Tate, Part I: UI standards out of whack

Tate, Part I: UI standards out of whack

First in a three-part series

“The success of the university, in part, is seen through the eyes of athletics, and vice versa.”

That’s what UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise says, and her sentiment is widely accepted.

The men’s basketball and football teams have always been rallying points for large segments of alumni. In the halcyon days of athletic director Neale Stoner, when “the ’80s belonged to the Illini,” tents from various colleges — ACES, LAS, Business, etc. — surrounded Memorial Stadium to welcome returning alums. A jubilant Illini spirit carried across the campus, peaking with the wondrous November football run in 1983 to the Rose Bowl.

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Why would anyone build roadblocks for a replay of that more pleasant period?

The problem here is that, while the UI is recognized with Michigan and Wisconsin nationally and internationally for their greatness as research institutions, Illinois is far behind athletically. Wins, resources, prospects, attendance ... Illinois is behind.

And part of the reason — emphasis on PART because there are many reasons — is the academic gap between NCAA qualifying standards and the level the UI insists upon.

This gap creates a reduced pool of athletes. Combine this reduced pool with the frustrating inability to attract Chicago-area football stars, and the problem multiplies. UI football talent level is deemed so far below par that one (perhaps-misguided) publication — USA Today’s College Football Magazine — projects the Illini 104th among 128 teams in 2014, and behind eight members of the Mid-American Conference. Eight! From a midmajor league!

Repeating, USA Today’s viewpoint is extreme and probably mistaken, but it reveals how others see the Illini.

Furthermore, the Big Ten’s Tom Dienhart rates the UI’s defensive front four 14th in a 14-team conference, and the UI’s veteran offensive linemen will play for their fifth line coach in five seasons. On the recruiting front, the incoming class is rated last in the Big Ten by USA Today, and the 2015 class with 12 early commits shows just two from the populous area north of Interstate 80 (DeKalb running back Dre Brown and Hales Franciscan defensive back Pat Nelson). Of Rivals.com’s top 30 players in the state, 18 are already committed elsewhere.

Bridge program derailed

There was a time when the UI could arrange special admits for substandard students. Howard Griffith sat out as a nonqualifier before erupting on the football scene. Nick Anderson and Ervin Small left Simeon as nonqualifiers, sat out a season and helped Illinois to the 1989 Final Four. Marcus Liberty made it through the bridge program during that same period.

Offered free to roughly 50 summer students, the bridge program was established in 1986 as the summer lead-in to the 100-student transition program designed to provide academic assistance to these students. After two years, with at least C grades in core courses, these nearly 200 students could join the college of their choice. Several closely monitored athletes would routinely be among this group, providing UI coaches with the ability to admit a few who might otherwise not be accepted.

The final bridge cohort was active in 2009, after which the program was dropped because of the cost. Insiders say this reduced Ron Zook’s ability to take academically marginal prospects, and that this was evident in his last two recruiting classes before Tim Beckman arrived.

The problem is complex. The university has retained much of its greatness despite several high-level scandals, some admissions misconduct reaching all the way to presidential and chancellor levels. These old problems have focused an unusually bright spotlight on admissions at a school where, in 2013, a huge group of 33,203 applicants (with average ACTs of 28.7) applied, 20,716 were admitted and 7,330 enrolled.

The campus admissions office is extremely selective. Consider that the middle 50 percent of freshmen in engineering last year averaged 31 to 34 (out of 36) on the ACT and were between 92 and 99 percent in high school class rank. College of Business freshmen arrived with ACTs of 29 to 32. Near the low end, the Division of General Studies, which took 1,562 freshmen (many with undetermined majors), shows 26-30 for ACTs and 80-93 percent in class rank.

Worlds apart

Some of the state’s premier athletes hail from the inner city, where it is a world apart academically.

The national ACT average is 20.6, but Chicago checked in at 17.7 in 2013. Of 427,000 Chicago Public League students from the nation’s third-largest conference, 77 percent were considered poor (eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch programs). The average ACT at Simeon is 16.9, Phillips 14.1, Crane 13.8. Orr, which turned out former Illini Myke Henry, shows 14.3.

Imagine the difference for Henry when, in a matter of a few months, the quality of students surrounding him doubled in test-score performance.

So the UI admissions board is disinclined to toss a marginal student into this red-hot learning environment unless he/she has shown a distinct ability to succeed ... to graduate. The NCAA’s sliding scale for enrollment has a deep bottom ... really low. For example, a student-athlete with a 2.5 GPA (between a B and C) needs just a 68 sum score on the ACT’s English, math, reading and science test. That computes to ACT 17, which is below the Chicago average.

Imagine having 17-score skills and winding up in the same classes with not only elite college students who average 28 but with the nation’s largest contingent of well-schooled foreign students. China alone has 5,766 students here, and they hail from that country’s most affluent and ambitious parents.

So, yes, there are reasons the UI is tough. But so is Michigan, and yet Wolverines football coach Brady Hoke had no trouble this summer taking USC transfer Ty Isaac, former teammate of Illini Josh Ferguson at Joliet Catholic, at precisely the same time Illini coaches realized Isaac probably wouldn’t be accepted here.

Let’s see now: Should I pick Illinois, where I might not be accepted, or Michigan, which awaits with open arms? Hard choice.

Other schools have ways. Illinois has lost its way.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.



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read the DI wrote on July 16, 2014 at 6:07 am

Old Man Tate's evidence here is as thin as the hair on his onion head. Complaining that a world class institute is hard to get in to? Retire already, fool.

Moonpie wrote on July 16, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Ah, I wondered where Sir Loren Bloviator has been. Clearly he’s back, with arguments as runny as the flu. He’s railing against the UI – heaven forbid – expecting its students to be, gee, I don’t know – actual students. Like a petulant child he cries, “Michigan looks the other way and compromises its standards to admit players who sometimes can barely read and write – why don’t we? Why can’t we have pretend students, too?” And just so we don’t forget that Sir Tate is also xenophobic, he manages to somehow mention those foreigners, by gosh, who actually study and learn, and what sort of lousy example is that to toss athletes into? Yes, Saint Tate is back.

bryan_05 wrote on July 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

If tax dollars are being used to fund athletic buildings, salaries, or scholarships then they should have the same standards as the school. After all it is a university.
When athletics become self sustainable they can do whatever they want.

Lostinspace wrote on July 16, 2014 at 10:07 am

We keep being told that football and basketball *are* self-sustainable.  The university contributes nothing except (mandatory) student fees.  Right?

If that's the case, it would be helpful if the president (or some other officer) would just say so.

There is a perfectly respectable reason for the university to offer classes in various sports activities for students who wish to take them.  But no reason at all why it should subsidize a commercial enterprise with inflated salaries (and perks) for coaches and other expenses (recruitment, travel, etc.), *especially* given the cries of financial stress.


C in Champaign wrote on July 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

There are clearly two options. either dumb down the university so that academically sub par student athletes can take classroom spots from deserving students, or bring back the summer bridge program.

Maybe, just maybe, if this is such a big barrier to recruiting, and subsequent success of the program, the Athletic Department should have raised funds to pay for a new summer bridge program intstead of worrying about luxury boxes.

Moose72 wrote on July 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

Loren is making good points, albeit from a sports perspective and not the real issue.  The bridge program was important not just because it brought in better athletes but because it offered the opportunity for inner city kids to attend the state's premier school in a way that helped them succeed.  There are many who have the innate intellectual ability to achieve but lack the knowledge base of their peers from more affluent areas.  The bridge program gave them the chance to catch up, to get the opportunity in life to succeed and break the cycle of poverty.  It didn't "dumb down" admission standards, just provided additional help and guidance.  The kids who entered that program faced a daunting task, to make up what they missed in two years so they could be on par with their classmates at U of I.  Many didn't make it but others did succeed, both academically and in life.  That includes athletes who brought football and basketball championships to Illinois and went on to productive careers.  I can't see why any Illini sports fan wouldn't want that brought back.

Bwp 5P wrote on July 16, 2014 at 9:07 am

What could possibly be wrong with helping a young person become successful at learning? If that was the bridge program, then WHY wouldn't you want to re-invest in it? It seems as though that fostered more competetive teams, which promoted better crowds and more fan loyalty (attendance $$$$).......then it may be self-sustaining for the University anyway. Maybe some of the Board could take a small cut to fund it?

Local Yocal wrote on July 16, 2014 at 10:07 am
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This is one of Loren Tate's greatest articles ever, a real masterpiece among many. For this is sports writing only someone with Tate's long knowledge base can do.

Tate has begun to address the systemic way the minor leagues of professional sports put together winning teams at the college level to explain the drought over at Memorial Stadium and The Insurance Company's Basketball Court.  Still, Tate swings and misses as to who is "out of whack." What's out of whack is the Chicago school system's disregard and disinvestment into the inner city schools. It's no surprise that the inner-city blue chippers cannot compete with the rigors of contemporary academia. The ACT and SAT tests were always culturally and racially biased anyway, and there is no way schools in Chicago were designed to educate a student equal to that of a wealthy student from New Trier or Bejign. Had Lebron James tried to apply to the U of I when he was coming out of high school, he would have been rejected as near-retarded. James, of course, is not retarded. Academically, however, I doubt he could write 10 coherent pages about anything when he was 18, let alone solve a trigonometry math problem.  Having attended the U of I as a student with classmates Perry Range, George Montgomery, Craig Tucker, James Griffith, Derek Harper, ect., I've seen firsthand how impossible it is for blue chip athletes coming from poor school districts in poor neighborhoods to compete at the elite level in academics.  While we had different majors at the time, I needed an elective to carry a full load to keep my financial aid, so being one credit short, I enrolled in a class called Basketball 101 offered at the University of Illinois for the one credit.Sounds ridiculous, blue chip athletes learning what they already know. The class, however, dealt with all facets of the sport: the rules, the history of the sport, the prominent people who revolutionized the sport, the equipment and it's manufacturing, stadiums and their architecture, the impact the sport has on the national economy, the evolving strategies of the game over the years, and the organizational structure of the sport from elementary, high school, college, and the professional game. Take the class lightly, and you won't have the notes from the lectures on very specific information, and doubtful you could pass the test. It was not a "hard" class, but diligence was required to earn a good grade.  My celebrity classmates, the players, showed up to class sporadically. When they did, they showed up tired and often fell asleep during the lectures. None of them took notes. None of them even carried backpacks like they were going to school. When it was learned later they were given "A's" in the class, it was easy to resent their priviledge as "stars" to be pampered. But then after graduation, what job outside playing basketball or coaching basketball or broadcasting basketball were they qualified for? Those job positions number in the mere hundreds for the good paying jobs available nationwide. Years later when I got a job teaching at the U of I, I once watched student Sergio McClain looking up at the stacks of thousands of books at the U of I undergraduate library, feeling tired and overwhelmed. Sergio had just got off the bus after a Big Ten game in Lafayette, Indiana. It was 11:00 p.m. He told his student-tutor (a lovely co-ed assigned to help him with his studies.) "I am soooo exhausted." How was he supposed to get the assigned term paper done on time?  It was disgusting to hear more years later Sergio was fired from his WDWS radio job as a radio color commentator after the games because twice on-air he suggested the college players should be paid. Sergio went on to take a job as a Franklin Middle School basketball coach for less than $7000 a-year. Perhaps Loren Tate should explain, if he hasn't already, what a typical week is like for a Division 1 college athlete. To compete successfully at this level is an 8 hour-a-day job in itself. Perry Range may have been sleeping during the Basketball 101 lecture, but neither was I busting my butt on a 10-mile run every day during the off-season and lifting weights every other day, not to mention surviving Lou Henson's expectations on how man-to-man defense was to be played.  Contributing to the problem are the High schools routinely exploiting their gifted athletes by giving them a free pass from their studies.At my high school, I found our star basketball player, a man-child who had a 40-inch vertical jump and averaged over 28 points a game, in the library one day sweating bullets because he had to memorize some academic material in order to be elgible for next Friday's game. His assignment as a Senior in High School? Memorizing the spelling of the days of the week. [I wish he had helped me with spelling elgible.] The university academic standards are not out-of-whack. But The NCAA's standard that these college games are to be played by amateur athletes, while at the same time, must also be enrolled in a academic college, is.For every Nick Smith or Jay Lehman, there are 30 Earvin Small's who end up back on the dirt road where they came from. (Earvin Small, a member of the 1989 Final Four team, ended up doing time in prison after selling drugs while working as a guard in the Danville Correctional Center. Our star basketball player from high school flunked out from the junior college that took him on scholarship, and much later as an adult, did time for selling cocaine.) If we care at all about these athletes as people, then it's time to settle the contradiction. College sports (football and basketball) has become Very Big Business, and a recruiting pool for the professional leagues.The athletes from substandard school districts cannot be expected to have attained the skills necessary to compete in the classroom. Nor can they keep up with both the demands of the college classes and the expectations the sports business places on the them.    Pay the players a healthy stipend of no more than $25,000 a semester, and provide a LIFETIME scholarship. After their 4 years of playing elgibility is over, the athletes may enroll in academic courses for as long as they need to, to earn the degree they richly deserve for throwing up after Lou Henson's demand to run another suicide and affording all the business people, who made tons of money off their seasons and building the infrastructure for the pageantry.  Pay the players, provide LIFETIME scholarships now. To heck with the hypocritical NCAA.But here's an interesting anomaly: The Northwestern Wildcat football team. Explain their success and their grade point average? Perhaps the Chicago Catholic Football System knows how to do this? 

dw wrote on July 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm


This was a better read than the original article!

It seems that NorthWestern has figured out how to combine high standards for their athletes on the field as well as in the lab.

Coaching/learning sports is just another form of teaching/learning...

Illini Drumline Guy wrote on July 16, 2014 at 8:07 pm

the depth and thought is deep here and respected....

the issue is really about acceptance of athletes...if Illinois has higher standards on athletes than other schools the law of averages says they will be at a disadvantage....period.

do not assume that Duke, Northwestern (who are private institutions and do not disclose all the details) are graduating their student athletes in the same academic track as the rest of the student body. Michigan as well...and a zillion others.

If Illini fans want the best students/athletes with great grade points, then please quit complaining the next time a big time recruit spurns Illinois for say Kansas in hoops etc.

Plus they then need to then support the teams and fill the stands and quit complaning about loses to teams that accept better athletes with lesser academic creditials. This is not an excuse but the law of averages. The same applies to other "trades" such as musicians, artists, etc. There are great artists that could not make the cut at Illinois, yet have great skills. the difference is that no one is paying $X a month for the Artist Ten Network and no one is paying $50 a ticket and $20 for parking for a viewing of their work.....yet 50,000 pay for Illini football games...one of which is me...but you have to some to grasp with the issue..

Illiinois either needs to adjust their standards....or ...accept the fact that success is periodic....that Illinois is not building an environment where say football is king. After hearing about Penn St ...maybe that is not all bad. Looks like we may be hearing more about NC....so...maybe doing the best we can with the rules as is ...is not all that bad....the fans in the stands will dictate how much support the current situation gets.


groupguy wrote on July 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Illinois needs to realize that, as the top state school, our brand should be about the best young talent in Illinois. This includes not only the brightest in Illinois, but also the richest, most athletic, and most beautiful. How do you accomodate these in an institution of higher learning?

First, by recognizing there are more facets to a life than just the ability to memorize facts, to process information, and to bloviate and pontificate on topics that you probably don't really know that much about and may not know enough to pontificate on for 30 years, if ever.

Second, by recognizing that the facets of connectedness, hard work, beauty, physicality, and wealth are just as important IF NOT MORE SO than intellectual and cultural expertise. And research in these fields is just as important IF NOT MORE SO than revisionist history and unsure climate modeling.

Third, you create an environment to make the most of these talents. In addition to class and field, I would propose a School of Fundraising. The truth is that fundraising has become a major (MAJOR) area of activity. Sure, you can elect bureaucrats to increase government's control, or enact laws to limit wealth creation. Or you can expect wealthy to give of their own free will. But reality is that it takes skills and talents to communicate, serve, administrate, and build charitable foundations, skills that can also be used for startups.

Imagine the good this School could do for the University, our state, and mankind. Why not Illinois?

fireweber wrote on July 16, 2014 at 10:07 pm

I haven't commented on here for a very long time as is obvious by my moniker.  I am a University of Illinois and Bridge/Transition alum.  I was not an athlete, but a regular student from a rough area, an underfunded high school, and someone who had a troubled adolescence.  The program was much more than a loophole for athletes but helped many people.

Due to the existence of this program I was admitted to one of the great Universities in this world, and it has had an immeasurable impact on my life.  I've been able to have a successful career that has provided me and my family with life experiences that are not quantified by money. 

This program needs to be brought back by the administration, for all those with similiar stories to mine...including the athletes that this great state has to offer.  For the University to continue to differentiate itself, excel, and strive to be the best it can be it needs to welcome diversity.  Diversity in culture, race, and economic background.  Our state is diverse and our State Institution needs to reflect that.