The 2012-13 school year was no banner season for the Southwestern Athletic Conference in the world of academics.
When the NCAA’s latest Academic Progress Rates were released in June, 10 athletic programs from the conference faced postseason bans for 2013-14. But since then, one school — Alabama State — has seen four of its programs taken off the ban after all data related to the APR was completely reviewed.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff is hoping for the same outcome with its men’s basketball team, as is Mississippi Valley State in football, baseball and men’s basketball. Those teams’ APR data are still under NCAA review.
In recent years, APR-related bans and other NCAA-issued penalties, ranging from reduced practice time to scholarship reductions, have been commonplace among SWAC teams in many sports. Thirteen SWAC men’s and women’s teams have been slapped with penalties outside of postseason bans for 2013-14 because of their struggles with the APR program, designed by the NCAA to measure eligibility and retention for Division I student-athletes.
“So, we have to look at the student-athletes we’re bringing on campus and say, ‘Can they be successful not only academically but athletically?’” SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp said Monday at SWAC Football Media Day in Birmingham, Ala. “And when you get them on campus, the idea is to keep them there.”
A student-athlete who receives athletically related financial aid earns one retention point for staying in school and one eligibility point for being academically eligible. The total points are divided by points possible and then multiplied by 1,000 to figure the APR.
Teams must have scored a four-year APR of 900 or two-year APR of 930 to avoid sanctions. Academic data for the past school year is not counted in APR scores.
“I think we do a really good job with our eligibility point,” Sharp said. “What we lose is the retention point. We’ve got a lot of people who wind up transferring or leaving for one reason or another. So, once you get them on campus, you’ve got to keep them there.”
Aside from the mathematical formula, the main challenge for every Division I athletic program is to ensure each student-athlete is making necessary progress toward a degree. But that has been a challenge in the SWAC, where most if not all of its 10 member universities are limited-resource institutions.
Football coaches Karl Morgan of Mississippi Valley State and Reggie Barlow of Alabama State have cited a lack of academic support resources in their mission for academic progress.
“If we’re going to talk about APR, let’s start with the resources,” Morgan said. “Let’s start with the money. Let’s start with the people.”
Said Barlow: “Most of our schools are limited-resource, and we don’t have all the academic advisors you’d want to have, the class-checkers and some of the things the FBS schools have. The APR is here and here to stay, and I think it’s three-fold: We have to do a good job of getting the kids who have a desire to be in college and not just playing football, the student-athlete has a responsibility to stay committed, go to class and learn, and then the academic staff has to be in place where we’re holding study hall, having tutors for students.”
UAPB athletic director Lonza Hardy last month revealed that his department is establishing an academic support center for all of the school’s teams. He added the athletic department has obtained a grant from the NCAA for a learning specialist and has a grant pending with the association for another.
According to Morgan, Valley has had four different compliance directors in the three years he’s been head coach, which has led to misplaced or erroneous APR data.
“The thing we’ve got to do, and it’s our biggest issue at Mississippi Valley, is manpower,” Morgan said. “We don’t have enough people. The athletic department, there’s not a whole lot of personnel to track the eligibility.
“There was a $900,000 grant (from the NCAA) a couple of years ago or last year that Jackson State got. If anybody needed it, we needed it. We are (among) the lowest-resource schools in the country.”
Alabama State’s football, men’s basketball, baseball and women’s volleyball teams faced the possibility of not winning a postseason championship on the conference or national levels until the NCAA overturned bans for those teams in late June.
“Once we were able to submit some of our additional names and changes, it allowed us to get some of our programs to get points we had initially lost,” Barlow said. “We’re grateful for that.”
Organizing and turning in academic data to the NCAA has been a common issue among some SWAC schools, according to Sharp. UAPB men’s basketball coach George Ivory has blamed his team’s APR woes on incorrect data used to factor the APR, namely data of a Dominic Moore from another school other than a similarly-named past UAPB player.
The UAPB and Valley men’s basketball teams served postseason bans this past school year. UAPB posted its first winning season in three years.
Sharp said it is difficult to address any possible initiatives that would address academic matters across the conference because each campus is different and student-athletes may leave campus for different reasons. But he said each of the SWAC schools’ presidents or chancellors have been given a “white paper” that explains the basics of the APR program.
“As long as you’re giving them accurate information, you’ll be OK,” Sharp said. “I think a lot of that has been our issue too. A lot of the information that has been given isn’t most recent. So you want to make sure what you’re giving them is 100 percent accurate.”
Barlow said he’s not having trouble recruiting and landing athletes who would academically qualify to compete at higher-profile schools.
“We’re getting the same kid from an academic standpoint that Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Texas are getting,” he said. “Kids who have a 2.5 core GPA who’s made 18, 19 on the ACT, that’s what they’re getting. But they have the resources to have a lot of stuff in place.”
Texas Southern’s football team was hit with APR-related penalties during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, including a loss of almost 15 scholarships in 2011 and a postseason ban last season. As part of the sanctions, the Tigers did not hold spring drills this year.
Also, the team is serving NCAA sanctions including no postseason through 2014 for violations related to a lack of institutional control. Those violations included academic improprieties.
But some good has come in the midst of the setbacks. Texas Southern last month was named the recipient of the APR Most Improved Award for the SWAC by the Football Championship Subdivision Athletics Directors Association. Although not in the NCAA’s public APR database, Texas Southern coach Darrell Asberry said the latest APR score for his team is 961.
“All those (APR) penalties are behind us now,” Asberry said. “We’re very positive in understanding the direction we’re going. The kids are going to class. We feel really good about this.”
Texas Southern added two academic advisors for football by the time Asberry was hired after the 2011 season, but the coach hasn’t left responsibilities for academic improvement completely up to them.
His coaching staff monitors the players’ study hall and classes each day.
“If a kid misses, we suspend the kid,” Asberry said. “There’s no gray area. We really had to be hard-nosed.”
Players at Texas Southern must also turn in a progress report sheet every week to be able to participate in games.
“Now, once we got it going in the right direction, the tough part is to maintain it,” Asberry said. “Kids are buying into it. That’s the most important thing.”