As much as I relish taking whacks at one of my favorite punching bags, the NCAA, I'm not sure that the governing body of college athletics deserves scorn above praise for turning down an appeal by the University of Toledo and leveling a 2012-13 postseason ban on the men's basketball program.
Oh, don't get me wrong. I think it's a sorry joke how the NCAA punishes the innocent. Not one player on the current roster has anything to do with the academic eligibility/retention issues that landed the Rockets in this pickle. These players, in fact, have done everything the NCAA asks of its student-athletes.
But the university and its athletic department are culpable, so the penalty is deserved. Granted, it was a perfect storm that helped create this mess. UT employed three different head basketball coaches in a 25-month period. Players tend to come and go under those circumstances.
It happened when Gene Cross replaced longtime coach Stan Joplin in the spring of 2008. Of the six players in Joplin's last recruiting class, which is still affecting Toledo's APR scores, I can think of one who made it to even his junior year. And not one of the athletes recruited to UT by Cross during his short, but not short enough, two-year tenure was still on the roster this past season when they would have been either juniors or seniors.
Some left on their own, some were vaguely encouraged not to return, some were pointed toward the door. Current coach Tod Kowalczyk did his share of that weeding out too. It happens. But with the NCAA monitoring such things on multi-year cycles, it happened way too often and dug far too deep of a hole.
A number of years ago, studies showed that NCAA scholarship athletes had putrid graduation rates and were ill-prepared to step into the real world. About 50 percent were graduating and designing little toys for happy meals. The other 50 percent were handing them out the drive-thru window. Justifiably, the NCAA and its members were embarrassed.
Pushing academic reform, they eventually came up with the Academic Progress Rate. Each student receiving athletic financial aid earns points for retention and eligibility from term to term. The NCAA determined a fair cut line and, when a program's numbers fall short, then shorter, then shortest, there can be heck to pay, as UT has learned.
A school first gets a public warning, then scholarship restrictions, and then is banned from postseason play. Toledo has accumulated those three strikes. There is a fourth penalty level, too, maybe incineration. Let's hope we don't find out.
There are loopholes. How else can you explain Kentucky's mission of one-and-done higher education/NBA lottery major? Those mercenaries leave UK in good academic standing, we're told, which mitigates the points loss for nonretention. It is the same loophole that allows a soft landing for a school when an athlete transfers to another Division I program while academically eligible.
Apparently, many of the UT players who left did not satisfy that requirement. They either disappeared in mid-term or were academically ineligible upon transferring or both. True, grade point average doesn't factor directly into APR, but eligibility does, and the two pretty much go hand in hand. Somebody was not minding the store.
You can blame the players who are gone or the coaches who are gone, but the bottom line is that schools have made themselves responsible for the academic accomplishments, or lack thereof, among athletes. Most major colleges, including Toledo, have extensive and expensive systems in place for class scheduling, guidance, and tutoring. There was a breakdown and now UT has been tabbed to pay the piper.
Toledo officials are hopeful, as are the school's fans, that the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance will decide by July that 2011-12 data, which is powerfully persuasive in UT's case, could be cycled into the formula and alter the NCAA's ruling ... that the Rockets could awake from a bad dream to sunny skies and bouncing balls.
It ain't gonna happen folks, and here's why. Connecticut is in the same boat as Toledo, and the NCAA has been gunning for UConn and coach Jim Calhoun for a long time. NCAA executive director Mark Emmert can't claim to be an academic reformer if there isn't any hard evidence of reform. Toledo, UConn and a few others provide that evidence.
The penalty will likely stand. Is it fair to UT's current players? No. Is it fair that in addition to a postseason ban the NCAA (this is overkill, by the way) mandates that the regular-season schedule must be trimmed three games? No. Is it fair that Kowalczyk's enviable APR history in a decade as a head coach is ignored? No.
Is there a difference between fair and right? You betcha. If "student-athlete" is to be taken as anything more than an oxymoron, as the NCAA and its members insist it must, then someone has to take action and someone has to take responsibility.
Like it or not, the latter falls on the University of Toledo.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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