Making the Grade

November 24, 1994

The history of the men's basketball program at the University of Maryland at College Park has been one of dizzying extremes.

In the '70s, the Terrapin men's basketball team was considered one of the nation's best. But in the mid-'80s, its reputation was shattered after star forward Len Bias died of a drug overdose and folksy coach Lefty Driesell was forced out. Now the team that is a source of pride for thousands of College Park alumni is being rebuilt by the steady hand of coach Gary Williams.

While Terrapin fans were thrilled with the team's pre-season ranking as seventh-best in the country, a more important No. 7 for the team was the contract-signing for that many years by Coach Williams. Even more impressive was the fact that up to half of Mr. Williams' bonuses are tied to his players' academic standing.

It's not an unheard-of inducement in the college ranks, but it's a first at the University of Maryland. It's certainly a welcome signal for the direction in which Mr. Williams and new Athletic Director Debbie Yow want to lead intercollegiate athletics at the state's largest university.

To be sure, Mr. Williams received the guaranteed $1.7 million package because he is an accomplished teacher of basketball and an accomplished recruiter of uncommonly tall high school students. But what is most striking about Mr. Williams, a former ++ player at College Park, is his mentoring approach. His public comments typically stress his development of these young men, nearly all of whom will be judged in adulthood on matters other than points scored or shots blocked.

The university still has room to grow in this area. Its graduation rate for student-athletes is the same as the national average, slightly below that of the student body as a whole. The important point is that the school wants to measure compensation for its most prolific athletic instructor partly in terms of student achievement -- not solely sneaker contracts and "Sweet Sixteen" finishes.

The reform of college sports lies with the university presidents and their athletic departments. Reform must come from the inside out, because big-time college sports is like politics. The public at large expresses disdain for both institutions. But most folks keep returning their friendly, hometown representative to Washington, while in respect to their alma mater's sports teams, all they can say is how 'bout them dogs, hogs, frogs or terps.

That Gary Williams and university officials at College Park are making a substantive commitment to the academic side of their program holds as much promise as the Terps' good start to their season this week.

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