By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
February 8, 2002 RALEIGH If the Tramain Hall story was simply a run-of-the-mill tale of another football prospect committing to another ACC school, this article would be unnecessary.
It's much more than that.
It's a tale of a prep All-American who trusted the advice of an ACC school out of high school, only to find out later that the college in question had violated one of the most basic NCAA rules and fouled up his eligibility in the process. It's about an athletic department that did nothing to discourage a fictitious version of events in at attempt to save face and shut out at least one writer who sought to find and report the accurate details of the case.
It's a story of (with very few exceptions) a disinterested mainstream media, surprisingly willing to accept one of the most ridiculous party lines (It's All The NCAA's Fault) in the history of athletics and once again intimidated by the intersection of two topics (recruiting and NCAA rules) whose complexities and details always have eluded them. It's about ignorant editorial writers, who would much rather churn out easy columns (NCAA Hurts Another Kid) based largely on lies and half-truths supplied exclusively by self-interested parties instead of actually collecting and examining the facts themselves.
It's a saga that includes a large group of passionate but uninformed fans (and, sadly, even some otherwise coherent writers) who quickly and thoughtlessly adopted this case as their latest proof of a fictitious NCAA conspiracy and/or vendetta against their school. It's about talk show callers, message board posters, biased media members and other fanatics who literally fabricated information about a person and his background, repeated the information until just about everyone assumed it was true, and rarely (if ever) cast a skeptical eye toward the self-sustaining cycle of misinformation.
It's also about a painfully nice, well-intentioned young man who simply can't say no to anybody. It's about someone who fell in love with a school and its people and committed himself to them, later became furious when he realized the terrible mistake they had made at his expense, yet continued his love affair through a long-distance relationship and recently agreed to a second marriage with the same school despite several factors pointing him toward other open-armed suitors.
It's about coaches who may or may not have made a prospect's best interest their No. 1 priority at all times. It's about a blameless NCAA that has no avenue to speak out on its own behalf, despite being unfairly fingered for everything. It's an absolute mess. That's what it is.
It's been a long road, Hall said recently. I can't believe everything that has happened. It's been crazy, lots of ups and downs. I don't think anybody would think this could happen to them. But it happened to me.
Let's start with the basics:
Who is Tramain Hall?
Hall is an outstanding football player who enrolled at N.C. State in January 2001 on an athletic scholarship despite failing to meet minimum NCAA eligibility standards. He spent the entire spring semester at State, working out with team members and going through part of spring drills, before the school realized he was an academic non-qualifier under the most basic NCAA rules. He transferred to a junior college last fall and recently committed to re-join the Wolfpack as a member of the 2002 signing class. If he follows through and signs with the Pack during college football's annual signing period, which began on Feb. 6, he will be a scholarship player (essentially a redshirt) for the Pack this fall but (under a recent ACC ruling) will not be eligible to play until 2003.
What's his background?
Hall began his promising career in the state of Florida, then his family made the first in a series of decisions that resulted in his long and winding road. When his high school coach (Jay Minton) left the Sunshine State to take a job in Ohio, Hall went with him. After playing in Florida as a freshman, he transferred to Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne High School for his sophomore season, then returned home. As a junior and senior, he played at Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High, where his career took off against some of the best competition the prep ranks have to offer. Because he left halfway through his senior year for Raleigh, he spent only three semesters at his final high school.
All that jumping around didn't help Tramain, former Deerfield Beach coach Perry Schneider said. When somebody comes in late and leaves early like that, you worry about them academically and every other way. You worry about something falling through the cracks, and that's exactly what happened.
How good is Hall?
Welcome to misinformation, Part I. By all accounts, Hall was an awesome prep player, but this is one of the many areas where the internet fiction writers got carried away. High school statistics are historically inaccurate, so this wasn't a huge deal, but he definitely didn't rush for the 2,500-plus yards and 44 touchdowns credited to him for the 2000 season in one report.
According to statistics provided to the ACC Sports Journal by Schneider in a January 2001 Prep Stars profile, Hall posted the following numbers as a senior: 1,075 rushing yards for 16 TDs, 18 receptions for 310 yards and six more TDs, 600 yards in punt and kick returns, and two fumble recoveries (as a cornerback) for scores. According to the same report, Hall also rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior, when Deerfield Beach went 14-0 and won the 6A (large school) championship.
The 2001 N.C. State media guide, obviously printed at a time when the school still inexplicably thought Hall would be eligible last fall, had similar (but not exact) offensive statistics for him. It also noted 52 tackles and five interceptions on defense and a first-team all-state selection. Interestingly, Hall's profile also mentioned that he graduated from high school in December (which turned out to be untrue), specified that he missed spring workouts due to eligibility requirements (very misleading, because he worked out with his teammates a lot), stated that SuperPrep called him the sixth-best running back in the nation (misleading and inaccurate, because that was a preseason ranking and it was actually No. 8) and spelled his prep coach's name incorrectly (Scheider).
Recruiting analysts Bobby Burton, Max Emfinger, Tom Lemming, Allen Wallace and others named Hall to their All-America teams, as did USA Today. In its postseason edition, SuperPrep rated him the No. 24 defensive back in the nation. Rivals had him at No. 9.
If the grades go from A through F, Tramain is an A prospect, Schneider said. I'm not sure he's an A-plus prospect, the kind who makes or breaks a program by himself, but he's in that next level. He's very good.
With another year in the weight room, he's a Marshall Faulk-type player, said Ron Ponciano, Hall's coach at Los Angeles Valley College. When the other tailbacks on my team saw him for the first time (last fall), they wanted to move to another position.
Clearly, despite some discrepancies, there's a consensus of opinion: Hall was and remains a very promising prospect.
How was he academically?
Welcome to misinformation, Part II. When the Hall saga began, internet reports correctly listed his academic credentials as a qualifying (above 2.5) GPA and a qualifying (above 820) SAT score. What happened next was enough to make someone swear off the internet for life. When the eligibility problems arose, the numbers 3.2 and 900 popped up. As the uninformed fan's anger at the NCAA increased, they magically rose to 3.5 and 1,000 on a pretty consistent basis. By the time the frustration peaked, they were closing in on 4.0 and 1,600, and Hall was being retroactively nominated for admission to Harvard and Yale. For what it's worth, the profile in the State media guide said he had a 3.2 high school GPA.
In information provided for the January 2001 edition of the ACC Sports Journal, which went to press after the conclusion of Hall's final semester at Deerfield Beach, Schneider said Hall had a 3.0 GPA and 900 SAT score. He also said his core-course GPA, which is all that matters for purposes of NCAA eligibility, was above 2.5. In the January 2001 edition of SuperPrep, which also talks directly to players, their coaches and their families on a regular basis, the reported numbers were 3.0 and 860. When asked if those numbers were correct, Hall said: That sounds about right.
The bottom line: Hall definitely had the required core-course GPA and SAT coming out of high school. If the real numbers were 2.7 and 860, that would have made him a decent student, not the Academic All-American he was built up to be in some circles. That's not a criticism of Hall, just an effort to correct one of many pieces of false information in a story that's confusing enough without the truth being bastardized at every turn.
Fans' apparent fascination with fiction showed up later, too. When discussing Hall's situation, fans repeated over and over that he had done extremely well during his one semester at N.C. State. The most common number offered was a 3.5 GPA.
According to Hall himself, his GPA at NCSU was like a B-minus. According to a Sports Journal source, the NCSU number was about 2.5, and Hall's GPA during his first semester at LAVC was about 2.6 despite failing a sociology class. (The source said Hall will re-take the sociology class this summer in an attempt to replace the failing grade.) According to the same source, Hall passed six (18 units) of the seven classes (21 units) he needed special approval from an academic counselor to go beyond the school's usual 18-unit limit for a single semester he tackled last fall, is enrolled in five classes this spring and plans to take two more this summer. Including the credits he completed during his one semester at NCSU, Hall will have enough to earn a juco degree after LAVC's first summer session if he successfully completes those seven remaining classes. That would leave plenty of time to get to Raleigh for preseason practice.
He wants to avoid the second summer session (at LAVC) if he can, the source said. He wants to get on with his career as soon as possible.
Who recruited Hall?
Out of high school, just about everyone east of the Rockies recruited Hall. N.C. State, of course. Home-state Miami, which signed one of his best friends and former teammates (prep All-American QB Derrick Crudup) in 2000. Both schools offered scholarships, as did Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State and dozens of others. He and his coach literally lost count.
Meanwhile, at various times during the recruiting process, Hall agreed to take official visits to more than a dozen different schools. (NCAA rules permit only five.) He scheduled, cancelled, rescheduled and/or re-cancelled trips to FSU, Indiana (where his father attended), Nebraska, NCSU, Notre Dame (his father once lived in South Bend) and Ohio State.
Everybody who knows Tramain well knows he has a hard time saying no to anybody, Schneider said. It complicated the recruiting process the first time, and it wouldn't surprise me if it complicated the recruiting process the second time. He wanted to go everywhere. He's a wonderful kid. He just has a hard time saying no.
According to various news articles, Hall visited the Hoosiers on Dec. 1 and the Wolfpack on Dec. 8. The Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer and others reported a commitment to the Pack at the time, but Hall repeatedly denied those reports in coming weeks and continued to talk with other schools about visits. Finally, on Christmas Day, Hall and his family publicly announced his commitment to N.C. State.
It was a Christmas gift, Hall's father, Willie Holloway, told SuperPrep, for Coach (Chuck) Amato.
How'd State get him?
That's a very interesting question. If you ask it to 10 different people involved in Hall's recruitment, you may get 10 different answers.
I liked Coach Amato and the coaches and players, and I saw them as an up-and- coming program where I would have a chance to play (as a freshman), Hall said. When they came up with (the idea of enrolling early), I liked it. I could go through spring practice and maybe even start my first year. That kind of sealed the deal for me.
Ask some opposing coaches, though, and they'll tell you the Wolfpack landed Hall largely by convincing him to enroll early at N.C. State, a decision that later became the exact cause of his eligibility problems. They'll tell you that Amato, a crafty guy on the recruiting trail, knew he would risk losing the flip-flopping Hall to Miami, Nebraska or someone else if he had to wait the almost two months between the player's official visit to Raleigh in early December and national signing day in early February. They'll tell you that the idea to have Hall graduate from high school a semester early and enroll at State in January was as much a recruiting ploy as anything else.
Prior to his Christmas commitment to the Wolfpack, Hall had official visits scheduled to Ohio State (Jan. 5) and Nebraska (Jan. 12) and was considering one more. When he warmed to the idea of early enrollment, he cancelled those trips. He officially enrolled at N.C. State on or around Jan. 22, which marked the beginning of the spring semester.
If a kid is committed to another school in December, I can recruit him all the way to signing day and maybe get him to change his mind, one former ACC assistant told the Sports Journal. But once a kid (enrolls at) another school, obviously, he's off-limits to me and everyone else. Before signing day, that's the only way to really finalize a commitment from a high school kid. Once he's in (school), he's yours. At that point, I couldn't even give him a ëcongratulations' phone call without getting in trouble with the NCAA.
Of course, Amato may have signed Hall under any circumstances, and he was very successful the previous year with the early enrollment (and, thus, spring practice participation) of quarterback recruit Philip Rivers. In his first full recruiting cycle after replacing Mike O'Cain after the 1999 season, Amato landed one of the best recruiting classes in N.C. State history. Well-known and widely respected in the Sunshine State because of his work during 18 years as an assistant at Florida State, the coach secured nine Florida prospects (including Hall and three other prep All-Americans) in his 2001 signing class.
What (N.C. State) did in Florida doesn't happen very often, SuperPrep's Wallace said. Very few programs are able to go down there and come home with three or four players the Florida schools wanted. (State) did, and that's a tribute to their staff.
How'd Hall look?
According to his N.C. State coaches and teammates, Hall looked phenomenal during his short stay in Raleigh. Working out mainly at wide receiver, where the Pack was looking for a playmaker to replace departed star Koren Robinson, Hall reportedly showed good hands, 4.4 speed and excellent acceleration. (Sound familiar?) He also exhibited a strong work ethic off the field and generally made a habit of making a good personal impression on everyone around the football program.
Annabelle Vaughan, N.C. State's media relations director, later wrote about Hall in her on-line column: There's not really much I can say about the Tramain Hall situation except that it's very unfortunate. I don't know much about the eligibility side of things, and I don't know much about his football ability, but I do know that he is a great young man. He has handled this situation so well and with so much class. If all student-athletes were as classy as he is, my job would be easy.
In late March, Amato said in a radio interview that Hall looked great but was sidelined with a minor back problem. The coach said Hall showed more explosion than anyone in the program, and that Rivers was making a special point of finding him in passing patterns. Other coaches and players privately marveled at the newcomer's talent.
Soon, though, everyone stopped talking about Hall. More reports about the mysterious (and fictitious?) back injury cropped up when asked if he remembered getting hurt while at State, Hall later replied: No although later his media guide bio mentioned only the eligibility issues. A fan asked assistant Doc Holliday about the Pack's receiving corps, and he talked for 15 minutes without even mentioning Hall. On a fund-raising tour, N.C. State AD Lee Fowler was asked about Hall, and he said it was doubtful the star freshman would be eligible for the Pack in the fall.
Clearly, by late in the spring semester, people at N.C. State began to realize what everyone else seemed to understand months earlier.
What went wrong?
When Hall was deemed ineligible at N.C. State, essentially for not passing Florida's high school exit exam prior to enrolling in Raleigh, the reactions varied widely.
According to what few whispers emanated from the State athletic department, it was just one big, unfortunate misunderstanding. According to many Wolfpack fans, it was just the latest example of the nameless, faceless, heartless NCAA unfairly beating up on their school. According to some opposing coaches and just about everyone with a working knowledge of NCAA rules, the Pack got exactly what it deserved.
There were rumors that one of the other schools knew about Tramain's situation and turned (N.C. State) in to the NCAA, the former ACC assistant said. I don't know if that's true, but it would make sense. Everybody felt sorry for Tramain, but nobody wanted (N.C. State) to get away with what they did.
Most importantly, just about everyone with a fundamental understanding of NCAA rules without addressing the specifics of Hall's case by name told the Sports Journal that the basic elements of college eligibility aren't very complicated at all. In fact, there are only three: core-course GPA, SAT/ACT score and high school graduation.
We get a lot of questions about GPA, a lot of questions about the SAT and ACT, and a lot of questions about the sliding scale (which uses those two elements to determine eligibility status), NCAA spokesperson Jane Jankowski told the Sports Journal. We don't get many questions about the high school graduation requirement. I don't like to make too many generalizations, but that one's pretty simple.
Here, too, is where Hall himself has some culpability. He had at least six opportunities to take the Florida exit exam while enrolled at Deerfield Beach, but he supposedly took it only twice (reports vary from two to five) while at the school. His final attempt, which he passed, didn't come until July 2001, six months after he enrolled at N.C. State. According to Hall, he didn't take it seriously during his first attempt and was very nervous during his subsequent tries. He said it was not a difficult exam.
It's a very simple, very basic test, one Florida official told the Sports Journal. Many eighth graders can pass it, and most college-bound juniors and seniors pass it on the first try with no problem. It's definitely not designed to be a difficult obstacle.
What was so complicated?
Because of privacy restrictions, N.C. State officials are not permitted to discuss the details of Hall's case. If they could, it would be very interesting to hear their side of this story, because absolutely everything about it suggests that someone at State gave horrible advice to Hall when they suggested that he enroll early. It also suggests that someone made an unbelievably horrendous error by either (a) failing to get valid confirmation of a successful exit exam or (b) endorsing the idea that it would be perfectly OK to allow Hall to enroll on the assumption that he would pass the exam at a later date.
There are three relevant (academic) categories for initial eligibility: high school graduation, core-course GPA and SAT or ACT score, Jankowski said. Once you enroll as a full-time student, your status in those three categories is locked in place and can't be changed. If you were not a qualifier at that moment, you're not a qualifier. Your only option at a later date is a waiver.
That is the A-B-Cs of eligibility, one ACC administrator told the Sports Journal. The rules clearly state that a prospective student-athlete must have his academic credentials in order prior to full-time enrollment. There is no gray area there. Nobody would admit someone with a (non-qualifying) SAT score on the hope that he will make it later. Nobody would admit someone with a (non-qualifying) GPA on the hope that he will improve it later. The rules on that are very, very clear.
To everyone on the planet except N.C. State, apparently, Hall's situation was just as clear. He had the necessary GPA. He had the required SAT score. He had not, however, attained the status of a high school graduate. Yes, he had completed all of the required courses at Deerfield Beach High by December 2000. But he had not passed the high school exit exam, which is a state-imposed requirement for all public school students.
Anyone who's been around college football knows about high school exit exams, a current ACC assistant said. Florida has one. Georgia has one. Texas has one. I know there are others. It's just another piece of the puzzle. Most of them are very easy, and the kids don't have any problem with it. But it's another piece of the puzzle. If you don't remember to ask for (proof of passing the test), your compliance people will.
Somehow, N.C. State botched the most simple of the three elements that make up academic eligibility. The GPA can be somewhat complicated, because only certain classes count toward the NCAA's requirement of 13 core courses and some advanced classes are weighted differently. (North Carolina's fumbling of basketball recruit Jason Parker's eligibility a few years ago was the result of a miscalculated GPA.) The SAT/ACT occasionally requires some extra examination, because unique testing conditions or large jumps in score can send up red flags. But the high school requirement?
I've seen (eligibility) paperwork where there's literally a small box that says: Is this prospective student-athlete from a state that requires an exit exam for graduation? the former ACC assistant said. If not, you don't have to worry about it. If so, you check the box, and the compliance people add that to the list of things they need for that kid's file. Until this, I've never heard of anyone having a problem with it.
What about the rejected score?
Welcome to misinformation, Part III. This one, apparently a blatant lie conjured up by one at least one Wolfpack-friendly individual and repeated as gospel by literally hundreds of others, was an absolute classic. It really took the art of dishonesty to a new level, perfectly explaining everything in one air-tight, blameless package.
Here was the story: We can explain the mixup at N.C. State. It really wasn't anyone's fault not the coaches, not the compliance people, not Tramain, not anybody. You see, Tramain actually passed that high school exit exam in the fall. On the basis of that qualifying score, he was admitted to State in January. Later, through no fault of Tramain, the test scores of everyone (including Tramain) who took the test in a certain location on a certain day were thrown out because somebody else cheated. That's why he had to take the test again, after he enrolled, and that's the only reason we're in this mess. Can you believe the NCAA won't give the Wolfpack and Tramain a break under circumstances like that?
What a story! Indeed, it would explain everything, and of course even the cold-hearted NCAA would give the school and the player a break under such circumstances. There was only one problem. This creative tale, like so many stories with perfectly happy and tidy endings, was an utter and complete work of fiction. Asked if he ever had a qualifying score on the exit exam thrown out for any reason, Hall said: No.
I know where that kind of thing probably got started, Schneider said. There was a big controversy down here that year, where somebody got an advance copy of the test at Miami Northwestern (a high school and testing site) and everyone's score from that day at that site was thrown out. Ö But Tramain wasn't there. He wasn't within 100 miles of that place when that happened. He just didn't pass the test.
So who's to blame?
That remains one of the mysteries of the Hall case, although many pieces of the maddening puzzle are finally in place.
It's crystal-clear that one or more individuals in the N.C. State athletic department dropped the eligibility ball, but the actual identities of the responsible parties are not so clear and probably never will be. The Wolfpack was acting without a compliance director at the time of Hall's enrollment, meaning any number of people at some schools, even graduate assistants are part of the file-building process could have been involved, without anyone in the-buck-stops-here mode.
I was not (at N.C. State) when that (Hall situation) happened, N.C. State assistant athletic director for compliance services Jon Fagg told the Sports Journal last year. It's my understanding that there was nobody in my current position at that time.
It was particularly ridiculous to argue, as some did, that the Wolfpack coaches may not have known the Florida exit exam was a graduation requirement for public school students in that state. For crying out loud, Amato (while at Florida State and NCSU) and Holliday (while at West Virginia and NCSU) are two of the most experienced, successful Sunshine State recruiters of the last two decades. Various versions of the exit exam have been part of the process in Florida since 1977.
Even if the coaches didn't know, for some unimaginable reason, someone in compliance should have known. That is, after all, their job. What seems complex to the average fan is often simple to those whose job it is to understand such matters.
When you look into (Hall's eligibility problems), you're going to find a lot of people who don't want to talk, Schneider said. That's what happens when someone makes a mistake, right? Nobody talks. I don't want to get anyone in trouble. I like Chuck and everyone else (at N.C. State), so I can't really say anything else on that. A mistake was made. Mistakes happen. It's just a shame Tramain had to pay for it.
When he first found out what happened, another source close to Hall said, Tramain was furious. I've been told that some people in his family were even more (mad) about it. The reason I wasn't surprised that he was willing to get over (his bad feelings) and re-commit to (State) is that I know how much he fell in love with the coaches and the players while he was there. Love conquers all, you might say.
What about the timing?
The most common argument of the angry N.C. State fan, and at least one Wolfpack coach, went something like this: If this Hall guy is a decent student (which he is) and a nice young man (which he appears to be), why in the world would the NCAA or anyone else want to stand in his way, especially since he eventually passed the darn high school test?
At first glance, it looks like a very reasonable argument. But it's not. Not even close. Here's why:
The schools themselves are the ones that debate and adopt (NCAA) rules, and then they have to abide by those rules, Jankowski said, without referring specifically to the Hall case. Nobody gets to pick and choose which rules they follow. If you want an exception to a rule, you need a very good argument.
The NCAA's side of things if difficult to pin down exactly, because nobody at that organization is permitted to discuss the specifics of a particular student's case. However, according to several ACC and NCAA sources with a background in eligibility issues, the bottom line again is pretty simple.
Bottom line, Part I: Especially in cases where a school's error this is assuming N.C. State simply misinterpreted the rule, rather than blatantly ignoring it results in a competitive advantage to them, the NCAA is not going to be as forgiving. In this case, State's error would have resulted in the Wolfpack getting a player everyone else wanted unless the NCAA stood by its rules.
If (the NCAA) ruled the other way, you'd have an awful lot of schools saying ëoops' and then asking for exceptions, an NCAA source said. That's not what the NCAA wants. They want you to follow the rules, and they don't want to create precedents that tie their hands the next time someone asks for an exception.
That brings us to the bottom line, Part II: In the long run, perhaps even the short run, exceptions to basic eligibility rules would destroy basic eligibility rules.
Here's the problem, the source said. Player X wasn't a high school graduate yet, but we allowed him to enroll anyway clearly a violation of pretty simple NCAA rules and with little or no repercussions. The next time someone asks for an exception under similar circumstances, they're probably going to get it. Pretty quickly, your exceptions are going to create a new rule: It's perfectly OK to enroll a student-athlete prior to his high school graduation, even though the rules specifically state the opposite. Nobody wants that.
You'll also run into this problem. What if Player X is just a little bit short on his GPA or a little bit short on the SAT? Under the existing rules, every compliance director in America knows that the student-athlete must achieve the qualifying scores prior to enrollment, and it's very common to postpone enrollment to allow the individual to improve those scores. If you start making exceptions to that saying, in effect, that it's now OK for the individual to enroll now on the hope that he'll get his SAT score later you've created a whole new set of rules. Nobody wants that, either.
At some point, the NCAA's member schools debated this exact issue. Do we allow non-qualifiers to enroll, and let their eligibility and financial-aid status be determined on an on-going basis, by whether or not they straighten out their academics at a later date? Or, on the other hand, do we make a rule that says non-qualifiers simply can't receive athletic aid? If they want to postpone enrollment and work on their academics on their own, that's fine, but they can't have a scholarship yet.
That's the rule, and it wasn't created by some invisible bureaucrats but by the schools themselves. Most understand it and abide by it. It's hard to listen to a school complain about a rule when they had a hand in making the rule themselves.
Bottom line, Part III: If Hall had simply waited until August to enroll, as most of the members of the Wolfpack's 2001 signing class did, he would have been a full qualifier in the eyes of the NCAA. No problems. No appeals. No mysterious back injuries. No fictitious internet reports. He would have had all of his academic credentials in perfect order. Instead, N.C. State's desire to get him into school early and/or keep him away from other schools created one enormous headache for everyone, especially Hall.
What's a non-qualifier?
All prospective student-athletes fall into one of three academic categories: full qualifier, partial qualifier or non-qualifier.
A full qualifier is someone who is a high school graduate (be sure to check for those exit exams) and who has achieved the minimum standards in core-course GPA (designed to weed out cupcake classes and level the playing field, this includes only grades attained in 13 classes designated by the NCAA) and either the SAT or ACT. The most commonly mentioned minimums are 2.5 GPA and 820 SAT (or 17 ACT), but on the NCAA's sliding scale it's actually possible to be a full qualifier with a lower GPA and higher SAT/ACT score. At the bottom of the sliding scale, an individual with a 2.0 GPA in core courses must have at least a 1,010 on the SAT to be a full qualifier. Because of his failure to pass the high school exit exam prior to enrollment, Hall was not a full qualifier, regardless of his GPA and SAT.
A partial qualifier is someone who falls short of full qualification because of a sub-820 SAT score (or sub-17 ACT score) but uses a higher GPA to meet the requirements of this category. At the extreme end of the sliding scale for partial qualifiers, someone with a core-course GPA of 2.750 or higher would be classified as a partial qualifier if he has an SAT score of 720 or above. Partial qualifiers are permitted to receive athletic aid and practice but are not eligible to play during their first year on campus. ACC rules allow member schools to admit two male athletes and two female athletes as partial qualifiers per year, with no more than one per sport in a given year. Most other conferences have no such restrictions.
Although the idea that Hall could enroll at N.C. State as a partial qualifier entered fans' conversations at times, it was never a possibility. His problem wasn't his SAT score. He was either a full qualifier or a non-qualifier all the way.
A non-qualifier is someone who fails to meet the above definitions because of either his GPA, SAT/ACT or graduation status. As someone who failed to pass the Florida exit exam prior to his enrollment at N.C. State, Hall was a non-qualifier. A non-qualifier is not eligible for practice or competition during his first academic year in residence, although he can receive non-athletics institutional financial aid that is not from an athletic source and is based on financial need only.
What were Hall's options?
Last August, after NCSU exhausted a series of far-fetched NCAA appeals on Hall's behalf, the young player had few desirable options as a non-qualifier.
Side note: In August 2001, after Hall received the results from his successful exit exam, there were reports that he could be eligible to play immediately at any school other than N.C. State. Not true. Hall's status as a non-qualifier was locked in at the time of his college enrollment, and it applied equally to all schools.
One option was to enroll immediately, for the fall 2001 semester, at a Division I-A school that accepts non-qualifiers. Because the ACC is one of only three (with the Big 12 and Pac-10) major conferences that does not allow non-qualifiers, remaining in Raleigh was not an option. Many other schools, including Miami of the Big East, are not restricted by their conferences but have university policies against admitting non-qualifiers. Although many I-A football programs accept non-qualifiers, in every case the student-athlete is not eligible for athletic-based aid during his first year on campus.
Paying my own way for a year doesn't sound too good to me, Hall said at the time. That's a lot of money, when you can go other places for free.
The only other realistic option for Hall was to attend junior college, and he found one last summer while waiting for the results of his appeals. In selecting Los Angeles Valley College, Hall ended up with a coach (Ponciano) who is often described as a good buddy of Amato and a team that sent two of its best players (defensive ends Terrance Chapman and Shawn Price) to the Wolfpack just last year. Chapman and Price were first and tied for second, respectively, on the team in sacks last fall.
How was junior college?
Hall, who turned 20 on Dec. 14, 2001, had a difficult decision soon after his arrival at LAVC. Should he sit and watch, while focusing on an extra-heavy academic load, or should he play? Ponciano repeatedly encouraged the player to sit out, in part to preserve four years of Division I-A eligibility. Hall, frustrated by the idea of another postponement, definitely wanted to play. At first, though, he sat.
By about the fifth game of the year, I couldn't take it anymore, Hall said. I was homesick, and I missed being out there (on the field). I even thought about going home. When I started playing, I started feeling better about everything.
When asked about statistics, Ponciano a friendly, cooperative guy who said he didn't have the numbers in front of him at the time said Hall rushed for about 250 or 300 yards in four or five games but averaged at least eight yards a carry. According to statistics provided by the Western State Conference, which includes LAVC, Hall played in four games and rushed for 262 yards and one touchdown on 69 carries. That's about 3.8 yards per carry.
Those numbers were not good enough for Hall to earn any kind of all-conference or All-American honors, but that didn't stop most people from repeatedly referring to him as a juco All-American. It only added to an already overloaded myth. More lessons: Juco stats and honors, like high school stats and honors, are historically unreliable, and even well-intended coaches are prone to exaggeration.
Why N.C. State again?
This involves yet another amazing aspect to this story, and another one that has gone almost completely unreported (or falsely reported) in the media. You might want to sit down for this one:
Coming out of junior college, no matter what you read elsewhere, Hall faced the following two options: (1) Re-sign with N.C. State, sit out the 2002 season and re-pay to NCSU the athletic aid (estimated at $8,000-$9,000) he received during his ill-fated semester there, or (2) Choose one of dozens of other I-A programs, where he could play right away and where he would never have to reimburse NCSU for the same scholarship money.
When sent an e-mail that included some of the Sports Journal's research on the details of Hall's recent decision, outlined in the paragraph above, an NCSU official replied: Your interpretation is correct.
Under an April 26, 2001, revision of NCAA rules, a prospect in Hall's situation would have to re-pay the money to NCSU regardless of his later college decision. However, under the rules in place at the time of Hall's original enrollment at State, the obligation to pay that money back arose only if the student-athlete attempted to re-enroll at the same school. Thus, Hall's choice: sit out and pay a large fee of sorts to attend his favorite school (N.C. State), or avoid the fee and play right away somewhere else.
Whenever a case involves something that happened some time ago, it's important to know what rules were in place at the time, Jankowski said, In (the presented hypothetical), the rule was changed after the relevant event, so the old rule would apply.
In a frightening development, about two weeks before signing day, two sources very close to Hall said it was their (incorrect) understanding that Hall would have to re-pay the money regardless of his school choice. Because of that, they said, they didn't think he was considering the money issue in his decision-making process. At that point, Hall himself was unavailable for comment.
When presented with this scenario, which suggested that Hall might have been making an important decision without having all of the important facts, the NCSU official replied: I assure you that Tramain knows exactly what is going on. A representative of Hall's family later indicated that they recently came to understand all of the consequences of choosing to re-sign with the Wolfpack rather than another school.
Without understanding the depth of the relationship between Hall and the Pack, it seems almost unbelievable that the player and, in particular, a 20-year-old who wants to get his career moving as soon as possible would choose to re-sign with the Pack under such difficult circumstances. Central Florida, Ohio State and Southern Cal were among the schools that offered scholarships this time around, and many others inquired about his availability. Some of those others, interestingly, apparently tried hard but ultimately failed to even get a foot in the door at Hall's junior college.
I think Chuck had an ally out there, one SEC assistant said. It was almost impossible to get any information on Tramain, and that's usually a sign that a coach or someone else is protecting him for another school. We wanted to recruit him, but (LAVC) would never send us any information.
Ohio State had a chance and Southern Cal had a chance, and both schools had assistant coaches who knew Tramain from his time in Florida, Ponciano said. We decided to keep things pretty simple for Tramain this time around, and it's probably a good thing. He actually scheduled visits to Ohio State and N.C. State for the same weekend when he couldn't say no to either one. He went back and forth between those two many times.
In reality, perhaps even a juco coach who opened his door to all suitors might not have made much of a difference. Hall fell in love with his coaches and teammates during his semester in Raleigh, and they kept him in mind during his time in California. Some of his fellow Class of 2001 signees chanted his name in his honor prior to every game last season. About once a week during his time at LAVC, Hall received a large envelope with a Raleigh postmark; it always was filled with 10 separate, hand-written notes from the members of the Wolfpack coaching staff. Hall and Ponciano even corresponded with NCSU fans on at least one Pack-oriented message board.
I still feel like I'm a part of the family, Hall said. That's the No. 1 thing that's pulling me back there. That's where I feel at home.
Tramain also warmed up to the idea that redshirting could be a good thing for him, Ponciano said. He's not in his best shape physically right now, and a lot of that has to do with working so hard on his grades. After another full year in the weight room (at N.C. State), he could be one of those rock-solid, 200-pound tailbacks with 4.4 speed. Most of those guys are in the NFL. Tramain definitely has the frame for it.
What's Hall's status?
Just as the ACC's rule against non-qualifiers prevented Hall from sitting out last fall in Raleigh, a league rule about junior college products will prevent Hall from hitting the field for the Wolfpack this fall. The conference doesn't permit juco signees unless they've spent at least three full semesters in junior college, and Hall had spent only two at LAVC, so it took a special appeal (based on FSU's Fabian Walker case, discussed in previous issues) just to get Hall back on campus as a redshirt in 2002. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
One North Carolina newspaper quoted ACC assistant commissioner for compliance Shane Lyons in a January report and suggested that Hall would have been eligible this fall at any other university, including those in the ACC. Not so, Lyons told the Sports Journal.
Nothing in NCAA rules would have prevented (Hall) from playing at any ACC school next season, Lyons said. But the (ACC's three-semester rule for jucos) applies to N.C. State and everyone else in the ACC equally. A player in his circumstances would have been ineligible at any ACC school this fall.
Does this happen a lot?
No. In fact, Hall's situation almost never happens, which makes it particularly difficult to listen to all of the whining and complaining. If Hall's situation with the state exit exam were really so complex, wouldn't there be hordes of student-athletes who fell into the same exact NCAA pit of evil? One would think so.
After interviewing more than 100 people for this article, the Sports Journal found more than 100 examples of prospective student-athletes whose eligibility was in some way complicated by their failure to pass a state exit exam. Among those cases, on how many occasions did schools apparently understand the rules, apply them correctly and avoid mass confusion as a result? More than 100.
How many screwed up? Two.
In the 1999 case of basketball player Ezra Williams, a renowned shooter and top-50 prospect nationally coming out of high school, Georgia made a familiar mistake. Williams had the required GPA and SAT/ACT score, and he had completed the required classwork at Marietta (Ga.) High, but he hadn't passed the state's exit exam. When the Bulldogs allowed him to enroll in the fall of 1999 anyway, he became a non-qualifier at that moment under NCAA rules. A series of appeals predictably failed, and Williams sat out 1999-2000 athletically but remained in Athens and ended up paying his own way as a student. (Unlike the ACC, the SEC allows its members to admit one non-qualifier per year in basketball and football.) After starting 29 games and finishing second on the team in scoring in 2000-01, Williams is the Bulldogs' leading scorer and an All-SEC candidate this season as a junior.
In one of the many, many Hall-like cases that was handled properly by other schools, Tennessee correctly managed the career of prep All-American football signee Jabari Davis. A top-ranked tailback from Georgia, Davis met minimum NCAA academic standards in GPA and SAT and completed his classwork at Tucker (Ga.) High last spring, but he hadn't passed the state exit exam. Did the Vols ask him to enroll early? No. Did they allow him to arrive on campus over the summer, as many other members of last February's signing class did? No. Did they tell him it was OK to show up for the start of preseason practice in early August? No. All along, the Vols told Davis not to travel to Knoxville until he had proof of passing the exit exam. When he finally received a passing score in August, he immediately enrolled as an eligible student-athlete. At times last fall, he was Tennessee's No. 2 tailback behind All-American Travis Stephens.
I could tell you 50 stories just like that one, one source said. Why should anyone give a break to the one school that (messed) up when the other 49 handled the same situation the right way?
So, why the complaining?
Now that's a really good question.
Dave Glenn, the editor of the ACC Sports Journal and a practicing attorney licensed in North Carolina, has been covering the ACC since 1987. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, the Chapel Hill (N.C.) News, The Sporting News, the ACC Basketball Yearbook, the ACC Football Yearbook, the ACC Basketball Handbook, Lindy's Annuals, Athlon Annuals, College Sports, Carolina Court, The Wolfpacker, Cavalier Corner, Basketball News, the Prep Stars Recruiter's Handbook, PrepStars.com, accsports.com, goheels.com, acctoday.com and other publications.