COLLEGE PARK — — The NCAA has told Maryland that it stands to lose three football scholarships because the rate that charts players' paths toward graduation slipped beneath acceptable levels.
The penalty, triggered largely by a poor academic showing during the disastrous 2-10 season of 2009, is not final. Maryland could still receive a waiver or, absent that, file an appeal. It would be the first time Maryland has been docked scholarships in any sport since the NCAA began collecting such academic data in 2003-04.
The NCAA is not scheduled to release its list of Academic Progress Rate scores and penalties until late spring, said spokesman Erik Christianson, who declined to talk about Maryland specifically. Last year, 137 athletic teams at 80 schools were penalized.
Athletic department officials agreed to be interviewed Thursday and confirmed that Maryland learned in January that scholarships were at risk and sought a waiver. The NCAA declined the initial waiver request but has reopened the process. Key to Maryland's argument is that academic improvements have been made since 2009 and that the school has a new president, new athletic director, new football coach and new academic support director for the program.
"We've been proactive," Dan Trump, associate AD for compliance, said in an interview. "We do recognize there was a downward trend, and we did put processes in place. If you really look at it, there is one single year where we really plummeted. That fall of '09, we struggled on the field and off the field. You take out that one semester, and we're not having this conversation."
That team's coach, Ralph Friedgen, was ousted in December after 10 years. He could not be reached for comment Thursday but told The Sun in January that there is no easy explanation for why some players leave and others struggle academically.
"There are a lot of things," he said.
Friedgen said the athletic department's academic staff at Maryland was sometimes "overtaxed." Since arriving in October, AD Kevin Anderson has a hired new chief of the academic support unit and added a new staff position for football academics. There are now 13 full-time academic support positions, including four specifically for football.
The worst-case scenario for Maryland would be for the scholarships to be stripped as soon as the coming season, which opens Sept. 5 against Miami. The scholarships would return after a year. Under normal circumstances, Maryland and other schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision can award 85 football scholarships.
The scholarships could also be taken away at a future date. Or Maryland could receive a full waiver or a conditional waiver preserving the scholarships while the school demonstrates the effectiveness of its improvements.
Maryland football coach Randy Edsall, who was hired in January, said to the media earlier this month that "I was a little bit shocked by what I saw [academically]." It was not publicly known at the time that Maryland's four-year APR score had dipped below the baseline.
Raising the team's academic standing is important not only because of scholarships, but also because of the team's image in the eyes of potential recruits and their parents.
A team's APR is based on the number of members who stay enrolled and academically eligible. The highest score is 1,000. Teams that fall below 925 can lose scholarships.
Maryland football's APR — based on players' performances over four rolling academic years — has dropped each year from 2005 through 2010. While some of the declines were marginal, Maryland ranked 11th out of 12 Atlantic Coast Conference schools — ahead of only Florida State — in the figures released in June.
Maryland football's most recent rate, covering four academic years ending in 2008-09, was 929. The single-season figure for 2009-10 — which will be released with those of other teams and schools later this spring — is expected to be much worse.
Trump said some players in 2009 seemed to slip academically over the course of the season, Friedgen's worst at Maryland.
"In order to be eligible for a bowl as a player, you have certain benchmarks that you need to meet during the fall. When it became pretty clear we weren't going to be going to a bowl, I think our academics dropped off," Trump said.
Trump said some of the slippage was by players who had already earned their degrees and were pursuing another while completing their football eligibility. He said Maryland has noticed an improvement in the APR scores from 2010 that will be announced in May 2012. The Terps played in the Military Bowl last season.
Anderson, a former Army AD, said his policy is for Maryland athletes who struggle academically to be sent to his office.
"If they come up and talk to me, there are going to be expectations," he said. "And if those expectations aren't met, they're not going to be part of the program."