Cal's Tigers quietly make the grade
By Dan Wolken
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Without much hand-wringing, at least around here, the NCAA released its Academic Progress Ratings last week, which for the first time in its four-year evaluation period tied poor graduation rates to a loss of scholarships.
But in many ways, the lack of fanfare about on graduation rates with the University of Memphis basketball program is a story in and of itself. As coach John Calipari likes to say, he inherited a program eight years ago with a zero-graduation rate, an academic mess without the kind of infrastructure and attention necessary to succeed.
In the 1990s, that kind of travesty made schools like Memphis, Cincinnati and Arkansas the subject of ridicule, but it didn't carry many real-world consequences.
Though Calipari didn't necessarily need a good APR rating to validate how much he's turned around the academic situation here -- the halls of Memphis' basketball office are lined with pictures of the 14 players who have graduated under Calipari -- there had to be some measure of satisfaction when Memphis' score of 928 beat the 925 (which roughly equates to 60 percent graduation) necessary to avoid potential penalties.
Just a month ago, Calipari chafed at the Final Four when several reporters tried to compare Memphis to Jerry Tarkanian-era UNLV. And yet, there was Memphis on the right side of the APR list Monday while better-funded, better-recognized institutions like Seton Hall, Southern California and even Tennessee lost scholarships.
"The APR is based on having students that can do the work, having the university invest in academic support and treating the players with that in mind -- how you travel, how you schedule so that they're not missing tons of school -- and then having the program demand that they take care of business and do what they're supposed to do," Calipari said.
"It doesn't mean they never fail a class or miss a class. It doesn't mean they don't ever get near that line; it means they understand what's expected of them. If there are screw-ups, they're rectified. The other way, you don't make it and you lose scholarships and blame the coach before you."
The APR is far from a perfect tool to gauge how faithfully schools are adhering to the "student" part of student-athlete. And nobody's trying to pretend that a Memphis basketball player with a diploma has been through as rigorous an academic program as a basketball player at Stanford.
But the APR has successfully set up a system that encourages colleges to: 1) Recruit players who are capable of graduating from that institution; and 2) Provide the infrastructure to help those players get their diplomas.
Each school will have to make determinations about how to fulfill those two goals. Memphis will do it a different way than Stanford does. And Memphis will have to continue finding ways to account for players who leave early for the NBA, especially given how vigorously Calipari encourages his underclassmen to enter the draft if they are going to be first-round picks.
If Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, for instance, are not in good academic standing when they leave, Memphis will lose points and flirt with falling under 925. And it's awfully hard for a basketball coach to convince players who are months away from making millions of dollars to worry about final exams just for the sake of the APR.
But Calipari said he's prepared to deal with that aspect of the APR -- for the record, he thinks Rose and Douglas-Roberts will be fine -- and doesn't mind the way it's structured.
"We're going to have guys going to the NBA, so we're always going to be close. That can be accepted," Calipari said. "The other of running guys off, coming up with excuses, doing all that and then blaming it on the other coach, that's not going to go. That's why they put these things in."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.