Tate, Part II: Limitations in classroom hamper UI

Tate, Part II: Limitations in classroom hamper UI

Chasing academic information on Big Ten athletes reminds me of Ruffy Silverstein.

You don’t know Ruffy? The stocky Chicagoan was the greatest Illini wrestler, never losing a match in three seasons and capturing the 1936 NCAA title at 175 pounds. He was next to impossible to pin down ... just like trying to pin down admissions information for Big Ten student-athletes.

Example: A call to academic services led to Iowa’s John Bruno (newly hired as retention coordinator), then to Liz Tovar (associate AD for academic services), who told me that I need to call Steve Roe in sports information for the right to speak to her.

Roe then dispatched me to Lyla Clerry, associate AD for compliance.

“As long as a student meets the University of Iowa admission criteria and is admitted, they are eligible to participate in athletics once certified as a qualifier by the NCAA,” Clerry said. “There are no additional requirements for athletics.”

OK, but I was asking whether Iowa accepts all NCAA qualifiers, which I’m told is the case, and not whether Iowa accepts students who meet Iowa’s criteria, which is obvious.

Clerry offered further clarification: “Athletes are not automatically admitted to the university. They go through the normal admission process and are held to the regular admission standards. Admission to Iowa and NCAA eligibility are two separate processes the student-athlete must go through and meet standards for both.”

Example: At Michigan State, where Tom Izzo is an icon, the belief is universal that any NCAA qualifier with special basketball (or football) skills could be accepted. Historically, MSU gained membership in the Big Ten based almost entirely on athletic success (football in the early 1950s) and remains a conference powerhouse.

My call to Michigan State wound through Jim Pignataro (support services) and Todd Edwards (football academic coordinator), and landed back with SID John Lewandowski, who said to send emails to Pignataro and Edwards. Pignataro phoned, explaining:

“In admissions, these are subjective judgments. I am familiar with examples where a student-athlete met NCAA standards and was not accepted at Michigan State. It’s not automatic.

“At Michigan State, students are admitted to the university, and while they may declare a major, it’s up to the particular college whether they’ll be initially accepted. Each college determines whether it will accept special admits based on criteria.”

Admissions offices everywhere make judgments taking into account geography, race, gender, special skills (talented drummers and singers don’t have to be super-scholars), etc. And most universities around this nation recognize sports as sufficiently important to accept those who meet minimum NCAA standards.

Striking gap

Back to my question, which received the expected bob-and-weave from five Big Ten university representatives: “If a high school student-athlete meets minimum NCAA standards — a low sliding scale involving grade-point average and test scores — and that athlete passes the NCAA Clearinghouse, does your university impose higher standards for acceptance?”

This is important because, at Illinois, there is a striking gap between the NCAA standard and what it takes for a student-athlete to qualify. For the most part, rivals such as Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State are believed to accept almost anyone who satisfies the NCAA Clearinghouse.

But this is top-secret stuff. It’s almost as though these schools signed oaths in blood not to reveal exactly what they’re doing. So my contention is hard to prove. Each school can cite exceptions. And because I have no access to transcripts, no subpoenas for admissions offices, I can’t verify. Nor can I call in Kiefer Sutherland from “24” for truth-ensuring waterboarding.

Let’s face it. Discussing academics and sports together is a no-no from every viewpoint. But here at home, it is evident that academic limitations are restricting UI football coaches in recruiting. Numerous junior college transcripts have been rejected for athletes who wind up playing elsewhere.

I was informed that defensive tackle Willie Beavers met minimum NCAA standards but was rejected by the UI. He has started 14 games in two seasons at Western Michigan. Wide receiver JJ Roberson of Lincoln-Way East committed to the UI’s Paul Petrino, met NCAA requirements and couldn’t get in (he is no longer listed at North Dakota).

Just this summer, Matt Domer, running back from Chicago Mount Carmel, reportedly met NCAA requirements but was denied admission at the UI, and he must pass courses in the fall semester at Parkland to be accepted in January.

The list of those who were rejected earlier in the process is longer.

Tough spot

Tim Beckman is nevertheless obliged to be successful. It can be done. Wisconsin is showing how. But it would be easier if the UI allowed “special admits,” a process whereby a small number of marginal student-athletes would be accepted. This was available with the bridge program, in which some 50 disadvantaged students were brought in each summer, but it ended in 2009.

On top of everything, the university is hyper-alert after several admissions embarrassments and scandals that felled high administrators. They would rather be safe than sorry.

We go forward with the realization that the gap between the NCAA minimum and the UI minimum is filled with prospective defensive linemen and running backs who, with the help available in Keiko Price’s academic services, could probably stay eligible. But as Beckman approaches his third season, he realizes that this is not Oklahoma State or Toledo. He and his staff have learned to save time and frustration by not appealing for athletes who they’ve learned won’t be accepted.

The UI admissions department is ultra-careful these days. They see themselves as protecting and enhancing an extraordinary university, and they have a complex job seeking diversity by race, region and whatever.

Athletics is someone else’s concern.

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


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sanjuan wrote on July 17, 2014 at 9:07 am

"Athletics is someone else's concern."   And that, Loren, is how it should be.  44,000 of the best and brightest deserve to know that the admissions process protects the academic integrity and value of their degrees.

PortlandIllini wrote on July 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Right or wrong,   the Illinois footballl and  basketball teams are an integral part of the public perception of the University.  And that perception is that the people of Illinois are not proud of or loyal to their state school     In my home state,  the University of Oregon is not even ranked in the top 100 schools academically.  Yet,  they have overwhelming public support and positive national attention:  it's the classic football factory that we don't want to emulate.    UI adminstrators need to look at Stanford, Northwestern football,  Duke basketball, and Michigan as role models for balancing academics and athletics.

Gill52 wrote on July 17, 2014 at 12:07 pm

This series is one of Loren's finest, and I've been reading his stuff since I was there in the 70's. While I haven't been watching Illini athletics as long as Loren has, every word he's written is undoubtedly true. I really appreciate that Loren has gone "Woodward and Bernstein" to investigate other Big Ten schools. They are all rightfully tight-lipped because they don't want to advertise what they have done to get top athlete / marginal students into school. 

What has amazed me are some of the comments that either disagree with what he's written (you really aren't looking close enough!), or just state that the tougher admittance standards are "how it should be". Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if this is your opinion, you have forfeited all right to complain about losing Illini sport teams. This is a crucial issue for the future success of Illinois athletics. 

The failure of anyone in the administration to miss the connection between athletic success and increased giving, improved perception, greater community support, and the overall health of the university should be a firing offense. Athletics ARE part of the university, like it or not. And for the university to drop the bridge program as a cost cutting measure was not only a blow to the athletic program but to any possible pretense that the university is committed to diversity. I think that is shameful and stunningly short-sighted. 

But let's be clear. If we can't get top athletes admitted, and we keep losing coaches and assistant coaches because our salaries are way below other state schools, then its hard to say that we're at all serious about winning anything. 

Just as noted that Michigan State lead with athletics and became a better institution of learning because of it, the overall perception and rating of the University of Illinois will slowly diminish if we are consistently a "second tier" school in athletics. 


cjcohen wrote on July 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm

I first arrived at UI in the mid 60's to begin grad studies, and have remained a loyal fan ever since. Loren Tate has hit the nail on the head re: UI admissions standards vs. NCAA standards. For the most part, basketball seems to have managed quite well over the decades. But football has not. Somebody has got to find a way, as has Wisconsin, or the Illini will forever be relegated to the lower tier of the Big 10. Bringing back the bridge program would be a good start, not only for football recruits but for other students. Don't know if this still holds true, but at one time Ohio State admitted every kid who had a diploma from an Ohio public high school. Including all the stud football players coming out of Ohio high schools. Of course, the drop-out rate among the overall student population was huge; but at least the football coaches could get their recruits admitted & then work with them re: academics. I'm not advocating anything similar for UI, but admitting a few football players every year with "marginal" grades/test scores - and then giving them the help they need to succeed - won't destroy the academic reputation of my Alma Mater. 




Local Yocal wrote on July 17, 2014 at 6:07 pm
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This topic about admissions seems to be still more proof that the requirement of a college athlete be enrolled as a full-time college student must end.  Requiring college athletes to be full-time college students is a way to trick low-income families into believing a scholarship is sufficient payment for their services- freeing up more DIA money to pay for beautiful buildings and beautiful salaries. Imagine if Groce was paid a normal administrator's salary of a handsome $200,000 a year- and the rest of that $1.5 million was used to attract the best PLAYING talent from the inner city schools?Kirby Avenue resembles an overbuilt plantation where Romans watch slave gladiators defend the honor of Illini Nation. It certainly functions that way economically. The field overseers just make better money nowadays cracking the troops in order. Groce would get better respect and have John Wooden-like job security if he offered $1.5 million of his salary back to a permanent trust fund to pay for the academic tuitions, fees, room and board for every athlete whoever played for him. He'd get great players and wins. What do they call that? Win/win? Instead, like every facet in our society nowadays, one guy's greed is good, just as long as everybody else is doing it too.     No education is "free." It takes time and effort. Both of which are critical for a student with mediocre academic skills. But in a surreal celebrity world where your "extracurricular activity" after class just happens to be a game that's covered on ESPN-2 television, watched in-person by maybe 15,000-60,000 people paying ticket prices that will average $50 each, with skyboxes going for tons more, souvenir and videogame salesmen needing heroes and legends, operation and maintenance crews needing jobs, police officers making overtime pay, concession vendors making quick bucks, restaurants/hotels/bars needing big turnouts, the liquor and beer distributors raking in tons of party cash, gasoline stations seeing bumps on game-day travelers, grocery stores loading up the tailgaters, caterers and businesses hosting lovely receptions, advertisers believing this is the (expensive) place to be, and the media outlets relying on those advertising dollars,... how is this supposed to work academically when,... the student is absolutely required (in order to keep the scholarship) in the weight room, the team meeting, the drills, the scrimmages, the media appearances, the strategy sessions with individual coaches, the Hometown Heroes crud, meet with a few prospective recruits to show 'em around and oh,....by the way,... your 15-page term paper is due next week. There is an upcoming test in another class, a lab report due in another, and a speech to do in yet another class. Did you remember to do the assigned reading for the upcoming class discussion in the TA Section? And for sportsgod sakes, don't you dare lose 49-0 this weekend, you loser thug bum, or so all the sportswriters will type, all the fans will scream on the radio,... statewide and nationwide,...if you do. It's easy to speculate why church-raised Jamar Smith became an alcoholic. It's also very true, some athletes thrive, do well, and would have had no other way to afford a good education without playing the games. But is that the majority or the exception? Excuse us, Mr. Tate, we're going to have to put you back on hold for that information. The "free," "quality" education has become a secondary concern to schools giving a scholastic wink, "C'mon kid, you've got to do better (on the field)....we're counting (our money) on you." It's sad to see too many athletes leave with little-to-no education for the effort, deluded into thinking they might go in the 3rd or 4th round of the pro draft.  If they were that good (as were 500 other players around the country), good luck making a pro team. Loren could easily do this, since he's probably lined his living room with every roster there ever was,... calculate the total number of athletes who played for Illinois in just the two major sports since 1970 and compare that number to how many made a pro roster for at least one year. I'll bet one dollar it's less than 5% who've made the big show.  Pay the players, offer LIFETIME scholarships. How great athletes performed academically in high school or on the ACT test shouldn't matter as much, besides, there would be plenty of academic time to catch up if you want a degree. And if not, you could walk away with at most $200,000 after 4 incredible years. Should you change your mind, come back to your alma mater anytime to finish your course work. You are always an Illini. Wouldn't that attract the blue chippers to be here?  Thanks for starting a long, long overdue conversation with this series, Mr. Tate. This is terrific journalism, regardless of whether you're right or wrong about what the next steps ought to be.

sanjuan wrote on July 18, 2014 at 8:07 am

I hereby waive my right to complain about records.

JimOATSfan wrote on July 19, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Some excellent comments here. It seems clear the system really doesn't work.  Top athletes needed to fuel entertainment demands across the nation, and the coffers of universities.

Somewhere the process went off the rails.

Frankly, I don't see how the student athlete meets all of the demands required.  It took all my personal free time to study and graduate.  I could not have played on an athletic team (don't be concerned, I had no 'cut-above' athleticism).

College sports was meant to provide an active outlet for athletic people, keep their bodies fit, and possibly to provide a means to pay for college education.

A means to pay for college ....

The solution appears to be to remove big-time entertainment from the schools and create a new system to play for money for 4-5 years.  Then if the athlete wants to attend a college/university, they get admitted where they can, and like the rest of us, earnestly pursue the Art of Learning.  It is a life long gift.