- Jason King
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LAS VEGAS -- Before he agreed to take over Texas A&M's basketball program a year ago, Billy Kennedy did the proper research.
Or so he thought.
Kennedy studied the returning roster, asked questions about the program's budget and made sure he felt comfortable with the administrators he'd deal with on a daily basis. Looking back, though, Kennedy said he wishes he had done one thing differently.
"There's no question," Kennedy said, "that I should've asked about the APR. I just assumed the situation was fine, and it wasn't. Fortunately, we got things back in great shape, but you still need to know from the beginning what you're getting into."
Especially these days.
In June, it was announced that a record 10 men's basketball teams will be ineligible for the 2013 postseason because of a poor showing on the Academic Progress Rate, which measures the classroom performance of every Division I team.
The headliner of the group: Connecticut. Two years after winning the NCAA title, the Huskies and Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun won't be allowed to compete in the NCAA tournament this spring. Or the NIT, for that matter.
"The NCAA wanted a school like UConn, a big BCS school," said one college coach who asked to remain anonymous. "It made news, it created a buzz. It sent a message."
Consider it received.
Perhaps now more than ever, coaches are closely monitoring their athletes' academic progress in hopes of avoiding a similar fate. The perception that the NCAA protects its banner programs and looks the other way when issues arise is gone. If it can happen at Connecticut, they said, it can happen anywhere.
"A lot of times we make rules but, when they don't work, we change them," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. "This time, they backed it up with UConn. They tried to get a waiver and it got denied.
"The NCAA stayed strong. They didn't just talk the talk. They backed it up."
Implemented in 2004, the APR tracks how individual players perform in the classroom each semester and then calculates their marks into an overall team grade. Squads who fall short of the APR threshold of 925, which is equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate, are subject to penalties ranging from postseason bans to restrictions on scholarships and practice time.
Most coaches praise former NCAA president Myles Brand for coming up with the idea nearly a decade ago. All the way up until his death in 2009, Brand was a champion for academic reform in college athletics.
Still, while Brand's APR may have been well-intended, coaches say it's hardly without flaws.
The main complaint is that the APR's guidelines are too rigid, too cut-and-dry. They say it penalizes schools for situations that are often out of a coach's control.
"It can't be a 'this is it' or 'this is the only way,'" Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. "In some situations, adjustments need to be made. Some part of it has to be chameleon to what's happening in our society, in our game."
Coaches often inherit APR issues during their first year at a new school. The previous coach may not have stressed academics or done a good job of monitoring his players' grades. It's also natural for athletes to seek transfers when there is a coaching change. And transfers can be a big problem.
It can't be a 'this is it' or 'this is the only way.' In some situations, adjustments need to be made. Some part of it has to be chameleon to what's happening in our society, in our game.
”-- SIU coach Barry Hinson
Schools aren't penalized for athletes who are in "good academic standing" when they switch schools. That means they have a grade point average of 2.6 or better. But a program will take a hit when a player leaves with a sub-2.6 GPA.
Southern Illinois athletic director Mario Moccia initially caught some heat when he declined to grant a release to a player who wanted to transfer after Hinson was hired in March.
Freshman forward Treg Setty had a 2.5 GPA when he requested his release last spring, but Moccia wouldn't release him until he raised it to 2.6. Setty threw a fit and claimed he was being treated unfairly. By the end of the semester, though, he had raised his GPA. SIU granted him a release and he transferred to Ohio University.
"They can transfer with a 2.0 and be eligible at their new school," Hinson said. "But if they leave with anything below a 2.6, we're penalized. That doesn't seem right."
Players leaving school early for the NBA draft can also cause problems. Syracuse was docked two scholarships when Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris left campus before the end of the spring semester in 2009 to train without fulfilling their academic requirements.
"The APR is a work in progress," Kennedy said. "There needs to be some adjustments made when it comes to coaching changes and transition. There needs to be an appeals process that's fair. There are so many variables involved in the whole process, with kids leaving for the NBA, transferring or whatever else.
"Those are things that a program doesn't have control over. You shouldn't be penalized for that."
Another trend is for players to earn their undergraduate degree before exhausting their eligibility. When that happens, an athlete can transfer to another school for his final season without having to sit out a year.
"Then their new school gets credit APR-wise for their fourth year and the old school gets nothing," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "Kids have the mentality that they can press the 'reset' button and everything will be OK, but they don't realize who it's affecting.
"I'm all in favor of the academic side of it. But some tweaking needs to be done. Issues come up that you can't really prepare for."
It's not as if coaches weren't warned, though.
Hinson remembers sitting next to former Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt during a Division I coaches meeting in 2004 when Brand discussed the APR.
"It was like [Brand] was making a big proclamation," Hinson said. "He told us over and over again, 'Guys, this is not going away. We're serious.'
"I remember turning to Dickey and saying, 'The college basketball landscape is about to change.'"
Hinson has long been a proponent of academic reform and takes pride in his players' success in the classroom. Hinson said 46 of the 49 players who exhausted their eligibility at Oral Roberts and Missouri State went on to receive their diplomas. That's why he said he doesn't feel as if he's "talking out of both sides of my mouth" when he criticizes the APR.
"I feel like I can stick my chest out a little bit and argue for coaches' rights," he said.
Hinson said the thing that bothers him about the APR the most is that it can influence the disciplinary tactics that coaches use to maintain integrity in their programs.
For instance, if a player gets arrested for selling drugs or is involved in a violent crime, the program will take an APR hit if the coach kicks him off the team with a GPA below 2.6.
"You could literally have a kid that walked out on the street, beat someone to a pulp, have everyone witness it and everyone see it," Hinson said. "But you can't get rid of him without there being a penalty on your team.
"If I have a burr in my saddle right now about the APR, something I'm really upset about, that would be it. I feel like, in some ways, the APR has handcuffed some coaches who really want to do the right thing with their programs. Right now, it is not flexible enough to allow a head coach to make decisions that are very important to the integrity of the team.
"We've had several incidents where, in years past, I would've just said, 'Bye.' But because of the APR, we've kept the kids. I've been fortunate that in each one of those situations, we feel like we're making great strides with the individual players."
George Mason coach Paul Hewitt is another coach who said he has a tremendous amount of respect for Brand and his efforts in regard to academics. But he, too, sees a number of flaws with the APR.
"The APR is well-intended," Hewitt said, "but the application is not very practical."
Hewitt noted that the expansion of various conferences has increased the travel requirements for schools across the country. For example, instead of playing road games in Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey -- as it did in the Big East -- new ACC member Syracuse will now have to fly to such states as Georgia, Florida, Virginia and the Carolinas.
"You can't have APR the way it is now and then have conferences getting bigger and bigger geographically," Hewitt said. "You just can't. Don't ask them to graduate faster and score higher [in the classroom] and then add more travel and more pressure at the same time. I don't want to hear that.
"You're asking them to feed into the stereotype and dummy out and take easier classes. You're begging for them to cheat."
Hewitt also cited a study by the NCAA that charts graduation rates among college athletes compared to the rest of the student body.
According to the report, both white and black student-athletes who entered college in 2004 graduated at a higher percentage than their regular classmates.
The numbers are especially telling when it comes to African-Americans, as 50 percent of black male athletes in the study group received degrees compared to 38 percent of black males who did not participate in sports. And 66 percent of black female athletes graduate compared to 46 percent of non-athletes.
"I do understand the need for higher graduation rates," Hewitt said. "We want 100 percent, if we can. But the graduation rates are already exceeding those of the normal student. If those players are exceeding the group that they come from, what's the objective? What are we trying to do?"
Hewitt said it frustrates him when talking heads criticize colleges for "using" athletes.
"I hear [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan say things, and I get concerned, because I'm not sure he understands the issue," Hewitt said. "He says schools are taking advantage of these kids. No, they're not. The best chance a black male has of graduating from college is if he's an athlete. They're benefitting from the financial help, the discipline, the structure.
"The kids I had when I coached at Siena would've had no chance of going to college without basketball. Now they're college graduates. They're raising families because of basketball. This whole idea that athletics is not doing a good job with kids that come from poor backgrounds, that we're just bringing to school and using them that's a myth. That's not true. Good things are happening here."
The message has been received: The APR means business. But is it fair? While well-intentioned, the NCAA's attempt at academic reform has plenty of critics in the coaching community.