Pressure on academic support staffs

As APR penalties become real, those tasked with helping athletes feel the heat

Originally Published: August 7, 2012
By Robbi Pickeral | ESPN.com

It's 7:40 p.m. on a Monday, and Ellen Tripp, the interim director of UConn's Counseling Program for Intercollegiate Athletics, sounds tired. Since about 7:30 a.m., she has been attending administrative meetings, counseling students, returning e-mails and phone calls, and leading a freshman-introduction study hall.

In the 14 years she has been employed by the Huskies, Tripp and her colleagues always have worked long hours. But these days, there's an increased urgency to rejuvenate and inspire the athletes in the academic support program after the men's basketball team was barred from the 2013 postseason because its APR scores didn't measure up. And to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"In all honesty, we do feel the pressure [in academic support], but that's just part of being in this field all over the country. And that's why you have to love doing it," said Tripp, who is still a counselor for the football team and works with women's basketball. "The standards have risen, and I'm sure three to five years from now, we'll see another increase. … We want to be ready for it."

As little as 25 years ago, academic support programs at big-budget schools consisted of one or two full-timers working out of a single office somewhere on campus.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Royal Stadium
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireThe fifth floor of UT's Darrell K. Royal Stadium is home to a gigantic academics center for non-football athletes. The football team has its own.

Today, by comparison, North Carolina State employs 13 full-timers (eight with advising responsibilities), 65 to 70 tutors and a handful of interns and monitors.

At the University of Texas, tutors, students, mentors, academic staff and coaches average a combined 4,000 hours a week (from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Friday) at the Student-Athlete Services Office, a space on the fifth floor of the football stadium that's specifically designated for all athletes (except football players, who have their own center) to study and get academic support. This fiscal year alone, the Longhorns plan to spend $2.6 million on academic support.

The numbers -- and the pressure -- increased sharply in 2003, when the NCAA eased admission standards by allowing athletes with lower SAT or ACT exam scores to still qualify with a higher GPA. But near the same time, the NCAA raised the stakes for keeping those student-athletes in school by pushing the emphasis on APR, a calculation that measures the graduation of athletes and classroom performance. If a team scores below a certain threshold, it could lose scholarships, practice time and its chance to compete in the postseason.

Connecticut became the first basketball program in a "big six" conference to face the last punishment when it failed to record a two-year average APR score of 930 or a four-year average of 900.

"What happened [at UConn] definitely was an eye-opener, especially when the penalty stuck," said Carrie Leger, NC State's associate AD for academics and student services. "I think everyone in the country who might have thought, 'Well, it's not real' has had their mind changed, and quickly. Now, everyone in the country says, 'It's real. We've got to stay the heck above 930, because we don't want to be one of the teams on that list.'"

And the challenge for all academic support departments only gets steeper in the future: To participate in championships in 2014-15, teams must earn a 930 four-year average APR or a 940 average over the most recent two years. In 2015-16 and beyond, teams must earn a four-year APR of 930 to compete in championships.

"Does it increase the pressure on academic support?" Leger asked. "I might not describe it that way, although I think a lot of people would."


The biggest challenge for academic support departments is balancing the "student" with the "athlete." Unlike most of the student body, athletes have to plan their classes (and sometimes majors) around practice, games and workouts. And with rules such as a 40-60-80 requirement (which mandates that an athlete must have 40 percent of his/her degree completed after four semesters, 60 after six and 80 after eight), there's little wiggle room to change majors. Or to fail.

Often, athletes also don't have to meet the same entry requirements as the regular student body, meaning they're less prepared for the rigors of academic life.

It's one of the reasons the number of academic-related NCAA infractions doubled from the 10 years before 2003 to the decade after, according to Gerald Gurney, a former president of the National Association for Academic Advisers for Athletics, who was an associate athletic director for academics at Oklahoma from 1993 from 2011.

What happened [at UConn] definitely was an eye-opener, especially when the penalty stuck. I think everyone in the country who might have thought, 'Well, it's not real' has had their mind changed, and quickly.

-- Carrie Leger, NC State associate AD for academics and student services

And it only adds to the stress of being in academic support.

"This job is not for everybody," Tripp said. "You've got to have patience, and integrity, and the ability to juggle a lot of things. But it's also really, really rewarding, especially when you see student-athletes succeed."

Indeed, Texas senior associate athletic director Randa Ryan still has a picture in her office of one-and-done Longhorns forward Kevin Durant. At a UT academics banquet in 2007, he refused to answer reporters' questions about the NBA draft because he was celebrating the award he received for earning a 3.0 GPA.

That still makes Ryan smile: "Every time they run some sort of special on him, I look at this list of his awards to make sure that one is mentioned."

The Longhorns men's basketball team has scored a perfect 1000 on its multiyear APR the past three summers, and Ryan, coach Rick Barnes said, is a huge reason why.

In 2005, after star guard P.J. Tucker was ruled academically ineligible for the spring semester, Barnes met with athletic director DeLoss Dodds and reconfigured the way academics was stressed -- beginning with talking Ryan, who had been working with the women's program, into joining his team.

Study halls were immediately moved to pre-practice. A constant line of communication between coaches and academic counselors was formed. The culture changed, Ryan said, because athletic schedules were built around academics -- not vice versa.

"One thing I tell our athletes is, 'You should want it all. And there's no reason you can't have it all if you do your part,'" said Barnes, who added that he has used some of Ryan's teaching techniques in his coaching. "I truly believe someone almost has to be rebellious not to get things accomplished at the University of Texas. … Academically, athletically, we're all on the same team."


Although having a separate academic support program for athletes has become fairly standard at big-budget schools, programs around the country run things in different ways. Most use varying combinations of counselors, advisers, mentors and tutors -- in different numbers, with different job responsibilities, from different parts of campus -- in an attempt to get the job done.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun & Gene Smith
Bob Donnan/US PresswireJust two years after winning it all, Jim Calhoun and UConn will be staying home this March.

One constant, though: the increased stress of knowing what happens if you don't succeed.

"It's almost like the stages of death," Tripp said of the reaction at UConn to the basketball APR sanctions. "There's disbelief, and there's denial, and there's bargaining, you go through that process. And you finally get to acceptance. And I'm not sure, to be honest with you, that everybody has reached that [acceptance] point.

"… And you can't help but take it personally. You see how it affects the current students, the ones who are being punished for what happened in the past. And it's hard."

The Huskies are moving forward, though. The entire basketball team took classes during summer session, trying to get ahead and prove they are taking their grades seriously. Study halls have become more regimented. New athletic director Warde Manuel reviews every transcript of every recruit, making sure Connecticut is admitting the right student-athletes.

UConn basketball's most recent one-year APR score, for 2010-11, was a 978, pushing it back in the right direction. But Tripp and her colleagues are determined to keep going.

"I think we're always going to have that pressure no matter what, because we want our students to succeed academically," Tripp said. "The staff here, we understand that for most of our students, they're not going to play professionally -- they're not going to go to the Olympics. And a degree for many of them is going to be able to catapult them to the next phase of their life. And the increase in [APR] standards, that's part of being in this occupation."