Some athletes or their parents complained about academic support. The three scholarship freshmen who entered UMES in 1992 -- Smith, Snowden and Aaron McKinney -- said that such support consisted mainly of study halls that were little more than chaotic parties.
UMES athletics Director Hallie Gregory said the school did its best during the early 1990s to give athletes academic support on a limited budget and that this year four tutors will be added with NCAA academic enhancement funds.
The problem was probably worst at Morgan State University, where Desi Jackson and Kevin Young were basketball scholarship freshmen in 1992. A dispute between the football coach and academic adviser ended up in court. The adviser was replaced midway through their freshmen year. In disarray, the program was later put on probation by the NCAA.
"I fault not having something in place in academic advising, someone to let the teachers know that the team is going to be on the road," said Lynn Ramage, Morgan State's only full-time assistant coach during the 1992-1993 season.
Jackson left after one semester and moved home to Springfield, Mass., where he ran afoul of the law. He was convicted of assault and battery in 1994, and later received a suspended sentence for a rape conviction.
Young was academically ineligible for the start of his sophomore season, transferred to Bowie State and is at Glenville (W.Va.) State, where he said he expects to complete a degree in criminal justice in May.
But Gregory and Chavez of UMES made the point that whatever the situation with coaching or tutoring, the responsibility for graduation lies with the players.
"It's very, very sad that [the graduation rate for 1992 recruits] is like it is," said Chavez, who became the coach at the University of Portland in 1994. "I think if you look back there may have been things we could have all done differently, but the time I was in there I felt we worked very hard.
"[But] a person's education is ultimately their responsibility. Whether they are paying for it themselves or whether a university is paying for it, the ultimate responsibility of receiving an education in the world falls on that person."
McKinney, a 6-foot-6 guard who followed Chavez from Oregon -- and stayed after Chavez returned to Portland -- was doing well academically though he said the demands of the basketball program caused him to fail his favorite class, a business law course.
"I was into it, and I liked it," McKinney says. The professor told him that he should take it after the season, but he didn't.
But, after missing two shots in the last 13 seconds of his final game, a close contest with Delaware State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament opener, he took off.
"It was spring break time," McKinney says. "I said, `I'm going home and I'm not coming back.' "
UMES has a program to help recruits who have played basketball four years complete their degrees during a fifth year, but McKinney didn't take advantage of it, Gregory says. "I almost begged him to stay."
McKinney flirted with playing professionally for two years, going to tryout camps and playing in a semiprofessional league, but he never made it.
A new outlook
McKinney, 25, says he's found his calling, working with emotionally disturbed children. He said he has taken classes on and off at Portland State University and that he hopes eventually to complete a degree.
"I felt like I was a good basketball player, and I thank God for blessing me with these opportunities and college," he says. "I feel like God is pushing me to something greater."
But Chavez mourns McKinney's abrupt departure.
"He was there for four years, and he definitely was capable of graduating," Chavez said. "For him not to graduate, that hurts."
Smith faced problems his sophomore year, around the time Chavez left. His mother was ill and he wanted to be closer to home, so he transferred to Towson. Though he had come out of Baltimore's St. Frances-Charles Hall with a 3.4 grade point average, his academics suffered. "I guess you would say I wasn't focused at the time. I wandered off awhile."
Terry Truax, then head coach at Towson, and assistant Meil regret that their players in the 1992 recruiting class didn't graduate. Blalock left one semester shy of a degree, and Truax said Baltimoreans Quintin Moody and Stevie Thomas were within a course or two of completing their degrees. Neither could be reached to comment.
But some of the players, such as Smith, said they appreciate the value of a diploma.
Simpkins is one, now that his professional basketball aspirations have passed and he needs a degree for his broadcasting work. He said he left Maryland about 30 credits short, mainly because of a parking ticket scandal that resulted in his suspension from the team for three games his senior year. He said he is negotiating with the school about the $4,500 he owes for tickets so he can enroll in classes.