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April 30, 2004

Brain And Brawn: Mutually Exclusive?

FROM THE BLUEGRASS STATE comes a gargantuan series--nine articles and 8759 words long--in the Louisville Journal-Courier dissecting, detailing and delineating causes and remedies for poor graduation rates among football and basketball student-athletes at the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. The meticulously--and exhaustingly—comprehensive series was printed in a mid April issue.

The ambitious thesis-like composition took on the tone of an exposé, a dispassionate research work, and a human interest story all rolled into one.

Regardless of the varying tones of the assorted stories, the series’ prevailing theme was the poor student-athlete graduation rates at Louisville and Kentucky.

UK and Louisville take their football and basketball programs quite seriously. But so do dozens of other Division I-A schools. They all face overwhelming and overriding pressures to win. Ardent alumni and boosters often clamor for (and fund) posh upgrades to athletic facilities, then they expect their team to win because of these grand accouterments.

It’s no wonder that some programs attempt to short-cut their way into quick fixes. That’s why schools fire and hire coaches, why they spend so much on recruiting, and it’s also why coaches sometimes recruit super athletes who are poor students.

Louisville and UK’s graduation rates were poor because they brought in athletes who were ill-equipped to survive even the minimal academic rigor expected of them.

The series included several vignette articles that provided case histories of athletes who failed to graduate.

• James “Boo” Brewer: A Louisville basketball player from ’88-’93, he dropped out before graduating. After playing in Europe for ten years, he moved back to Kentucky two years ago and is currently working construction.

• Everick Sullivan: The 14th leading scorer in Louisville basketball history, he dropped out of school shy of a degree in 1992, and then went on to play in Europe. He is now an assistant coach at juco Wabash Valley College.

• Donald “Dale” Brown: A star for the Kentucky 1993 Final Four team, dropped out of school shy of his degree, failed to make the NBA, then played several years in Europe. Upon returning to the States he became an Airborne Express route driver. In 2002 he resumed his pursuit of a degree.

These vignettes are examples of a pattern that has played out much more frequently at UK and Louisville than elsewhere. Graduation rates for both schools have suffered accordingly.

At Louisville:

• Football players have graduated at a 38% rate, compared to the Division I-A average of 51%.

• The last four basketball classes had a 20% graduation rate; the Division I average is 42%.

• In nine of the 13 years with NCAA-issued graduation reports, not a single player graduated.

At UK:

• The graduation rates for the past two football classes have been only 18% and 24%.

• UK’s average graduation rate of 32% over the past four football classes ranked a dismal 110th out of the 117 I-A schools.

• The average graduation rate for UK basketball players over the past four classes has been 23%, far lower than the Division I average of 42%.

To be sure, there are special circumstances to explain at least some of the horrible results. The UK football program has been buffeted by extraordinary turmoil over the past years, with four different coaches since 1996, plus an NCAA probation for a recruiting infraction. Thus, many players left UK for other schools. Graduation rates plummeted.

Likewise, the Louisville basketball program floundered academically. The ten six-year classes between 1988-89 and 1997-98 graduated only 10 of 37 players (27%).

Since Tom Jurich was hired as Louisville AD in 1997, he has implemented many corrective actions to right the academic ship. He placed academic services for athletes within the purview of the athletic department, plus he has increased the academic counseling budget from $420,000 in 1997 to $567,666 this year. There are now seven full-time counselors and four graduate assistants on the academic services staff.

Jurich referred to the lack of academic priority before he arrived: “I don’t want to bash anybody that was here before me, but it wasn’t good. Academics weren’t a priority. All you have to do is look at the results. Changing the culture was the most difficult thing we had to do. We had to stress the importance of academics.”

Former basketball coach Denny Crum took issue with Jurich’s assessment, “For him to say that, it’s just not true. There was not a time in my career when I didn’t place academics first. I wouldn’t let kids come to practice if they missed class. Does that sound like it was not a priority?”

Crum proceeded to attribute the terrible graduation rates to Louisville’s “urban mission” to get more at-risk students.

Ahem.

With the implementation of the NCAA’s incentives-disincentives program looming on the horizon, it would seem that UK and Louisville need to accelerate their progress in rehabilitating grad rates.

Good athletes who are smart, and smart students who are good athletes are becoming more and more valuable every day.

(this 838 word excerpt—with value-added commentary—was distilled from a series of nine articles totaling 8759 words in the Louisville Courier-Journal of April 18, 2004.)