Star Athlete, You're Admitted. Er, Never Mind

August 8, 2007

Steve Spurrier is hardly the first coach to blast his college's admissions process; coaches never like it when top recruits get rejected. The University of South Carolina coach’s threat this week to quit if the institution does not alter its policies is unlikely to get Spurrier everything he wants; he says the university should admit any athlete who meets the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s eligibility standards for freshmen, and university officials say they won’t go there.

But the overaching issue Spurrier raises -- what coaches and colleges tell athletes about their prospects for admission, and when in the process they send those signals -- is a real one that affects every university that plays big-time sports. (Lest anyone wonder, it even applies in the Ivy League.)

Spurrier, who has spent more than two decades as a college and professional head football coach, used a news conference pegged to the start of the college football season on Sunday to complain bitterly about the fact that the university had in recent weeks rejected two high school players to whom Spurrier had essentially promised admission in February (video of his comments can be found here). The coach had done so, he said, because the athletes had been cleared to play under the NCAA's Division I eligibility requirements for freshmen -- a standard that ought to be sufficient for admission to the university, Spurrier suggested.

But the “special” admissions process that the university uses for about 75 students a year who don't qualify under its regular admissions procedures turned down appeals from two of three football recruits who were referred to it. The players found out only this summer – one as recently as mid-July -- that they would not be able to enroll and play football at South Carolina, leaving them few options to enroll elsewhere and, Spurrier said, making the university and the coach look bad.

“I’m embarrassed that I, and our coaches, basically misled these young men into believing they were coming here,” Spurrier said. “Now, I’m not blasting the president or the provost. The president has already told me how we’re going to change how we do admissions here…. As long as I’m the coach here, we’re going to take guys that qualify. If not, then I’m going to have to go somewhere else because I can’t tell a young man to come to school here, he qualifies, and not do that. And we did that this year.”

South Carolina officials say that they are sympathetic to Spurrier’s complaints about the timing of when players are notified that they have not been admitted, and that they are discussing procedural changes that would allow coaches to give recruits a thumbs up or thumbs down earlier than is now the case. That's necessary in part because the special admissions process -- which athletes are more likely than other students to make use of -- can take months to unfold, waiting on the latest information from athletes' senior year in high school. “From the student-athlete standpoint, the process does need some refinement, some fine tuning, in regard to timing,” said Russ McKinney, a university spokesman.

But Spurrier’s assertion that the university should more or less automatically admit athletes who meet the NCAA’s eligibility standards for freshmen is another matter, South Carolina officials say.

“The final say on the qualification of students applying for admission to the University of South Carolina will rest with the institution,” McKinney said. “The relationship between NCAA certification and our qualifications may well be an area that gets looked at. But right now that’s not been changed.” And any changes that might be made, he said, would be considered only with the direct involvement of the faculty.

Good, say faculty leaders. Claiborne (Gene) Reeder, a professor of pharmacoeconomics and chair of the Faculty Senate at South Carolina, said he thinks it would be wholly appropriate for South Carolina to review its admissions process to ensure that athletes find out in a timely manner whether they’ve found a place at the university or not. “If it’s a process issue, I would think it’s something the university should be able to come to compromise on.” But any suggestion that the university should lower its admission standards to the NCAA’s requirements for eligibility -- which were eased significantly two years ago -- is anathema, Reeder said. The NCAA standards require athletes to achieve a minimum grade point average in 14 high school core courses, using a sliding scale that also incorporates the SAT or ACT. But an athlete with a high enough GPA can conceivably qualify to compete as a freshman with the lowest possible score on the SAT.

“The academic quality of the student-athletes cannot be compromised,” he said. “University standards can’t be submerged to NCAA minimum guidelines.”

The Larger Problem

South Carolina is far from alone in wrestling with the issues Spurrier has raised; in fact, it caused headaches at the state’s other major public campus, Clemson University, just a few months ago.

The situation at Clemson was slightly different but related. In early February, just before the "national signing date" on which Division I-A football programs and athletes can commit to each other, Clemson fans and boosters went ballistic when they learned that a university panel had rejected the applications of two top high school football players, who went on to enroll at rival colleges. In the furor that followed, Clemson officials agreed to review the university’s policies for admitting athletes, just as South Carolina has.

Although many Clemson coaches -- like Spurrier -- urged the university to embrace the NCAA's eligibility standards as their own requirements for athlete admission, that possibility was never seriously considered, said Doris Helms, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Clemson.

But it was abundantly clear to university officials that "the admissions process is out of sync with the recruiting process," Helms said. Early February is when a football player (or other fall sport athlete) can sign a "national letter of intent" to enroll at a particular college, and it largely binds the athlete to that institution for one year. But by this pivotal point in the recruiting process, colleges and universities have often not completed their admissions processes, so they often feel pressured to give coaches a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether the athletes they covet are likely to be admitted.

That's where the dilemma is for college officials, said Clemson's Helms. If a university's officials try to give an athlete (or his or her coach) a conclusive answer on admission by early February, in time for the national letter of intent deadline, they are probably going to be forced to do so based only on the student's academic record through junior year of high school, and possibly without any standardized test results from senior year. "That may be giving short shrift to an athlete who comes up 100 points on the SAT" in the spring of his or her senior year," said Helms.

But the other alternative -- waiting to assess an athlete's admissions chances until later in the senior spring or even early summer -- has its own downside, as seen in the South Carolina situation to which Spurrier objected. "If you allow the [National Letter of Intent] to go forward without making that [admission] decision and the student falls down, then you end up with Steve Spurrier’s problem," where the athlete has committed to attend the university on the possibly mistaken impression that he or she has been assured admission, said Helms.

Clemson's review sought to deal with that possibility by permitting letters of intent to go out without an offer of admission, if a review by the director of admission ensures that the academic performance of the team in question (as judged by NCAA graduation and academic progress rates) is "acceptable" and "the academic record of the student athlete seeking scholarship admission for that sport is acceptable, with no apparent irregularities," the policy reads.

But "it is understood, and must be understood by coaches," said Helms, "that they are not admissions directors. You cannot tell an athlete, 'You are coming to Clemson.' After all, it's a national letter of intent, not a national letter of acceptance."

Officials at both Clemson and South Carolina said that they were aware of peer colleges -- they declined to name names -- where meeting the NCAA's freshman eligibility standards, even as they have been weakened in recent years, was good enough to ensure admission for athletes, as Spurrier said he would prefer it at South Carolina.

Clemson and South Carolina say that that's not something they're willing to do, and that the admissions processes for athletes -- even those admitted outside the regular admissions process -- must remain in control of academic administrators. Said Reeder, the Faculty Senate chair at South Carolina: "As long as that admissions process -- whether we're talking about standard or special admits -- as long as that remains under purview of the faculty, that's probably as good as it gets."

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