Tate, Part III: Altering admission standards a change worth gambling on
At the height of the Cliff Alexander recruiting fever, John Groce’s basketball staff wasn’t the only one holding its breath on the UI campus. The Illini football office was also closely following the Chicago Curie basketball star.
Why? Because if Alexander picked up the Illini hat, it might have created the kind of crisis that the football staff needed to underscore a problem.
Call it the “too big to fail” dilemma. If Alexander chose the UI and met the minimum NCAA academic standard, failure to admit him would have caused a fan uproar.
Illini athletic teams are obliged to recruit from a smaller pool of talent than most Big Ten rivals because of the university’s strict rulings on admissions.
One Big Ten administrator, whose school had no legitimate shot at Alexander, told me in confidence: “We didn’t believe Alexander would qualify for us.”
Understand, this was before Alexander’s final semester grades were recorded.
The inferences may or may not be true. But one truth is clear: The UI needs a crisis, an issue to bring fresh administrative consideration of how hurtful its restrictive academic approach is to the athletic program.
Behind the curve
Most universities in Division I allow entry to those athletes who qualify under NCAA standards. There may be special-circumstance exceptions, but the same is generally true in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the UI has developed a clear gap between NCAA minimums and UI minimums.
You can’t catch Ohio State this way. The Buckeyes already possess every advantage needed for football success.
Columbus is the largest city in Ohio. Resources are endless. Talent is available throughout the state. Fans stand in line for season tickets. The Buckeyes have been labeled “an SEC team in the Big Ten.” The gridiron culture permeates the state.
And with its 57,000-plus students, OSU will take any in-state student who graduates with roughly a C average. If a student is rejected in Columbus, he/she is assured of acceptance at one of six regional campuses (Lima, Mansfield, Newark, etc.).
An OSU Provost spokesman said that “each case is reviewed and evaluated, and whether or not he/she is a student-athlete doesn’t factor in the review.”
OK, as always, judgment is involved. But you’d have a hard time convincing me that an in-state football star would be shipped off to acquire his tattoos in Lima or Newark? Football, after all, is a top priority in Columbus.
What should Illinois do?
There are two solutions, both of which would require decisions at the level of the chancellor, president and the Board of Trustees.
— Simply allow admission of marginal qualifiers who meet the NCAA minimum standard. Though admittedly low, this works for other universities and would provide a level playing field for UI teams. The assumption is that no more than a half-dozen marginal athletes would be taken in any year, and they would receive the full force of Keiko Price’s academic support team.
— Keep the standards where they are but provide a half-dozen “special admits” that would give the coaches some flexibility. Wouldn’t you do that for an All-American sculptor or an All-American violinist? A few marginal students out of 7,000-plus freshmen won’t destroy the reputation of the university, and it might make the difference in varsity competition. Or did you think Illinois would have made the NCAA Final Four in 1989 without Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty and Ervin Small? Didn’t the UI benefit from those three?
It is right to take pride in the UI’s academic status, and to seek the best scholars.
But exceptions are made everywhere involving gender, race, geography, etc., as the admissions office picks from a varied field of qualifiers.
Diversity reigns. It is deemed proper to bring in students from rural counties and urban centers even if they can’t match the test scores of those rejected from the north suburbs. It is deemed proper to attract soloists and musicians based on their special skills. And there are more than 5,000 here from China alone.
If as Chancellor Phyllis Wise states, “the success of the university, in part, is seen through the eyes of athletics,” it should be worth the gamble to accept a few athletes who might make the difference between attending a bowl and staying home.
Illini teams — particularly football — have enough problems without self-locked handcuffs.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com