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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.