Cal football, men’s basketball teams show slight improvement in graduation success rates

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Phillip Downey/File

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Despite the Cal football and men’s basketball teams showing gradual improvements in graduation rates, they still lag behind many other programs nationally, according to the NCAA’s annual Graduation Success Rate report released Wednesday.

Overall, 79 percent of Cal scholarship student-athletes who enrolled between 2005 and 2008 completed their degree within six years — the metric of the Graduation Success Rate, or GSR. Cal’s mark was four points below the national average of 83 percent across Division I programs and one point below last year’s score.

Cal football’s GSR rose to 52 percent, up from 51 percent in 2014 and from 44 percent in 2013, when the Bears posted the worst graduation rates among the Power Five — Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Cal men’s basketball registered a GSR of 55 percent, a 9 percent increase from last season’s clip and a 17 percent jump from a dismal 38 percent in 2013.

“While we are certainly pleased with the results of the vast majority of our teams and 850 student-athletes, we are encouraged to see that steps we have taken in recent years to improve graduation rates overall are taking hold and we are seeing a clear upturn where it is needed most,” said Athletic Director Mike Williams in a statement from Cal Athletics.

Cal men’s basketball tallied higher GSR scores than UCLA, University of Oregon and Washington State University after ranking dead last in the Pac-12 for the past two years. Arizona State University and the University of Utah led the conference with a 90 percent GSR. Cal football, however, still ranked last among programs in the Power Five for the third straight year and finished last in the conference for the fourth year in a row, six points behind second-to-last University of Southern California. Stanford University football topped the Pac-12 with a GSR of 99 percent.

Less prominent sports produced markedly better GSRs, with 11 of 23 measured Cal teams scoring at least 90 percent and four teams notching a perfect 100 percent: women’s tennis, women’s volleyball, men’s golf and men’s gymnastics.

Because this year’s GSR report accounts only for scholarship athletes who are scheduled to graduate by 2014 at the latest, it provides a limited perspective on the current relationship between the sphere of academics and Cal Athletics, which has undergone a significant change in leadership in the past several years. The report reflects graduation data for student-athletes recruited by UC Berkeley during the tenure of former athletic director Sandy Barbour and then-head football coach Jeff Tedford, who was fired in November 2012 partly because of the subpar academic performances of his athletes.

“The problem with those GSR numbers is they’re from so long ago. It’s a six-year number, and it takes two years to get it released,” said Bob Jacobsen, a UC Berkeley physics professor and the faculty athletics representative to the NCAA. “These numbers are telling the story of the latter part of the Tedford era. Student-athletes are graduating pretty well here, and that’s still true.”

With none of the academic results of student-athletes currently at UC Berkeley factored into the GSR report, the Academic Progress Rate, or APR, released every spring by the NCAA tends to be a more relevant indicator of the landscape of current scholarship athletes, according to Wesley Mallette, associate athletics director of strategic communications. In the 2014 report, Cal football’s multiyear APR was 941, last in the conference, while Cal men’s basketball’s was 954, ninth in the conference.

Still, Jacobsen said he believes the GSR can serve as a necessary impetus that schools need in order to implement change, citing the case of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Athletics and Academics — a committee that Chancellor Nicholas Dirks established as a response to Cal’s low scores in the 2013 GSR report.

“(The GSR report) is not good for getting better on a short-term basis, but when it’s bad, you can’t ignore it,” Jacobsen said. “The campus really did have to develop a serious approach to this issue, and I think the GSR helped that happen.”

The task force was originally commissioned to address academic performance and graduation rates of the football and men’s basketball teams, according to Jenny Simon-O’Neill, associate athletic director of intercollegiate services. In September 2014, it released a report containing more than 50 recommendations, including providing access to mentors and internships for student-athletes, and streamlining communication between College of Letters and Science and Athletic Study Center advisers.

On the coattails of the task force’s report, the UC Berkeley Academic Senate approved a policy in October 2014 stipulating that by the 2017-18 school year, at least 80 percent of incoming student-athletes must have the minimum 3.0 high school GPA that all other applicants to UC Berkeley must have. Over the past two seasons, 77 percent of football recruits have met that mark.

Recent actions taken by both the task force and Cal Athletics will take several years to be reflected in the GSR report, but Simon-O’Neill said she is encouraged by the gradual uptick in Cal’s scores.

“We’d love to see dramatic improvement, but this metric doesn’t allow for that,” Simon-O’Neill said. “What we hold ourselves accountable for and what we hold the coaches accountable for is the APR and the team GPA, because that shows what our coaches and students are doing right now.”

Michelle Lee is the sports editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @michelle_e_lee.

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