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Success, to Some Degree

Hurricanes, Cornhuskers Lag in Classroom, but Some Say Numbers Misleading


If graduation rates were critical to the bowl championship series, neither Nebraska nor Miami would be playing in the Rose Bowl tonight.

If this purely academic standard were paramount, the title game might feature Duke and Northwestern. Or Rice and Stanford.

Those teams customarily graduate more than 80% of their players, according to a recent NCAA report. Yet, for the most part, they got nowhere near the top of the football rankings this season.

So thousands of fans in Pasadena and millions more watching on television will see teams representing programs that had no such success in the classroom. The Cornhuskers ranked 43rd among 111 Division I football programs with a graduation rate of 53%. The Hurricanes finished 76th at 41%.

"The subject of graduation rates needs to be raised every time we have a big game like this," said Richard Lapchick, director emeritus of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "It's an important issue."

It is also a complex issue that pits reform-minded critics against the athletic establishment, much of which argues that numbers don't tell the whole story.

The debate heated up last summer when an independent panel recommended widespread changes to address "the widening chasm between higher education's ideals and big-time college sports."

The Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics noted that only 48% of Division I football players earn degrees. The rate for African American players was 42%.

The commission recommended that, by 2007, teams should be required to graduate at least half of their players to qualify for postseason play, a rule that would have excluded Miami from the Rose Bowl, no matter how many games the Hurricanes had won.

"We're not in the entertainment business; nor are we a minor league for professional sports," Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame and commission co-chairman, said in June. "Your school is not worthy to be the champion of the country if you're not educating your kids."

That kind of talk irks coaches and administrators in athletic departments across the nation. The NCAA has previously said that 58% of student-athletes graduate, compared to 56% of all students. Besides, many say, the numbers are misleading.

Take Nebraska, for example. The Cornhuskers' 53% rate suggests that one might look down the roster of 23 seniors and find that roughly half of them won't finish school. In fact, only one is not on track to graduate. And one already has graduated. Quarterback Eric Crouch received his diploma last month. Another, tight end Tracey Wistrom, is an Academic All-American majoring in secondary education and mathematics.

"I could go down the line and tell you story after story," said Dennis Leblanc, associate athletic director for academic and student services at the Lincoln campus.

So why the low rating?

Some players flunk out of school before their senior seasons. But Leblanc and others say the figures are deceiving because the NCAA uses limited information gathered by the U.S. Department of Education.

A player who leaves for any reason--homesickness, family problems--counts as a negative, even if he is an A student or eventually earns a degree elsewhere. Same goes for an athlete who transfers because he cannot make the starting lineup, a common occurrence at Nebraska and other major programs.

"I can't graduate someone who's not here," Leblanc said. "If a kid transfers to Penn State, I can't help him and he counts against us anyway."

At Miami, where nine of 13 seniors already have graduated and offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzalez was nationally recognized for his academic achievement, an administrator points to another gap in the calculations. After a recent school year, four football players left early to turn professional. Those defections hurt the percentage.

"I would like a rate that is more reflective of students who leave in good academic standing," assistant athletic director Tomas Jimenez said.

Jimenez is not alone. Years ago, quarterback Jeff Hostetler transferred from Penn State to West Virginia, eventually graduating as an Academic All-American. Penn State complained about his counting against its rate and the now-defunct College Football Assn. devised a measurement that accounts for student-athletes who transfer and eventually earn their degrees.

The formula also gives credit for players who come to a program after two years in junior college, a group the NCAA ignores. This method--now used by the American Football Coaches Assn.--puts the Division I football graduation rate at around 60%.

"We feel this gives a more balanced view," AFCA official Chuck Neinas said.

Critics are not impressed.

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