Despite improvement in mind, Cal football’s graduation rates fall to national lows

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Among the 72 programs in six major college football conferences, the Cal football team had the worst graduation rate, according to NCAA statistics released Thursday.

According to the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rates, only 44 percent of football players who enrolled at UC Berkeley between 2003 and 2007 graduated within six years. This put Cal nine points below USC, which had the second-worst graduation rate in the Pac-12.

The football team’s embarrassment was shared by the men’s basketball team, which finished with a 38 percent graduation rate, also lowest in the Pac-12. The only two revenue-generating sports at UC Berkeley clouded Cal’s overall GSR of 78 percent and overshadowed accomplishments such as four women’s sports recording a perfect GSR.

A few nonrevenue sports also posted results below expectations. Softball and men’s soccer had the lowest graduation rates among Olympic sports with 57 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

This year’s GSR cycle ended in 2012, which means none of the football players accounted for in this year’s statistics played for new head coach Sonny Dykes.

The football team’s GSR, which has steadily declined over the past four years, was a major factor in the firing of former football coach Jeff Tedford. Adding salt to the wound, Stanford finished at the top of the Pac-12 this year with a 93 percent graduation rate.

“As the athletic director, I accept responsibility,” said Sandy Barbour, who was hired in 2004. “I accept responsibility for what has happened and responsibility to fix it.”

Barbour claimed she has “placed in many strategies” to improve academic performance. But faculty members and administrators say she alone should not be saddled with the blame.

“It is a systematic issue,” said John Cummins, who served as chief of staff to the chancellor from 1984 to 2008. “It’s not the fault of a Jeff Tedford or a Sandy Barbour.”

Cummins, who now serves on the UC Berkeley Athletic Study Center Advisory Committee, recently published a report on possible solutions to Cal Athletics’ academic woes. One suggestion was to raise the admission standards for student-athletes, which were too low for UC Berkeley’s rigorous academic standards.

According to the report, the minimum GPA and SAT scores for prospective student-athletes are 2.8 and 1110, respectively.

“The quality of students (Cal Athletics) admits is a fundamental issue,” Cummins said. “It’s all the more imperative that UC Berkeley is recruiting students to be able to do the required academic workload.”

Several faculty members and administrators, including Cummins, believe Dykes has taken the right steps to establish an atmosphere conducive to academic success. They pointed to the fact that no players are under academic probation and that the football team’s collective GPA in the spring 2013 semester was the highest in five years as signs Dykes has done admirably off the field.

“We are in a hole, but the trends we have had in the past year have been promising,” said Derek Van Rheenen, director for the Athletic Study Center.

Barbour said she expects to see Dykes’ efforts rewarded in a much improved Academic Progress Rate next spring. Compared to the APR, which takes the current academic year into consideration, the GSR takes longer time to reflect the current academic improvements.

“GSR is an incredibly laggy statistic,” said UC Berkeley physics professor Bob Jacobsen, who serves as the faculty athletics representative to the NCAA. “It will take at least seven years to show (Dykes’) effects in the GSR rates.”

The sight of Cal football finishing dead last in an academic ranking has left many disappointed.

“Cal is not used to being last in anything,” Cummins said.

Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sngyn92.