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Just Preps

Academics Leave Some on Outside Looking In

Prep sports: Brown and Mann are the latest Division I prospects sidetracked by poor grades and entrance exam scores.

May 09, 1996|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lost inside baggy jeans and an oversized sweat shirt, Kevin Brown slumped into his chair and absorbed the bad news.

With each word Trifone Pagone uttered, Brown felt his plans for the future being struck by a sledgehammer.

Pagone, an assistant principal at Baldwin Park High, said Brown would not meet NCAA academic requirements and was ineligible to play football at Nebraska, the school Brown planned to attend after graduation. He'll be playing junior college football this fall.

Brown, one of the nation's most sought after high school running backs, saw himself telling the Cornhuskers' recruiter that he would not be playing in Lincoln any time soon. It was that image that made him realize how badly he "messed up."

Brown's experience is hardly unique. Many of the Southland's best athletes lack the necessary grades and entrance exam scores to be eligible to play sports at the NCAA's Division I level. As a result, they are finding out--many times after it's too late--that the future they had once hoped for is gone.

Brown, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns for Baldwin Park last year, said he didn't learn he needed to take NCAA-required "core courses" until his junior year, just before transferring from West Covina High.

The NCAA requires high school athletes to receive credit in at least 13 core courses. The list of acceptable classes range from biology to English composition.

After Brown enrolled at Baldwin Park, where Nebraska star running back Lawrence Phillips also attended, Pagone took one look at Brown's transcript, and told him that with an enormous effort, he might graduate with his class. That was the best he could hope for.

Brown says coaches and administrators at West Covina ignored his requests to be put in the required classes once he learned of core requirements. He acknowledges that he had been remiss academically, but said he should have been given more guidance from the school.

"In my sophomore year I asked them [football coaches] what do I have to do to get into a Division I college," Brown said. "They said 'Don't worry about that, you're going to a junior college.' "

Jim Mandala, an assistant principal at West Covina, said that Brown was enrolled in core classes as a freshman and sophomore, but performed poorly and didn't earn any credits.

"A decision had to be made," Mandala said. "If you keep sticking kids into these classes and they are unable to pass, they still won't make it to college and also won't have the credits they need to graduate."

Allison Brown, Kevin's mother, said administrators at West Covina gave up on her son too early, one reason the family decided to have Kevin transfer.

"I know I should have a done a better job making him study," she said. "But they kept telling him he wasn't college material, and he began to believe them. At Baldwin Park, when people showed interest in the grades he got, his confidence grew and he started believing in himself again."

In the case of Santa Ana Valley's Olujimi Mann, it is clearer who was responsible for his plight.

An All-Southern Section pick as a sophomore, he is considered one of the country's best point guards. Mann, 18, made an oral commitment to UCLA last year, only to see the Bruins withdraw their scholarship offer when they learned of his academic problems.

Basketball Coach Kevin Stipp and Lynne Kramer, Mann's academic counselor, said they did everything they could to help him qualify.

Mann was on the college-track program, in which students sign a contract promising to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and attend class regularly. He was enrolled in core classes, and he had access to Scholastic Assessment Test workshops, independent study and night school.

"I think that Mrs. Kramer went way out of her way to help me," Mann said. "It was my fault that I didn't qualify. I'm hardheaded. You don't know how many times I was supposed to meet her for tutoring and didn't show up. She still stuck with me."

But too much attention was paid to Mann, according to Stipp. With friends, college recruiters, scouts and hangers-on fawning over him, it was too easy for a teenage boy to get a false sense of worth.

Stipp said at a tournament game in North Carolina two years ago, Mann scored 42 points against a team from Georgia and afterward was swarmed.

"I spot him in the middle of this big group of people," Stipp said. "And he's signing autographs for 50 people. Later, he shows me these scraps of paper that girls had given him. There was telephone and room numbers written on them. . . . The kid was only 16.

"His misperceptions were brought on by having someone else fix his problems every time something went wrong. But his grades were something that only he could fix."

For now, Mann will wait to see how he scores on the SAT test he took two weeks ago. He plans to attend a junior college if he doesn't earn a qualifying score.

Brown hasn't qualified either, but Nebraska has told him it is willing to wait until he finishes junior college.

But Brown still sees junior college as a kind of athletic purgatory.

"When Pagone told me I had to go to a J.C., it was like getting a jail sentence," Brown said. "I'm looking at it as a punishment because if I did the work in high school, I wouldn't have to wait a year or two before going to a [Division I] school."

What Kramer and Pagone say frustrates them and makes the athletes' story so puzzling, is that both players are intelligent and capable of doing the work.

Kramer says a person can learn to discipline himself, study and take tests. Pagone agrees, but maintains athletes need support at home.

"Families are the most important cog in the cycle," Pagone said. "It's up to the parents to ask how their children are, and inform themselves on what their kids are doing."

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