In Counting, Ncaa Earns An Incomplete
Jason Cromer graduated from Eastern Washington University this past spring in international affairs, a course of study requiring 140 credits in government, history and economics, plus a foreign language. EWU’s all-time leading kicker even studied at the University of Guadalajara.
But by the reckoning of the NCAA, he’s persona non graduata.
Geoff Goss and Matt Stanford started 108 games for Gonzaga University’s fine basketball teams of recent vintage and took degrees in finance and political science, respectively, a scant few weeks after their final game.
But in counting sheepskins, the NCAA ignores them.
This summer, 16 former Washington State Cougars are playing professional baseball - a great advertisement for the program, but hell on the graduation rate.
Welcome to the Twilight Zone of the NCAA’s graduation report card, released annually to the inevitable accompaniment of chest-thumping and tut-tutting.
The intent was noble, even if Congress had to sneak up from behind the educrats with a blowtorch to get some hard data: give recruits and their parents some rough odds on Junior or Sis escaping college with a diploma.
Hooray for the NCAA self-inflicting a smidge of accountability, but - to quote that noted student-athlete, Charlie Brown - tell your statistics to shut up.
Because the NCAA’s accounting has opened enough cracks to make some of the numbers downright misleading.
“It probably isn’t the most accurate report,” admitted Frank Nelson, EWU’s faculty representative for athletics. “If people do it honestly, you’ll get a relative figure but some circumstances aren’t going to be reflected.”
Gonzaga athletic director and basketball coach Dan Fitzgerald is considerably bolder.
“A lot of things are phony about it,” he said. “I’m not sure it belongs on the sports page. It’s a security blanket. The presidents have said we’re going to have this and now they sleep better.”
Years ago a framed newspaper page trumpeting Gonzaga’s academic successes went up on Fitzgerald’s wall. The page is still up there and so is GU’s graduation rate - 60 percent - but now he knows what the statistics don’t show.
The NCAA tracks a freshman class most recently from the fall of 1988 - and how many graduate within six years (with transfers factored in). Yearly percentages are issued along with a four-year sliding average and compared to the general student population.
An athlete who takes more than six years to finish counts against the percentage. So does any player who transfers - due to lack of playing time, homesickness, whatever - even if he graduates from another school.
“The rate doesn’t show the whole picture,” said WSU athletic director Rick Dickson. “We’re not going to control life choices.”
This is at the heart of what Fitzgerald considers the most ludicrous example of the NCAA’s flawed numbers.
Since 1989, the Zags have had three transfers from the University of Washington: Eric Brady, Jeff Brown and Jason Bond. Each came looking for a better basketball situation - that is, a chance to play. Each counts against UW’s graduation rate.
“Brown was national academic player of the year,” said Fitzgerald. “Brady was all-academic and has two degrees. Bond is arguably the smartest guy in our honors program.
“You think UW failed these guys academically and we rescued them? I didn’t help Jeff Brown in English. I hope I helped his footwork.”
Fitzgerald has another beef. Walk-ons are not counted even if they eventually receive athletic aid.
“From the class that entered in 1989, we had four senior starters (Brown, Goss, Stanford and Scott Spink) who all graduated,” he said. “Only Brown and Spink count.
“We’ve had a ton of guys who walked on. Jarrod Davis was a Rhodes scholar candidate. Lennie Parham is one of our great success stories. These guys define your program and they don’t count?”
The “program” players who led EWU to the 1992 Big Sky football title enrolled in 1988. Their NCAA graduation rate was 33 percent, but former coach Dick Zornes counts “maybe 80 percent who have degrees - but not all from our place.”
Or, like Cromer, not in six years.
“I went to Hawaii for nine months and worked in the hotel circuit,” Cromer said. “I studied in Mexico for a year. My major is probably one of the longest at the university, requiring five disciplines and a language.”
At EWU, other factors have hurt retention, as when the school hedged on funding Division I athletics.
“And when we dropped baseball (in 1990) and wrestling,” Nelson said, “we lost those kids forever.”
Ah, baseball. That sport can shrink the graduation rate simply because the draft encourages players to forgo their senior seasons.
“A position player has four and a half years to make it to the majors,” said Fitzgerald, “and there’s a lot of pressure on a kid to play winter ball and not come back to school.”
Luring any pro athlete back to school is tough. Zornes has three former players in the NFL who are within 20 hours of degrees. At WSU, the list is longer.
“Of the players from this past team who have pro opportunities, only two have graduated,” said Dickson. “I’ve made Chad Eaton and Don Sasa promise me they will. I don’t care if it happens in the six-year cycle or not.”
And if it doesn’t, those players won’t count.
WSU’s four-year average for graduating football players is 46 percent - 11 percent lower than the general student body. But Dickson prefers the “exhausted eligibility rate” for athletes who play all four years. At WSU, the most recent figure is 79 percent. It’s 73 at GU, 51 at EWU.
“That gets buried because it’s impossible to compare it to the student population,” said Gonzaga assistant athletic director Mike Roth.
And numbers not packaged in charts or graphs tend to not be news.
“There has to be a barometer because too many places have had throwaway athletes,” said Fitzgerald. “If this challenges institutions to stay with kids, OK.”
And it has. At WSU, athletes may return to school and work in the athletic department in exchange for tuition, fees and books - providing they maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. At EWU and Gonzaga, help has become available through the commitment of individual coaches.
But even now, some schools don’t get it. New Mexico State recently added an incentive bonus to basketball coach Neil McCarthy’s contract if his team posts a GPA above 2.0.
“Publishing the rates has thrown it into the recruiting arena,” noted Dickson. “That doesn’t surprise me. If something can be manipulated, it usually is.”
And if a subject can be oversimplified by math, it will be. Graduating athletes isn’t merely an issue for coaches, even if USA Today insists on putting it in Top 25 form.
“Everybody in the institution has a stake in this,” said Fitzgerald. “I don’t think (UW athletic director) Barbara Hedges or anybody else should have to defend what they’re doing academically. That question has to go to the president - unless the athletic director is also the admissions director.”