- Sean Adams, Contributor, HornsNation
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It is undeniable that the University of Texas is one of the best and brightest public institutions of higher education in the country. While the state's unofficial credo is everything is bigger and better in Texas, the Longhorns' athletic department is no different in scope, intent or reality.
The University of Texas was ranked No. 1 in the country among the NCAA with over $150 million in revenue in 2010-11.
Since Mack Brown's first season in Austin in 1998, the football program has had 12 9-win seasons, nine 10-win seasons, two Big 12 Conference Championships, a Rose Bowl win, a Fiesta Bowl win and a national championship.
With everything from conference realignment, television contracts, coaching carousels, a proposed new playoff system, a changing bowl system, a tough national economy and deepening issues with programs running afoul of the NCAA, a university can find itself taking its eyes off of the prize.
"Graduating kids is more important than winning," Texas athletics director DeLoss Dodds said. "We can't convince the public of that but it's true. Football graduation rates at Texas are as high as they've ever been at 71 percent. Getting that degree is what it's all about."
While that 71 percent graduation rate is growing ever closer the overall University of Texas six-year graduation rate of 81 percent, Brown still looks at the big picture regardless of a finite amount of time for the attainment of the degree.
"In doing this 30-something years, I think we owe the kids the right to get their degree," the Texas coach said. "I don't worry as much about the GPA. I do worry about graduating. If you don't have your degree now it's so much more difficult out there."
Every athlete is different and they all arrive at a college campus with different intentions, goals, desires and confidence levels on things outside of football. Athletes often mature in life differently than they mature in sports and that has to be part of the conversation when talking about graduation.
"Their dream is not to graduate usually when they get here. Their dream is to play in the NFL. They've gotta' run that dream," Brown said.
After that dream runs out is when the value of the education becomes truly important and Brown feels that is where the support of the university pays off.
"We make then promise when they leave," Brown said. "The only thing we want is for them to finish school. We'll pay for it. We'll put you in the weight room. We'll let you work in the academic center. We'll let you mentor the other kids. But we want you to finish school. That's what you owe us and in time will owe yourself."
Whether players have pro careers that rival that of former Longhorn and Super Bowl champion Casey Hampton or they spend time on special teams and quietly end their career when they no longer receive an invitation to a training camp, the education is there for them at Texas.
It is often after success or failure in the NFL that the value of the education is better appreciated.
"So many of them grow up at different times," Brown said. "Some of them laugh now and say, "I'm actually going to class now coach. It works so much better when you're going to class."
And the returning players become UT's secret weapons to those current athletes on campus.
"We have so many NFL guys," Brown said. "They're coming back and telling the younger ones that this is harder than you think. You're not going to make a living doing this. You make some money up front. You may get a year. You may get four years. But you're not going to do this the rest of your life so finish school."
It's that accomplishment of his players that Brown cherishes in his career.
"What I'm proud of is playing for two national championships in 2005 and 2009 and half of the seniors had already graduated," he said.
Just look at Saturday's commencement ceremony for more evidence of Texas' commitment to its player academics. Eighteen football players graduated this spring. Of those, Ryan Roberson and Jeremy Hills still have a year to play but have handled the academic rigors to complete their degrees already.
There is a huge variance between a student-athlete being eligible and being educated. Texas is trying to educate and has gone the extra mile to insure that, even for players who have gone on to professional success, the education is still a priority.
"We don't care if you've made $20 million we'll pay for it," Brown said. "It doesn't make any difference."
Providing the opportunity and supporting the progress of the student-athlete is the obligation of the university and the athletic department. The responsibility of the student-athlete is to capitalize on the gift and seize the opportunity.
This is where society, the fans, the media and the athletes have to learn to truly appreciate the under-appreciated adage of, "Better late than never."
A degree is of great value at 22 but might be worth more at 32.
Whether it's the 18 football players who graduated this spring or pushing players to finish degrees, Texas is showing that academics are paramount.