COLLEGE PARK — — The rate that the NCAA uses to chart football players' paths toward graduation has declined at Maryland for five straight years, placing it next to last in the Atlantic Coast Conference and evoking concern — and changes — at the school.
The football program's Academic Progress Rate — based on players' performances over four rolling academic years — has dropped each year from 2005 through 2010, according to NCAA online records. While some of the declines were marginal, Maryland ranked 11th out of 12 ACC schools — ahead of only Florida State — in the figures released last June.
Continuation of the trend could harm the program's image and place it at risk of NCAA-mandated scholarship losses. The NCAA has said its goal is not punishment, but rather to prod schools to improve. Still, 137 athletic teams at 80 schools were penalized last year.
Officials involved with Maryland football said there is no easy explanation why some players leave and others struggle academically. "There are a lot of things," said former coach Ralph Friedgen, who was ousted in December after 10 years. He said Maryland was expected to recruit the same caliber players as rival schools with less rigorous academic standards that make it easier for them to keep players eligible.
The Academic Progress Rate is different from the Graduation Success Rate, which looks at athletes actually earning degrees. Maryland's GSR for all sports — which was 76percent in 2005 — improved to 80percent in the figures released last October, and the football team's rate was 64 percent.
Kevin Anderson, who became Maryland's athletic director in October, said in an interview that he has studied football's Academic Progress Rate drop and is making changes — including adding staff — to address it.
"Coming in, I was aware of the downward trend and it was a concern of mine, and we've already made measures to address this and strengthen it. We are going to add at least one person specifically to work with academic support," he said.
The next Academic Progress Rate report will be released in May or June. NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said schools "generally know what their score is now" but that data are still being finalized and at-risk institutions may privately make cases to try to avoid scholarship reductions or other penalties.
Asked whether Maryland was at risk of losing football scholarships, Anderson replied: "It's still being determined."
It's not just Maryland that has been concerned about football. The NCAA says football and men's basketball have posted the lowest rates of all sports at its member institutions, and that football in particular has struggled with keeping players eligible.
In an interview last week, Friedgen said he was proud of his record. Friedgen noted a number of his best-known players — including star receiver Torrey Smith — who graduated. "What I found is you have good years and bad years," he said.
But Friedgen also said there were issues. He suggested other schools — he did not name them — were more indulgent of football players and created easier academic environments. "Maryland is tough," Friedgen said. He also said academic staff at Maryland was sometimes "overtaxed."
Others with athletic department ties disputed that staff was overburdened. In recent years, Maryland has "greatly enhanced the academic support services provided for student-athletes," said a 2009 internal report overseen by the athletic department and adopted by former AD Debbie Yow and a campus advisory group. Yow, now North Carolina State's athletic director, said it would be inappropriate to comment since she is no longer at Maryland.
The Maryland report set a number of academic-related goals, including improving the graduation rates of "individual admit" athletes who didn't meet the standard admissions criteria required of the general student body. Their graduation rate has historically been below those of other athletes.
Anderson also said Maryland has just hired a new chief of the academic support unit — Chris Uchacz, former director of athletic academic services at Texas Christian — to oversee all sports. The previous chief, Anton Goff, left in September to become athletic director at Bowie State.
A team's Academic Progress Rate is based on the number of members who stay enrolled and academically eligible. The highest score would be 1,000. Teams that fall below 925 can lose scholarships if one or more athletes have left school while ineligible.
Teams — even those below 925 — can preserve their scholarships in several ways. The Maryland men's basketball team has fallen below 925 in recent years. But its score has been rising and the team has avoided penalties, in part because players had exhausted their eligibility before leaving.