February 24, 2003 RALEIGH Here are two things in N.C. State's athletic program worth keeping an eye on today and in the long-term future: How much complicity there is between chancellor Marye Anne Fox and football coach Chuck Amato in admitting gridiron prospects with substandard academic credentials, and what happens to those student-athletes once they get into an increasingly strong university.
There was a recent series of stories in the Raleigh News and Observer that delved into those subjects, and they revealed some things that should be of interest and, some would say, concern to fans of NCSU as an academic institution, not just a blossoming football factory. Judging by the volume of complaints Fox received after the newspaper articles, which prompted an angry response from her office, lots of Wolfpack fans still care deeply about both issues.
The stories revealed how Fox changed the definition of an academic exception, a murky term that always has meant completely different things at different universities. (That's why comparing numbers of exceptions between schools always is misleading. The same 25 students could result in 20 exceptions at Duke but only five exceptions at Florida State, which certainly doesn't make FSU a better university with higher standards.) Fox's move had a similar effect to what North Carolina did in the mid-1990s, when it eliminated the term academic exception from its admissions policy, so UNC wouldn't have to disclose them in an annual report to the state university system's board of governors.
When Mack Brown's football team took advantage of some extra academic leeway to sign a number of great players who were poor students again, relative to UNC's admissions standards at the time, not any absolute measuring stick the university's image took a hit, again after articles in the Raleigh newspaper. Since then, UNC students who previously would have been called academic exceptions have been referred to as committee cases, and the N&O reported that there are still twice as many of those at UNC as there are exceptions at N.C. State.
Again, of course, the same student who fits UNC's definition may not fit NCSU's definition. Because of that fact, any direct comparisons are very misleading. Incoming students at UNC have slightly better academic numbers than those at State, so if the same formula was used by both schools (it's not) and the same 25 hypothetical students enrolled at both schools, the Tar Heels always would have a higher number of exceptions. However, that impossible comparison is not the main point here.
The stories essentially tied the firing of two senior administrators and the subsequent resignation of the school's provost to Fox's sudden (she didn't like that word) change in the way some athletes are characterized as exceptions during the admissions process. Last fall, five football and basketball players were admitted as exceptions, as was one women's soccer player.
There's no question the extra academic leeway has helped the Wolfpack edge closer and closer to the top 10 during Amato's tenure at the school, just as UNC's changes helped Brown build back-to-back top-10 teams before he bolted for Texas in 1997. In one 2002 case, a star player admitted by NCSU had some rivals (who had seen the player's transcript, which included a 2.0 core GPA and a very large jump in SAT score) privately calling it the most surprising ACC admissions decision they remembered since the 1980s. Those wild and crazy days, of course, prompted a huge wave of NCAA academic reform.
Fox, in an open letter to the newspaper and the university community, disputed the allegations of a sudden change vehemently, turning the whole matter into an it-said, she-said thing. But here is what should be of concern to those who are devoted to the university as a whole, and not just its athletic programs: To what lengths is Fox, whose stated goal for the university from the day she was hired was to win a football national championship, willing to go?
She fired coach Mike O'Cain and brought in Amato, which was clearly a good move for the football program, as three straight bowl appearances and a No. 11 finish in this year's final rankings suggest. But she also has permitted Amato to adopt a Florida State- or SEC-style recruiting philosophy. The coach signed just about anyone he wanted in his first four recruiting classes, losing a bunch of non-qualifiers and partial qualifiers along the way. Among those who were admitted were two players who enrolled with an overall high school GPA of less than 2.0, something that almost defies imagination.
Any NCSU fans who had adamantly denied that the academic approach had changed under Fox and Amato and, judging by the Sports Journal's mail in recent years, that's a lot of people were silenced permanently when the N&O reported on an e-mail sent by a former university administrator that angrily addressed the development.
I have never in almost 30 years seen recruits like this Ö, former admissions director George Dixon wrote, not even a 2.0 high-school GPA, regardless of the reason, is uncharted territory for N.C. State.
Finally, the conversation can shift from if it's happening to whether or not it should be happening. There, intelligent people can disagree.
Fox also has been called a heavy-handed leader, one who already has been censured by the N.C. State Faculty Senate for firing two senior administrators, which resulted in the resignation of provost Stuart L. Cooper. The stories in the N&O suggested those personnel moves had something to do with Fox's leniency in athletic admissions.
Nobody Wants Repeat Of History
This is dangerous territory for N.C. State, in part because of what happened at the school in the 1980s. That's when another dynamic coach, Jim Valvano, and a buffoon chancellor, Bruce Poulton, worked together in creating a nationally prominent basketball program with a total disregard for academic integrity.
One of the things Poulton allowed was the admission of basketball player Chris Washburn, the troubled star who was the most highly recruited player in the nation in the mid-1980s, despite the fact that he went to three schools in his final two years as a prep athlete and made only 490 on the SAT. He got into legal trouble three months after arriving on campus and essentially played only one season before he went off to the NBA, where his career took a nosedive because of nose candy.
Poulton also signed off on a special contract that allowed basketball star Charles Shackleford to remain eligible to play, one of the things that was most criticized by the Poole Report, which revealed the findings of the UNC system investigation into Valvano's program. Shackleford, who had numerous problems during his time in Raleigh, was one of the suspects in the point-shaving allegations that sullied the end of Valvano's career at N.C. State. He too left the school early for the NBA.
In the end, Poulton was discredited as an educator, primarily because he was perceived as too much of a basketball fan, someone who enabled Valvano's desire to build a winner without dealing with the consequences of admitting athletes who really had no business being in college in the first place.
In the aftermath of Poulton's resignation in 1989 and Valvano's in 1990, the school put in stringent academic requirements under interim chancellor Larry Monteith. Those restrictions seemed to go overboard and essentially killed the basketball program for much of the 1990s.
Fox clearly is willing to let Amato's program have relaxed admission standards for football so the Wolfpack can have as great a chance as possible at that national title both are seeking with such obvious passion. That smells awfully familiar to the stink created when Poulton let Valvano get out of control, so it's up to Fox and Amato or perhaps others to make sure history doesn't repeat itself at NCSU.
Still Waiting For NCAA Statement
There is no real compelling argument for letting Herb Sendek's basketball team back into the NCAA Tournament this season. The Wolfpack performed pathetically in its rare non-conference road games this season, mostly recently against Temple, a game in which the Wolfpack gave up in the second half.
Sure, the Wolfpack seems to be solidly in fourth place in the ACC, which has been overrun by parity this season. But that's no reason to assume the Pack deserves one of the 64 spots in the tournament. After all, NCAA Tournament games are played on neutral floors, with no possibility of facing a conference foe until at least the regional finals.
So what argument has the Wolfpack made that it can succeed in March? So far, none.
Sendek's team can't shoot the ball on opposing courts, and his explanation for that development sometimes the ball just doesn't go in is growing more and more tiresome to understandably frustrated NCSU fans. At least in the loss at Duke, the reason for the 11-point loss wasn't shooting. The difference was 24 turnovers, forced by a Blue Devil defense that was willing to give up layups but not three-pointers.
In essence, the Wolfpack never got the chance to miss as many shots as it did in road games against Gonzaga, Massachusetts and Temple, which is almost as bad. As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski noted, each of those 24 turnovers was like a missed shot, which would reduce the Pack's shooting percentage for the game from a lofty 56.5 percent to 37.1 percent, which is more in line with what the team shot in those three road losses.
The Wolfpack still can get into the tournament, if the selection committee runs out of options and feels like the ACC deserves a fourth team just for being well-balanced. Beating Maryland and/or Wake Forest in its two remaining home games, or winning a couple of showdowns in the ACC Tournament, would strengthen the Pack's argument tremendously.