NCAA gets an `F' from UMBC in grade case

Colleges

March 02, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHARLIE BROWN, the longtime athletic director at UMBC, was still recovering yesterday from the two hours of infamy his school experienced Monday.

"I'm still amazed at how it happened," he said.

His modest-sized Division I department obeys the rules, wins its share of games and plays above the rim academically. But for two hours Monday, UMBC was suddenly known across the country, however illogically, as THE STUPIDEST SCHOOL IN ALL OF COLLEGE SPORTS.

"Flabbergasted would be an apt description of my reaction," Brown said.

Around noon Monday, when the NCAA released its long-awaited report tracking the academic progress of athletes, UMBC's indoor track team ranked last among the horde of 5,720 men's and women's teams comprising all of Division I.

Last.

The embarrassment was cited high in the initial Associated Press story about the NCAA's findings, which hit the news wires early Monday afternoon. UMBC, the nation learned, was as low as you could go academically.

Brown, whose department's academic standards are actually among the highest of Maryland's Division I schools, was just coming back from lunch when the story broke. UMBC sports information director Steve Levy was agitated, to say the least.

"Steve goes, `You aren't going to believe this.' Then the phones started ringing," Brown said.

Newspapers and radio stations wanted reaction. The afternoon talk shows picked up the topic and ran with it: "Where is UMBC getting its jocks, some parking lot?"

The school was experiencing its 15 minutes of unfortunate fame.

"I was truly stunned for a few minutes, wondering how we could have come in last," said Brown, admittedly unaccustomed to national recognition.

But they hadn't finished last, it turned out. The NCAA had erred --- grossly. Instead of calculating the grades of each of the more than two dozen athletes on UMBC's indoor track team, it had used the grades of just three shot-putters.

With everyone's grades correctly assessed, UMBC's track team ranked above the national average.

Some other team at some other school was 5,720 out of 5,720.

"The irony was that, out of all of our teams, the track team has probably produced the highest number of doctors and dentists," Brown said. "We had a Rhodes scholar finalist on the track team a few years ago."

Brown suddenly was like Jimmy Stewart's character in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much - an honest man framed by circumstances, desperate to prove his innocence.

Working the phones with Levy as snow fell Monday afternoon, he reached the AP reporter working the story.

"You've got it wrong in what you wrote. The NCAA released some incorrect numbers," Brown said.

The reporter replied that, indeed, the AP had already discovered several mistakes. UMBC's embarrassing mention was gone when the wire service put out an updated story two hours later.

Then Brown set out to clear his name with the NCAA.

"What is frustrating is that we had contacted them about this very thing several weeks earlier," he said yesterday, "after we saw a preliminary version of the report with numbers that were obviously wrong. We sent them the data to correct it, and assumed it would be corrected."

It was not. But when Brown and his compliance officer complained to their NCAA contacts Monday, "we got back responses that were very professional, not exactly warm and fuzzy," Brown said.

Fortunately, he said, he didn't think the mistake would cause long-term damage.

"It was out there for two hours before it was corrected, and you never know," he said, "but reading the accounts in [yesterday's] papers, it seems like everyone understands what happened.

"The most disturbing thing is that the NCAA knew the report needed to be corrected and still released it to the media. How could that happen?"

UMBC is one of the last places where an academic scandal would likely erupt; it was listed as a "hot school" in the 2003 How to Get Into College guide. Out of its 400 or so athletes, only three or four were ineligible this year, Brown estimated.

"Our kids are passing their classes," he said.

That's more than some high-profile teams at major schools can say, which is why the NCAA is trying to do a better job of monitoring academics and holding schools accountable. The new tracking system is more sophisticated.

"I approve of what they're doing," Brown said. "We're very sensitive to academic issues here at UMBC. That's why what happened [Monday] was so upsetting. I can laugh about it now, but I wasn't laughing then."

Oh, well. He had a much better day yesterday. He went to the dentist.

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