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Football and Academics Crunch in Big-Time Football, Too

It's becoming more and more clear that Patriot League schools aren't the only schools among the intellectually elite institutions that are having the debate about athletic recruiting and academics. This article from the San Francisco Chronicle treads a lot of the same ground I did in my "New Realities" blog postings and the College Sporting News article, even though the subject matter is the long-term survival of Stanford in the Pac-10.

If anything, it shows that the subjects being tackled by the Patriot League in regards to academic indexes and institutional control are hardly unique to our league.

From the article:

"They can't keep raising the bar,'' said Dave Tipton, a former All-America defensive tackle at Stanford who served as an assistant coach there for 18 years under five head coaches. He said the admissions standards for football players are "markedly'' higher than they were 10 years ago. "Hopefully it will go back to where it was, which was tough but at least doable. Some of these kids are getting admitted to the Ivy League but not at Stanford.''

A former Stanford administrator who asked not to be named said that beginning around 2000 the admissions department began to sharply reduce the weight it gave to athletic excellence in assessing applicants. "I think it's a shame, a tragedy,'' he said. "You see it in a total lack of support for the football team.''

It's not just a football problem. Don Shaw, the men's volleyball coach who last year ended 26 years at the school, most of them as women's coach, said, "There were three years (recently) when we couldn't get a top recruit even though they were great students. They raised the bar without telling us. ... It was like somebody turned off the faucet on us.''

The common denominator is the rosters of those teams were largely determined during the 2000-05 tenure of Robin Mamlet as dean of admissions. She came from Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college near Philadelphia that competes in sports on the Division III level. She had not worked at a Division I school previously and apparently had little experience dealing with applications from elite athletes. "She was tough on athletics,'' Tipton said. "Before her, the admissions people were easier to deal with.''

First, what's especially interesting is the power one admissions officer can have on athletic teams. In the Patriot League, admissions is controlled by the admissions office and the presidents have the final say on admissions decisions, not the athletic departments. But even in a league environment where this was decidedly not the case, it looks like Stanford's president gave Ms. Mamlet this level of control at Stanford as well. To me, that's pretty extraordinary for a big-money Pac-10 school.

Worthy of note also was that only a few months after Ms. Mamlet left for Stanford, Swarthmore's president Alfred Bloom decided to cut the historic football and men's wrestling programs amid an uproar from angry students, parents, and alumni. Ms. Mamlet was an admissions officer that must have shared president Bloom's visions about athletics -- and makes one wonder if she helped set the stage for the demise of Swarthmore football with her admissions decisions there. As an admissions officer at a D-III school, she would have had control over all admits to the school, so she could have chosen to admit a cellist over a good football player.

To me this emphasizes the need to strike a balance between admissions and athletics. Nobody wants athletics to grow so big that it runs the school, yet it's also a mistake to have admissions have so much power that they squeeze the life out of programs that give a lot of joy to students and alumni.

Some alums think former athletic director Ted Leland should have battled more forcefully against rising standards for athletes and for more of a commitment to athletic success. "Lowering the standards to admit athletes just so you can win games is not going to work on the Stanford campus,'' said Leland, now a vice-president at Pacific. "I would say we want to go to the Rose Bowl, and people would agree. But if I said lower the criteria, they'd throw you out of the room.''

A dean of admissions can be a convenient scapegoat when teams struggle. In her book about the job, former Stanford dean of admissions Jean Fetter wrote, "As someone once noted, when the Stanford team performs well, the coach gets a lot of credit; when the team performs badly, the dean of undergraduate admissions is held responsible.''

I think that last line is pretty disingenuous, especially when you look at two proven examples of admissions officers coming in with "stronger standards" and seeing the football teams go to losing records. It's awful hard to look at Stanford under Ms. Mamlet and Dartmouth under Karl Furstenburg (who, ironically, got in trouble for writing Mr. Bloom of Swarthmore, praising the decision to kill football) and say that it was the coaches' fault that things went sour. Stanford went 9-3 in 2001, including a bowl game. The next year Buddy Teevens came in and went 2-8. It's hard not to ask, "what changed?" -- and then ignore the fact that Mamlet came in 2000.

True, it's unfair to completely blame admissions. Yet to me it seems very clear that admissions certainly has the power to stop a successful program in its tracks if it's given the power to do so. The analogy of the water tap is apt.

"I don't want Stanford to lower their admission standards for athletic success,'' said [Tom] Williams, now a special-teams coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "But I probably couldn't get into Stanford anymore. That's disappointing because they're turning down guys who could be successful there.''

He cited the case of wide receiver Mark Bradford as an example of a player who came from a difficult background but who had the drive and intelligence to get good grades from Stanford. "We had to fight tooth and nail to get that kid in school,'' Williams said.

Bradford, who will be a senior in the fall, "is maintaining a 3.3 GPA," Williams said. "He's thriving.'' But many other athletes with similar credentials have been denied, he said.

If that continues, Williams said, Stanford won't be able to compete in football at the top level. "Every year you need 25 guys who can qualify and help you win the Pac-10,'' he said. "In any given year, across the country, there are only 75 guys who can do it, maybe 85 to 100 in a great year. If you get one of three of those guys, you have a chance. Stanford will get one of six; that's not going to cut it.''

Whether Richard Shaw can or will help [Jim] Harbaugh [pictured] rescue the football program is anybody's guess. Bob Bowlsby, the former Iowa athletic director who took over as Stanford AD last summer, says he's convinced the school can compete in the revenue-producing sports even with the current admissions standards.


Admission rates

Stanford admissions for the fall of 2006:

-- Only 10.9 percent of the freshman applicants were admitted. For comparison, Duke admitted 21.2 percent while Harvard accepted 9.3 percent.

-- Only 17.4 percent of applicants with an SAT verbal score of 700 or higher were admitted.

-- Only 14 percent of the applicants with an SAT math score of 700 or higher were admitted.

Stanford is one of the elite academic institutions in the world, with the Lehigh's and Colgate's just a (very small) notch below them and the Harvard's, Yale's, and Princeton's. Just like the Patriot League schools, higher standards are squeezing athletics applicants at Stanford as well. In the Patriot League, the Academic Index institutionalizes our commitment to admitting great student-athletes, but it's institutions everywhere that seem to be squeezed to find talent if they are also committed to fielding winning football teams. Stanford, Harvard, Lehigh, they're all competing on a national level to find these kids. (And in the first block above, Harvard and Stanford are finding themselves going against each other for the same athletes... and Harvard wins.)

Yet Tom Williams also points out something else I've been saying. He feels that the admissions departments are turning down kids that could "thrive" at Stanford, and I think a restrictive AI could be forcing Patriot League schools to turn down the same types of kids at Patriot League schools. I think a model should be in place that makes it more attractive for these types of kids that could thrive at a Lehigh, Lafayette or Holy Cross. I'm afraid that tying our league too closely to the existing, unforgiving AI could also keep kids who could thrive at Patriot League schools out as well.

Overall, the Chronicle article is really well-done and indirectly talks about some of the issues I brought up about the Patriot League. With the League looking again at the AI model, it's a golden opportunity to take a stand at a national level to help create a new model which properly balances academics and high-level Division I athletics.


Coach Coen announced two additions to his coaching staff last week. Bob Admunson comes from D-III powerhouse Rowan to become an assistant defensive backs coach, while Mike Kapusta, an assistant at Temple, will be coaching running backs. Kapusta was a former fullback at Penn ('04) who played for Coen. They replace R.J. Ryan (who took the offensive coordinator position at D-III Franklin & Marshall) and Jesse Gambone.

Hard to say what the impacts of these hires might be, though Kapusta seems like an interesting hire to me showing coach Coen's emphasis on the running backs. Of course, maybe I simply can't wait for September 8th. Only 88 days until kickoff at Goodman!

In sadder news, Lehigh Lacrosse coach Chris Wakely announces he is stepping down since he's been battling Multiple Sclerosis for the past four years. Our thoughts and prayers go to coach Wakely.


Anonymous said…
I am a Stanford fan and just came across your post (its been many months since you wrote it). Some comments

1. This is a very HOT topic amongst certain segments of the alumni community
2. It does look like Stanford will be "relaxing" things a bit to get the revenue sports back on track, but don't look for this to be a permanent, or even stable situation
3. In Stanford v. Harvard. Stanford will actually win 95% of the time for any Student Athlete. Stanford Sports may have its issues, but it is as premier as the University (the so called "Sears Cup" that honors the best Division 1 sports program annually practically lives in Palo Alto).
4. There are powerful external forces of professionalization of sports that are pushing against elite academic institutions in achieving the balance that they want, and should expect with their Student Athletes. Thus far, it does not seem like there has been any serious attempt to address this issue. The obvious solution it to decouple the professional track from amateur track sports, like the baseball system.

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