Passing the tests, not just the ball

January 05, 2000|By Derrick Z. Jackson

WITHOUT his serious attention, Boston College football coach Tom O'Brien guesses that up to a third of his football players might not survive the classroom.

With that belief, life for a freshman football player is not just X's and O's, it is also academic orientations, study halls, tutors and academic advisers who know the players' professors well enough to short-circuit any attempt by a young player to seek a shortcut.

"If a player starts to say he has two papers due for a class, our advisers know enough to stop him and say, `Uh-uh, you have three,'" Mr. O'Brien said.

"The reality is that while these kids are good football players, not everyone goes to college prepared with time management and study skills. You have to identify very quickly their strengths and weaknesses and get them help."

Aside from its dreadful gambling scandal a few years ago, Boston College knows how to find strengths and weaknesses off the field as well as on it. It is ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press football poll with an 8-3 record. It is No. 1 in my fourth annual Graduation Gap Bowl for graduating 83 percent of its players.

Boston College also has the highest level of parity between African-American and white players, graduating 83 and 84 percent, respectively. The graduation rates just miss the 86 percent for the student body. Four years ago, the football graduation rate exceeded that of the student body, 95 percent to 88 percent.

"Our players are surrounded by kids who want to do well," Mr. O'Brien said. "If you go to a school where a significant number of students lie in bed watching soaps and playing Nintendo, you can fall into that. -- What we are able to sell is the commitment to graduating."

The majority of football powers make the opposite choice. The Graduation Gap Bowl is based on the annual NCAA Graduation Rates Report. Last year's report charts the freshman classes of 1989-90, 1990-91, 1991-92 or 1992-93 to determine how many scholarship athletes graduate within six years.

When last year's report is compared with the 1996 report, the graduation rate has declined for 33 of the 47, or 70 percent of the ranked or bowl-bound football teams. Particularly atrocious was eighth-ranked Michigan, which played in the Orange Bowl.

In the 1996 report, Michigan's football players graduated at a rate of 76 percent, compared with the campus average of 85 percent. Last year, the graduation rate of Michigan's football team fell to 52 percent, the worst drop of all 47 teams. Its African-American graduation rate fell from 71 percent to 43 percent.

The graduation gap between Michigan's African-American players and the student body has exploded from 14 percentage points to 40. Michigan had plenty of company in the gutter. Out of the 47 teams, 31 had double-digit gaps between the higher graduation rates of white players and lower rates of black players.

The schools with at least a 20-point gap between black and white players were Brigham Young, Fresno State, Georgia, Mississippi, Minnesota, Colorado, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Washington, Purdue, East Carolina, Illinois, Michigan State, Alabama, Tennessee, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Arkansas, Southern California, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Southern Mississippi.

Some schools have made progress. Kansas State, which in 1996 opened a new academic center for athletes, has crept up from its unbelievable graduation rate of 7 percent for African-American players in 1996 to 26 percent last year.

Florida's black player graduation rate has risen from 31 percent to 44 percent. Wisconsin, Clemson, Stanford, Florida State and East Carolina all had rises in black graduation rates of between 10 and 19 percentage points.

But other Top 10 schools continue to profit shamelessly from teams that rarely graduate players.

At Tennessee, the black graduation rate slipped from 27 percent to 24 percent. At Alabama, the rate dropped from 44 percent to 33 percent. At Michigan State, it fell from 37 percent to 28 percent.

Other cesspools for graduating black players include Brigham Young (which dropped from 67 percent to 10 percent), Boise State (from 23 down to 13), and Fresno State (frozen at 14 percent).

Based on the Graduation Gap Bowl, I rooted for Boston College when it played Colorado on Friday. Colorado graduates only 32 percent of African-American players, a 32-point gap from the student body.

"Some schools don't tell recruits their graduation rates until the day they sign," Mr. O'Brien said. "We tell recruits the graduation rate the first day we meet them."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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