University of Maryland officials said recently that their athletes are doing better academically than the overall student body.
But 10 years after Len Bias' June 1986 death, the men's basketball team still is struggling to balance athletics and academics.
Of the eight players who have spent four years in coach Gary Williams' program, one -- reserve guard Wayne Bristol -- has graduated, according to university records and interviews with players and their families.
Those eight players include Williams' four seniors this past season -- Exree Hipp, Mario Lucas, Johnny Rhodes and Duane Simpkins. Besides Bristol, the others are Evers Burns, Kevin McLinton and Kurtis Shultz.
Williams, who has coached the Terps for seven seasons, said the 1-of-8 graduation figure does not accurately reflect his program's academic success because his four seniors should be given another year or two to graduate. The average Maryland student takes 4.8 years to graduate, and the average Maryland student-athlete takes 5.0 years, according to the most recent NCAA statistics.
"The average for all college students now is five years," Williams said. "Duane Simpkins, Exree Hipp, Mario Lucas and Johnny Rhodes all can graduate within the next year. The NCAA bases graduation rates over a six-year period. If you want to hold up people for not graduating in four years, I think you're off base."
Of the approximately 30 scholarship players who have played for Williams for at least one season, 10 have graduated from Maryland, according to university records, interviews with players and their families and other university sources.
At a May 29 news conference about the state of the athletic program since Bias' death, university officials said stricter eligibility and admissions requirements and a stronger academic support system enabled their student-athletes to graduate at a higher rate (68 percent) in 1995 than the overall student body (66 percent).
The officials and Williams, however, declined to provide recent G. Williams graduation rates for the men's basketball team. Williams said Friday that his coaching staff is making every effort to keep his players on track to graduate.
"We're doing all we can. We can help them in terms of monitoring their progress, and allowing them to meet with their tutors," Williams said. "But if they choose not to do the work, I can't perform miracles."
Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said she did not have "any particular comment" on why only one of Williams' four-year players has graduated.
"I'm focusing on the time I've been here," Yow said. "My focus is on what has happened in the last two recruiting classes. What kind of student-athletes are we signing? The last two recruiting classes have resulted in improved overall skill levels."
Though Williams' departing four seniors have yet to earn their degrees, they helped revive a program coming off NCAA sanctions. Williams, whose past three teams have made the NCAA tournament, said he cares that his players do well not just on the court, but also in the classroom.
"I really feel I am as concerned as any other coach in the country about the academic success of my players," said Williams, who has an academic performance clause in his contract.
Parents feel differently
But the parents of Joe Smith and Walt Williams -- Maryland's two most prominent players during the Williams era -- said they never received academic updates from Williams.
Letha Smith said she only had conversations with assistant coaches about Joe, who did not qualify for the Wooden Award as a sophomore because didn't have a 2.0 grade-point average.
"I don't know why [Williams] never spoke to me about it," said Letha Smith, whose son is in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors but back in school at Norfolk State. "The last time was when he came to visit the house [on a recruiting visit], I explained to him Joe's need to graduate and that his education came first. He never discussed it with me again."
Williams said he has talked with Mrs. Smith in person about Joe's academic problems and often meets with his players to talk about their schoolwork, but leaves the phone calls to his assistants. "Because I don't call parents does not mean I don't care about their graduation rates," Williams said.
Walt Williams is one of the few players who graduated in four years, and the former All-American and current NBA player has endowed a minority-based academic scholarship at his alma mater. Reached at his mother's home, Williams said repeatedly that he "owed his graduation" to two academic advisers but refused to talk about his relationship with his coach.
Walt's mother, Teresa, said Bob Wade, Walt's coach for a season, kept in better contact with her than Williams.
"Coach Williams was more or less into basketball," Teresa Williams said.
But both Williams and Yow agree that the graduation rate of the men's basketball team is important.