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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.