hoops fan as she was of her son’s education. She said he’d be the first in their family to earn a degree.  I assured her I’d talk to him.  Later that same day, he walked into my office and I said, “Dale, do you know that there are (1983 statistics) 720,000 high school basketball players, 18,000 college players and only 276 guys on NBA rosters?  You made it through the first cut and should make it through the next one, but can you see how important getting your degree is?” 

He looked at me, smiled and said, “Coach, I appreciate your concern and I’m pretty sure you just spoke to my mom (Dale was very perceptive as well as being a great shooter).  Don’t worry, I promised her I’d get my degree – and I will.”

He was selected ninth overall in the NBA draft, played his rookie season and returned that summer to take a couple of courses.  He was still shy of his degree requirements, so following his second NBA season, he came back to Knoxville and got his degree.  I can still visualize the picture in the Knoxville newspaper of Dale in his cap and gown, signing autographs for his fellow graduates.

Back then, however, the rule was that a student-athlete had to graduate within five years from his or her initial enrollment date (it has since been changed to six and, for all I know may have been amended again).  My point is: what’s the difference how long it takes, the degree is the goal.  Here was our dilemma: not only did Dale Ellis not count as a graduate, he counted as a non-graduate!  I distinctly recall speaking with an NCAA staff member who explained to me (as if I were a six-year-old, that the policy was within five, not six, years).  I told him my undergraduate degree was in math and I was well aware of the difference between five and six, but could they be somewhat reasonable and, at the very least, have him not count as a non-graduate?  He told me that if we wanted to amend an existing rule, we had to put the change in writing with the specific justifications for said change, contact six other institutions and get them to sign off on the idea and submit it to the NCAA Rules and Interpretations Committee (which, at that time, probably met on the second Tuesday of each week).

A few years later, one of our student-athletes, Sam Arterburn, felt he wasn’t going to ever get the playing time he’d hoped for and, because he wanted to play right away, decided to transfer to a Division II school so he wouldn’t be subject to the one-year waiting period for his eligibility to begin.  He selected Rollins (FL) College and went on to have a very successful career on the court (he was an all-conference selection) and in the classroom (where he became one of, I believe, only three student-athletes in the entire nation to receive an NCAA post-graduate scholarship).  He was voted an Academic All-American, yet, as far as Tennessee’s graduation rate was concerned, he was a non-graduate.  This situation also has since been altered.  I often wonder if the rules were retroactive, but have never checked – for the same reason no one ever checks – because it’s really not important.  Dale Ellis and Sam Arterburn are both college graduates.  There’s no rule that can dispute those facts.  But … NCAA interpretations, on the other hand, are another story.

Take the case of Larry Abney of Nyack, NY.  In 1995, I left USC as associate head basketball coach to take on the duties of Director of Basketball Operations at Fresno State, the same year Larry signed a grant-in-aid (scholarship) at Fresno State.  He signed with the previous coaching staff, i.e. prior to Jerry Tarkanian being named head coach.  Although never having seen him play, Jerry honored the the letter-of-intent and Larry was a member of Tark’s first FSU squad, although his playing time was quite limited.  One of the hardest workers ever – anywhere – Larry saw he wasn’t going to get much PT the following season, but wanted to return to Fresno State for his remaining two years of eligibility.  So, he transferred to the local JC, Fresno City College.

Larry worked as hard in the classroom as he did on the court and became one of the most beloved Bulldog players in history.  One reason was due to games like the one against SMU in which he pulled down 35 rebounds (the highest number of rebounds by an individual since 1965), but also because Larry earned his college degree.

Yet, did Larry Abney count as a student-athlete who got a degree?  NO!  Now, many (if not all) of you must be wondering “How in the hell could the NCAA screw up this perfect example of what every person in America wants a college kid to be – a hard worker who get results – on and off the playing surface?”

Well, it seems that during that time period (changes may have been made since – whether or not they’re retroactive is another story), the NCAA only counted incoming freshmen when compiling graduation rates.  Their contention was that Larry was a junior college transfer and, therefore, he should not be included in that year’s graduation rates.  Our contention was that he was an incoming freshman – class of ’95 – because that’s what he was.  Keep in mind, incoming freshmen basketball classes might be composed of two guys, so the graduation rate possibilites for that class is 0%, 50% or 100%.  One guy can make a huge difference.  (Hey, how about if he’s the only incoming freshman?  Then the difference of whether you’re puffing out your chest and claiming a “100% graduation rate” or reading in the paper that your graduation rate for that class was 0%! is riding on the choices and decisions made by a single individual.

When I was at SC, our Assistant Athletics Director for Academics was Fred Stroock.  Fred was just as confused as everyone else, so one day, he came up with twenty “what if’s,” e.g. what if a player transfers from your school to another school and subsequently graduates from the second institution?  Does he count as a graduate, non-graduate or not count at all toward your school’s graduation rate?  Same situation, but he does not graduate from the second college.  Count, not, n/a?  Identical situations, but the s-a in question is a JC?  All the way to: What if a student-athlete competes for your school but contracts a serious illness, is forced to withdraw from classes and tragically, dies before exhausting his eligibility.  These, plus another fifteen examples.  You get the idea.  Fred sent this list to twenty of his colleagues.  He asked his peers to calculate what they thought the graduation rate should be based on their understanding of the rule.  Of the 20, he received sixteen replies – and sixteen different graduation rates!

Don’t get me wrong. This is a great concept.  But, understand that if so much emphasis is being put on these kids’ academic performances i.e. loss of scholarships and practice time if the university is found delinquent, can you begin to sense the pressure that coaches and administrators are under and the possibility of professors being schmoozed, coddled, cajoled or, maybe even, intimidated for grades?  On a lesser level of evil, wouldn’t it be to the university’s advantage to place their players in the easiest path to academic success, e.g. less rigorous courses?  With the stress levels that some coaches and/or administrators have to deal with in this world of big-time college athletics, along with the mega-bucks the coaches are being paid and administrators are responsible for, isn’t there cause for concern should the numbers come up sour?  If you think for one minute that this scenario couldn’t take place (if, in fact, it hasn’t already) , you’re not living in the same $6 billion-television-contract world that I am.  

There are institutions of higher learning trying to do the right thing.  John Baxter, associate head football coach at Fresno State and creator of the Academic Game Plan,  is putting up Stanford-like numbers.  Then, why isn’t everybody doing the same across the country, you ask?  Because it takes a total commitment, as well as the blessing of the head coach that Baxter has from Bulldogs’ head man, Pat Hill, who feels as strongly toward it as he does.  But, it’s not magic, it’s time and work and as anyone even remotely in the know will attest, time is something that’s in short supply in the world of big-time intercollegiate athletics.  Yet all schools have good, if not AGP-like help available to their student-athletes. 

When Wimp Sanderson, then-head basketball coach at the University of Alabama was asked how many players on his team graduated, his response was succinct and right on target:

“Everyone of them who wants to.”

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