Sunday, March 14, 1999

Utah's coach argues diplomas first

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — The Voice of Reason is a confessed “couch potato slob.” Rick Majerus defines dumpy and his concern for personal appearance, to put it charitably, is indifference.

        The head basketball coach of the University of Utah is all substance and no style, a slovenly stickler for academics in a game increasingly populated by designer coaches looking for loopholes. His recipe to reform college basketball consists of a single, sensible rule: tie scholarship limits to graduation rates.

        “Then,” he said, “it would clean itself up.”

        This recommendation — first advanced by Digger Phelps — qualifies Majerus as a radical among his peers and an irritant to those college administrators who have sacrificed conscience for the sake of cash flow. Somewhere along the way, Majerus developed the silly notion that America's universities ought to make a priority of education. Imagine that.

        Even as his Running Utes prepared to meet Miami's RedHawks in the second round of the Midwest Regional, Majerus insisted he is more interested in cultivating minds than muscles. He owns the fourth-highest winning percentage among active coaches, but his academic statistics are equally impressive.

        Majerus' teams have reached the NCAA Tournament seven times in his 10 years at Utah, but his players have also made 95 appearances on the university's honor roll. Nine members of his current team (seven scholarship players and two walk-ons) achieved grade-point averages of 3.0 or better during the fall semester. Last year, the Utes were the only squad in America to place two players on the Academic All-America team.

        “It just comes down to what's important,” Majerus said Saturday afternoon. “Although this (the tournament) is a special experience, this is an adjunct experience to the academic experience. This is not what you're here for.”

        Majerus stood there with his hair uncombed, his shirt untucked and his priorities in perfect order. He said his attitude about academics was shaped by the experience of his parents — neither one a high school graduate — and the pain their lack of education produced.

        “My father was a smart guy, but he was all about credentials,” Majerus said. “He was on the Board of Regents at the University of Wisconsin and they'd look at him and say, "You don't have a degree?'”

        No piece of parchment is going to get a player into the National Basketball Association, but the odds against an NBA career are daunting and the failure of college players to face this fact is tragic. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Division I men's players have failed to keep pace with the graduation rate of other male students for eight years in a row. Only 41 percent of those players who entered college in 1991 graduated within six years.

        It is a sore subject lately, and also locally. Allegations of widespread academic fraud at the University of Minnesota and a court ruling striking down the use of standardized tests as a criteria for eligibility reinforces the perception that the college game is approaching anarchy. The University of Cincinnati's failure to graduate players within the NCAA's six-year window has become the chief criticism of Bob Huggins' program.

        “I know Bobby,” Majerus said. “I like Bobby. And I don't know what his circumstances are. Someone could look at me and say, "I wonder if Majerus is a racist because he doesn't have many black players.'”

        Both coaches have mitigating arguments. Majerus' overwhelmingly white roster reflects the demographics of his state and the difficulty of recruiting African-Americans to Salt Lake City. UC's graduation rate reflects (in part) the liberal admissions policy of a large state school and the opportunity afforded many of Huggins' players to play for pay in the NBA or in Europe.

        Not every school can recruit as selectively as Duke or Stanford, and to hold every school to their standards would be unrealistic and elitist. Still, nearly every school can do a better job of prodding its players toward diplomas. Colleges customarily turn a blind eye to those seniors who have cleared their last eligibility hurdle and then quit attending class. If scholarship allotments were based on graduation rates, coaches would be more motivated to force their players to finish.

        “Someone's got to put the hammer down,” Majerus said. “Sometimes we do so much for them that they get the mentality that they're on scholarship for life.”

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