Fixing College Football: Academic Standards Need to Rise to the Top

Paul McGuillicuddyAnalyst IJanuary 6, 2008

Monday night, college football will crown its champion. 

In the climate-controlled comfort of the Louisiana Superdome, the Ohio State Buckeyes and Louisiana State Tigers will vie for ultimate bragging rights.  

Of course, even after the season's end, the discussion of the BCS (Bowl Collusion Syndicate) and its validity will continue.

Opponents of the BCS will have a Tank Johnson-size arsenal of ammo with which to argue.  After their recent performances, Georgia, USC, Kansas, Missouri, and West Virginia all have a legitimate claim to the title.  

Furthermore, opponents can criticize the amount of time between games for teams participating in the bowls and the subsequent poor play.  Did anyone catch the Sun Bowl?  South Florida and Oregon combined for twenty-one penalties.  In the Holiday Bowl Colt McCoy fumbled four times, yet Texas still pounded Arizona State 52-34. 

I have watched part or all of twelve bowl games and early mistakes were as regular as my grandma on Ex-Lax.  Who can blame them? These kids haven't played a game in over a month—of course their timing is going to be off.

Proponents of the BCS will carry on about college football's "unique" postseason format.  That there is not a title in any major sport decided quite like what we have in college football; that the college football title is decided every weekend; that one loss could doom a team's chances...

Oops!   That one went by the wayside this year. 

Yeah, the college football format is "unique."  Kinda like the relationship between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.  There's no questioning Cruise and Holmes have a "unique" marriage—just not sure it's for me.  But if that's what you want, far be it from me to tell you how to run your life.

Discussing the possibility/logistics/need for a playoff format in college football seems to only scratch the surface.  It is as if the NCAA has adopted the mantra:  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" when it comes to college football. 

One might think that college football is trying to recreate the fortunes—or misfortunes—of Milli Vanilli.  For those who have forgotten, M.V. was a pop/dance act of the late 80s that rose to stardom and eventually won a Grammy.  Later, it was discovered the band did not actually perform their songs, and the prestigious award was revoked.

The BCS, CFB, and the NCAA are doing a remarkable impersonation of college football—they are lip-syncing their way through this charade.  Why not!  They are filling their coffers with plenty of cha-ching, and we are perpetuating this sham.

Last May, the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) announced their annual Academic Achievement Award.  This recognition is given annually to the Division 1-A institution with the best graduation rate for the year.  Both Notre Dame and Northwestern shared the honor, with a 95% graduation rate for their freshman classes of 2001-2002.   

For Northwestern, the recognition marks the fifth time since 1998 the Wildcats took home the award.  (Prior to then only College Football Association (CFA) members were eligible for the award.) 

Notre Dame has earned the award seven times, and Duke twelve times. 

Thirty-two other institutions received honorable mention for graduating at least 70% of their class.  Below you will find the list of schools mentioned by the AFCA along with the 2008 Recruiting Class rankings by (ranked in order, 1-25).  

Notre Dame                                                       Notre Dame

Alabama                                                            Alabama

Georgia                                                             Northwestern

Florida State                                                      Arkansas State

Miami-Fl.                                                           Ball State

UCLA                                                                 Baylor

Ohio State                                                           Bowling Green

Texas                                                                    Cincinnati

Southern Cal                                                      Connecticut

Florida                                                                  Florida

LSU                                                                        Indiana

Oklahoma                                                           Iowa

Texas A&M                                                         La. Tech

Michigan                                                              Miami (Ohio)

Auburn                                                                 Miss. St.

Clemson                                                              Nebraska

Va. Tech                                                               UNC

Illinois                                                                   Ohio University

Colorado                                                              Penn State

Pittsburgh                                                           Rice

Minnesota                                                          Rutgers

Ok. State                                                             Syracuse

Washington                                                        Texas

California                                                             TCU

Boston College                                                  Boston College

                                                                                Texas Tech




                                                                                Virginia Tech



By conference:

Top Recruiting Class:                                       Academic Achievement

SEC – 5                                                                                  SEC - 4

Big 12 – 5                                                                             Big 12 - 4

ACC – 4                                                                                 ACC - 5

Big 10/11 – 4                                                                       Big 10 - 5

Pac 10 – 4                                                                            Pac 10 - 1

Big East – 1                                                                          Big East - 4

Independent – 1                                                              Independent – 1

                                                                                                Mid-American – 5

                                                                                                Sun Belt – 2

                                                                                                Conference USA – 1

                                                                                                Mountain West – 1

                                                                                                Western Athletic – 1

There are some conspicuous absences from the AFCA list.  First, Navy, Army, Air Force, and Stanford are not on the list.  Not all D1 institutions contribute to the Academic Achievement Award.  The AFCA did not publish a list of these schools, but my guess is the service academies and Stanford don't need the recognition of that award to tell them they are fulfilling their academic requirements.

Also missing from the list:  LSU, OSU, USC, and Oklahoma—to mention a few.   Hmm...I am not so sure about these institutions fulfilling their academic requirements. 

The AFCA has a list of all winners and those earning honorable mention since 1984.  USC appears on the list once (2000).  Ohio State does not appear.   

L.S.U.? Once. Oklahoma? One time.

Since 1985, SEC teams have won five national college football titles.  Pac-10 teams have won three. Big 12, seven.  Big Ten, two. ACC, one.  Florida State has two titles, Miami (FL) has four, and independents have won two national titles. 

The SEC, Pac-10, and Big 12 have all won more national titles in the last two decades than they have had teams graduate 70% or more of their players two years ago. 

That's graduation, folks.  This is not Magna Cum Laude, or graduating with a 4.0.  These are overall, basic graduation rates.  In 2006, only thirty-four of the 120 Division 1-A schools graduated 70% or more of their football players.  34? 

Yet, these are the teams who are winning the recruiting battle.  What basis are they using to recruit?  Shouldn't the system reward schools which graduate student-athletes?

The AFCA award does not allow for degree of difficulty.  There is no distinguishing between an Astro-Physicist degree and a University Studies degree.  The bottom line is: Did the student-athlete qualify for a degree? 

I am not suggesting that football players should take on a degree program such as Astro-Physics, or Bio-Chem, Pre-Med, or Pre-Law (although some do).  Lord knows they have a difficult enough schedule to maintain while playing inter-scholastic sports. 

But if they are going to play college football, shouldn't they earn a degree?  Shouldn't university leaders and administration encourage these endeavors?

One of the common arguments I have heard has been: "Isn't the role of college to prepare student-athletes for their career?  Then these guys are being prepared for a career in football."

That argument sounds good—until you consider between Division I-A, I-AA, and Division II, there are 388 football teams.  The NFL consists of thirty-two organizations.  Student-athletes from 388 universities compete for jobs in thirty-two organizations. 

Man!  The Giants have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl. 

Before you question why I would include Division IAA and Division II, consider Alcorn St. (Steve McNair), Morehead St. (Phil Simms), Mississippi Valley State (Jerry Rice), and Kutztown (Andre Reed).

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) estimates that only 0.2% of all high-school seniors playing football will ever receive a paycheck from the NFL. 

To be more specific—only 310 players are invited to the annual NFL scouting combine.  On average, less than one player from each college will get an invitation.

Not to mention that for those earning a roster spot, the average NFL career lasts three and a half years.  Full retirement benefits come after a five year career.

This is what we call preparing student-athletes for a career path?  Sure, some guys can make rosters as practice players.  Others will earn jobs as coaches.  They might make some money. 

But has anyone taken the time to follow the path of a college coach?  It is not for the faint of heart.  It is also not for someone unfamiliar with the rigor involved in studying for courses.  

Other than BYU in 1984 and the occasional Notre Dame title, the college football championship has been limited to the six power conferences.  We have to go back to Army in 1945 to find a school from outside the big conferences that won a title.  Yet the small conferences graduate student-athletes at a similar or better rate than the schools from the power conferences. 

Is this competition?

At the risk of sounding like Kelly Preston, is this not America?  Seriously, aren't we about giving everyone, especially the little guy, a chance? 

Can't we see what's right in front of us?  The power conferences have a stranglehold on the title and the chances of qualifying for the title. This allows them to win the recruiting battles every year, and college football becomes an endless cycle of big-time football and big-time paydays.

It doesn't have to be this way. Take a look at college baseball—Rice, UC-Irvine, Wichita St., and Cal-State Fullerton all rank in the pre-season Top 25. 

Yeah, I know that's baseball.  Yeah, I know it costs a lot more to run a football program.  I also know that college baseball does not generate as much revenue—yet.  For now college baseball seems somewhat removed from the big-time collusion of Division 1A college football.

Wanna change college football?  Return it to college football instead of some feeder system for the NFL.  Stop misleading these kids into thinking their roads are paved to NFL riches. Instead, make college football about college first and football second. 

Scholarships should equal graduation rates.  Each school gets twenty-five scholarships per year or a total of eighty-five, taking into account redshirt players.  If kids don't graduate, their schools lose scholarships. 

Sound extreme?  It's only extreme because the system has deteriorated to the point where graduation has become a diminished priority within some universities.  These schools can survive minus a couple of scholarships.  Division I-AA schools, like Appalachian State, only have sixty-three scholarships—and the Mountaineers did the unthinkable earlier this year: winning in the Big House.

This idea is not that far-fetched.  The NCAA has already put into place the Academic Progress Rate (APR), but the penalties for this program are only mentioned as "eventual."  The sooner it is implemented the better.

The NCAA needs to go further, and stop slapping institutions on the wrist.  If a coach rolls the dice and brings in a kid whose academic pursuits are questionable, but that player elevates the team's competitive standing, that coach needs to know that some level of consequence exists.  There has to be a balance.

Should this exist for all college sports?  Absolutely!  As I say this, I know there are some people are gasping for air, and maybe even hyperventilating.  Some will argue that implementing such a plan will diminish the overall entertainment value of college sports. 

Folks, individuals who perform in the classroom can perform on the athletic field.  It can happen.

Let's not stop there.  College football needs a playoff system, and they need a format that allows all eleven conferences a shot at the title.  Sixteen teams should qualify for the playoff.  Each conference woud get an automatic bid, and five at-large bids could be given from there. 

Sure, this format will create some lopsided first-round matchups—at first.

But you know what will happen?  Eventually the playing field will level. 

Small schools will be able to go into the living rooms of the top recruits and have a fighting chance to sign that kid.  Student-athletes—who thought their only chance for major exposure was to play in a power conference—will see a school from the WAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA, Western Athletic, or Mid-American as a viable opportunity.  Equity will eventually happen.

This will also have a trickle-down effect.  Kids in high schools will learn that they need to maintain a positive academic standing and seek to improve their effort in the classroom. 

I have seen this first-hand.  A former student of mine was recruited by Penn State.  Prior to his first contact with the school, he was a low-performing kid in the classroom.  After he was told by the Nittany Lion coaching staff that he needed to prove his ability to succeed in the classroom, he changed his ways.  That kid went on to graduate from Penn State, earning All-Big Ten Conference honors.  It can happen!

The only thing stopping this is fear.  Fear of a loss of revenue.  Fear that the big schools will lose their assumed entitlement to the crown.  Fear of a decrease in entertainment value.  Fear of change.

As a final statement—while researching and writing this piece, my views crystallized on the notion of student-athletes receiving a salary.  When one considers that a student-athlete receives, room, board—man, a football player's board has gotta be significant—books, classes, tutoring, top coaching, facilities, travel expenses, and a life-long network, it is hard to imagine they need much more. 

That is, of course, if they value what they are getting.  Give them some cash to get to and from home, and maybe a little spending money, but that's it.

Those in charge may think college football ain't broken.  Maybe we should follow Paul Westerberg's lead and teach them "to fix what needs to be broke."


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