Big on football, low on grad rates

Of the UT players who started in 1997, only 27 percent got a degree

By John Maher, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
October 26, 2004 Tuesday

For the second year in a row, the University of Texas' football team has placed last in the Big 12 Conference in graduation rates.

Only 27 percent of the freshman football class of 1997 graduated within six years, according to figures released Monday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Only two of the 117 teams that play Division I-A football fared worse: Nevada (17 percent) and Texas-El Paso (24 percent).

Nationwide, 57 percent of football players who started school in 1997 had graduated within the six years. That's up from 54 percent a year ago, which NCAA President Myles Brand touted as good news.

In the Big 12, Baylor University, bedeviled on the field, led the way off it with an 88 percent graduation rate for football players. The University of Oklahoma was next to last in the Big 12 with 43 percent, and Texas A&M was eighth at 50 percent.

UT Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds said the Longhorns' graduation rate could be attributed to attrition as the program changed head coaches. The 1997 class was John Mackovic's last recruiting class; Coach Mack Brown arrived after that season.

Of the 22 football recruits that year, eight either gave up football, withdrew from school or transferred to another institution. Four others are within 15 credit hours of graduating, the University of Texas said in a statement.

"You can't graduate them when they transfer or just quit the sport," Dodds said.

Dodds added that because there are so many football recruits, the rate for that sport dragged down the graduation rate for all student-athletes at Texas, which was 52 percent. Among Big 12 schools, only Colorado fared worse in that category, with 48 percent.

Although the Texas women's basketball team had a 100 percent graduation rate, the men's team at Texas had a zero graduation rate -- and a lot of company. Seven Big 12 basketball programs failed to score on graduation day.

Nationally, the men's Division I basketball rate held steady at 44 percent.

"Basketball overall remains a challenge," Brand said. "I don't know if there is any underlying cause."

For Texas, the men's basketball numbers reflect a turbulent time. Of the four freshmen in 1997, one left school before the season, two transferred when Coach Tom Penders was forced to resign, and one, Chris Mihm, entered the NBA draft after his junior year and has been taking classes in the off-season.

Baseball also has its problems. Graduation rates slipped two notches, to 46 percent, for all NCAA members. At UT, the rate was 14 percent.

"With baseball, the better the program, the lower the graduation rate," Dodds said. "We are taking more freshmen and fewer junior college players."

Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido has put an emphasis on improving academic performance, but Major League Baseball drafts players after their junior years, disrupting college for the best players. Some football programs, such as the University of Miami, have seen many underclassmen leave early for the NFL draft. Under Brown, Texas has seen less of an exodus for the NFL than other elite programs. Potential NFL stars such as Chris Simms, Roy Williams, Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson have remained at UT for their senior years.

Last year the NCAA reported that UT's graduation rate for the 1996-97 football class was 19 percent, which trailed only Pittsburgh in Division I-A schools. The year before that, Texas had a 50 percent graduation rate, and the University of Oklahoma drew scorn with a 6 percent rate.

Texas' four-class average, representing graduation rates for 1994 through 1997, is 34 percent for football, the lowest in the Big 12. This year's marks will affect that number three more times before it is out of the cycle.

"The good news is we're into Mack's recruits next year," Dodds said.

Nine of the 18 freshmen in Brown's 1998 recruiting class have completed their degree requirements, and three have transferred, the university said.

"We have a strong commitment to the education of our football players," Brown said in a statement. "It's important that we prepare them for life after football, and a UT degree is certainly a key factor in that. In some cases, that may occur on a different timetable, and the (NCAA) graduation rates don't always reflect that."

The NCAA figures, required by the U.S. Department of Education, count graduations within six years. For some time, coaches and administrators have complained that the numbers do not allow for those who transferred in good academic standing; such cases still count against a school as nongraduates.

The NCAA will begin making allowances for that next year, though Brand said that will affect urban institutions more than others, because student bodies in general at such schools tend to have higher transfer rates. Brand said the goal is for student-athletes is to match the graduation rate for the general student body. That rate was 71 percent at Texas, 19 percentage points better than for student-athletes.

"We spend a couple of million dollars a year on academic support," Dodds said.

jmaher@statesman.com; 445-3956