It’s signing day. Hello national championship.
Or not. In any case, the dotted-line formalities of college football get fulfilled today - the wooing over, the eenie-meanie’s finis. Today, programs are made.
And unmade. Maybe lives, too.
At Washington State University, today’s recruiting take will be modest - the Cougars having fewer rides to bestow than usual - but meaningful. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, and with legitimate aspirations of better, the Cougs are counting on this class being an infusion for the present as much as an investment for the future.
And a reluctant goodbye to a strategy of the past.
Wazzu’s disadvantages in the recruiting arena - i.e., location, location, location - are well-known, though like any good salesman coach Mike Price concedes nothing. Still, some time ago he hit upon a means of keeping the talent disparity from growing too wide. It was called taking a risk.
But now taking a risk is against the rules, or mostly.
Bad news for Wazzu. Bad news for kids.
Kids like Frank Madu, B.A., Class of ‘96. Like Eboni Wilson and Jesse Ratcliff, honor roll members of the sophomore class. Like Leon Bender, to whom school will always be a struggle but - with a boatload of help - hangs in there.
All of them were “Props” - the all-purpose stigma assigned to high school recruits who didn’t have the grades and/or test scores legislatively mandated in the NCAA’s Proposition 48 (and later refined in Props. 42 and 16) to be immediately eligible to play Division I athletics. All sat out a year at WSU without scholarship - and played just three, rather than enlist for two years at a junior college.
Some schools won’t recruit Props. But Wazzu happily accepted two or three - even four - at a time, convinced not only of their athletic upside but of their ability to succeed (or at least survive) academically.
It wasn’t just an athletic policy. WSU accepts up to 350 “alternate admissions” each year; less than 20 percent of them athletes.
Now even fewer will be.
The Pacific-10 Conference, following the lead of the Big Ten and other leagues, has voted to prohibit its members from accepting any academic non-qualifiers. Partial qualifiers - those who have either a high enough test score or a GPA, but not both - are limited to four in any school year, but no more than one in any sport.
“What we’ve done,” said WSU athletic director Rick Dickson, “is take all this legislation we’ve passed affecting Prop athletes and made it moot.”
What they’ve done is take away opportunities from kids like Frank Madu.
“Here was a Pac-10 athlete,” Dickson recounted, “who performed at a high level in two sports (football and track) and graduated in business in four years. Now, with these new standards, we’ll never know who the next Frank Madu will be.”
For Madu, a running back who just missed cracking Wazzu’s all-time career rushing top 10, being a Prop was motivation.
“My SAT scores were very low, due mostly to my background,” he said. “I was born in Nigeria. My English background was not all that great and there were words on the SAT that just weren’t used in my house. So it was important for me to prove not only to the SAT people but to myself that just because you don’t get a certain mark doesn’t mean you’re not capable - that you’re not a dummy.”
Actually, the SAT people realize that. It’s the NCAA and Pac-10 educrats who don’t seem to understand.
Madu didn’t cruise through Wazzu. To finish in four years, he attended summer school and took full semester loads of 15 and 16 units.
“Sometimes I got D’s,” he admitted. “But my dream was to graduate in four years and with the help of a lot of people, I did. I owe the counselors and advisors - people like Warren Little and Judy Doba and Bennie Harris, to name a few - a lot.”
Now, under the new guidelines, Wazzu could still take one Madu. But it would have to make a choice between Eboni Wilson and Jesse Ratcliff, who both came to WSU in the fall of 1995. Wilson had come up short on the test; Ratcliff had been shot down by the NCAA’s academic clearinghouse, which despite three appeals ruled that he didn’t have enough “core” courses in high school to qualify.
Each now has a GPA above 3.0. But now only one could get in.
“Obviously, this has significantly altered the pool we’re recruiting from now,” said Dickson, “in all sports, but especially in sports where a big portion of the pool is borderline on being academically qualified.”
The fact is not all of Wazzu’s risks have been success stories. Shon Lewis is no longer in the program. Neither is Malcolm Stewart. There are more non-graduates than there are Madus. The mortality rate mirrors that of the student body.
But it’s absurd to assume that Deron Pointer and Chad Eaton didn’t profit from being in an academic setting for four years, degree or no degree - just as it’s obvious that WSU’s football program profited from having them.
The JC route? Yes, some Cougar Props have made it that way, too - Dwayne Sanders and Dorian Boose come to mind. But the academic support available to the Cougars - and the considerable influence of being in a Division I program - make success more likely.
“If I’d stayed around my (San Francisco) neighborhood and gone to JC, I never would have gotten any work done,” insisted Madu.
Certainly Dickson is concerned about the competitive impact this will have on Cougar football - but he’s also concerned with the school’s mission suddenly being redefined by the Pac-10.
“Tulsa, where I worked before, is a private institution with select admissions,” he pointed out. “WSU is a state flagship university that’s about access.”
Level playing fields are one thing. Maddening homogeneity is another. Is it that unfair that Wazzu will suit up Leon Bender and Cal won’t?
“We all put ourselves in this boat,” Dickson said. “We needed to address the academic integrity issue and we did that starting in 1986.
“But what needs to be done is for all of us - athletic directors and coaches - to be held accountable for academic performance. I’ve always had it part of my contract and I put it in coaches’ contracts. But let Sam Smith determine that at Washington State, and let the president of Stanford determine it at Stanford.”
That is, after all, what they were hired to do.
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