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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2011

COMMENTARY

No quick fix in repairing Rocket men

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The Academic Progress Rate, one of the NCAA's grade cards for college sports teams, may be a bit easier to comprehend if you approach it as a percentage based on a simple points system.

Let's suppose a team has 12 scholarship athletes. Each can earn a potential four points - one for first semester eligibility, one for first semester retention (staying in school), and two similar points for the second semester. So that team could earn as many as 48 points and if it accomplished that it would post a perfect APR score of 1000. It's difficult to do.

It is also hard to post a score as low as 813, which is what the University of Toledo men's basketball team did during the 2008-09 school year. Nine points were lost because players either were ineligible (during one or both semesters) and/or left the program in something less than good academic standing.

That Rocket team started with 12 scholarship players, give or take the scholar part, and compiled just 39 out of 48 points. Divide the smaller number by the larger one and you get .813, or an APR score of 813.

It was the low point of a four-year cycle that averages out to 858 - the minimum score needed to avoid penalties is 925 - and prompted the NCAA to strip Toledo of three grants-in-aid from the 13 an academically compliant men's basketball team will have during the 2011-12 season.

The rolling average, which is always a year behind real time, was compiled during Stan Joplin's final two seasons as head coach (927 and 826 scores) and the two years under ex-coach Gene Cross (813 and 875).

Tod Kowalczyk, of course, is the current UT coach who has to live with it and vastly improve upon it. His first UT team, most often unable to play over its talent and depth limitations, went 4-28, marking a second straight four-win season for the Rockets. Now his rebuilding job is complicated by the NCAA-mandated short roster.

"I think with 10 guys on scholarship, as long as they're the right 10, you're fine," Kowalczyk said. "We'll never use it as an excuse. I think we have the right 10 guys to move forward as long as we stay healthy. One of my seasons at Green Bay we had nine scholarship players and won 22 games."

In his eight seasons as head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Kowalczyk's teams posted an APR low of 917, a high of 980 (twice) and an eight-year average of 956.

So Kowalczyk has a clue. He claims this current school year's figure, despite some retention issues - with three head coaches in four years, personnel loss has been an obvious problem reflected in the Rockets' APR - will at least match the national average of 940.

But here's the thing. It could be 1000 and the updated four-year rolling average would still be well below the minimum and the NCAA could issue additional sanctions. While Kowalczyk isn't panicking in the short term, the ability to redshirt players and develop young talent doesn't exist with so few grants-in-aid.

"I think we have a plan that will show results and, if so, we could go through an appeal process that would prevent [further sanctions] even if we're below minimum," Kowalczyk said. "But you never know. I'm a big believer in the APR. I think college coaches should be held responsible for academic performance. In this case, though, I think the penalty was awfully severe on the institution."

That may be his polite way of saying, considering his APR history at Green Bay, that he isn't the coach who should be held responsible. The NCAA, of course, makes few allowances for programs that have repeatedly underachieved academically over a period of time.

That left me with two questions for Kowalczyk.

■ Did he know of UT's academic issues a little more than a year ago when he took the job?

"No, I didn't," he said. "But there's no blame. Maybe I didn't ask the right questions."

■ If he knew then what he knows now, meaning the full depth of the rebuilding job, would he still have taken it on?

"Yes, I still believe this is a great opportunity to build a highly-successful program and to do it the right way," he said. "The job still has a lot of potential. Everything we need to get it done is here."

Everything, give or take time.

A contract adjustment could solve that. If he's willing to go all-in with the Rockets during this darkest of ages, and if his team makes strides both on and off the court in 2011-12, then UT would be wise to go all-in with him.

Repairing the Rockets' (mis)fortunes and muddied image is no quick fix.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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