Cal football, men’s basketball post incremental improvement in graduation rates while other sports excel

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After hitting what was essentially rock bottom last year, the Cal football and men’s basketball teams have each taken a small but not inconsequential step forward in the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rates.

The NCAA’s GSR report, released Tuesday, shows Cal has made incremental improvement in Cal’s two most prominent sports. Fifty-one percent of Cal football players who came to UC Berkeley between 2004 and 2007 completed their degrees within six years, an improvement from the 44 percent rate posted last year. Men’s basketball improved to 46 percent from 38 percent last year.

The current report includes only student-athletes who have been on track to graduate by 2013 at the latest. This means football coach Sonny Dykes, men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and interim athletic director Mike Williams were not prominent figures on campus during the majority of the period the report covers. Those three figures also had no influence in recruiting the athletes included in the report.

Last year, the Cal football team ranked dead last among 72 schools from six major college football conferences. Cal was last again once more this year among schools from the Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and AAC, clocking in just one point behind Ole Miss. The men’s basketball team was last in the Pac-12, coming in 14 points behind second-to-last UCLA.

Utah had the top rate in men’s basketball in the conference with an 88, while Stanford took home the top football rate with a 99.

The improvement, though slight due to the four-year rolling average of the report, is a result of an increased focus Cal has placed on academics for its two revenue-generating sports in recent years. Academic struggles were a major reason former football coach Jeff Tedford was fired in December 2012.

“I think the evidence will show that as we moved through the decade those problems were being addressed,” Williams said.

View the full GSR report for Cal here.

Fighting a stigma

While Cal’s most prominent sports struggled, many of its less prominent ones excelled. Men’s gymnastics, lacrosse, women’s tennis, volleyball and women’s water polo all scored perfect, 100 percent graduation rates. Men’s swim, women’s swim, women’s gymnastics, men’s golf and women’s crew all saw rates at or above 90 percent.

Cal’s overall GSR score across all sports was an 80 percent, up two percentage points from the 78 Cal posted lasted year.

Many of Cal’s student-athletes from the nonrevenue sports on campus can feel stigmatized by the failures of the more prominent programs, according to Williams. The academic struggles of the Cal football and men’s basketball teams often grab the headlines when the GSR report is released each fall and again when the similar Academic Progress Rate report — which includes eligibility and retention of athletes — is released each spring.

“The other 28 sports, for the most part, are teams where they’re graduating at 90 percent or more,” Williams said.

The performance of the 850 current student-athletes at Cal are not reflected in the report.

Addressing problems

The GSR report comes on the heels of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ Task Force on Athletics and Academics, which released a report in September. The report, which the task force began compiling in January, listed more than 50 recommendations to help student-athletes in the classroom.

Among the recommendations listed in the report, Williams highlighted the need to create a recruiting coordinator within Cal Athletics who could identify recruits early in high school and help them fulfill requirements such as quantitative reasoning and the third year of a foreign language before coming to UC Berkeley. This is an initiative Williams says he’s seen work at schools such as UCLA and Stanford.

“We want to institutionalize that we’re not going to bring a student who we don’t think will graduate,” Williams said. “… You’re trying to identify possible recruits as early as you can to tell them what it will take to get into Cal.”

Williams also wants to improve the level of engagement among student-athletes by hiring a professional focused on career development. He also cited adding resources to the admissions department at UC Berkeley as an important change.

Bob Jacobsen, a UC Berkeley physics professor who is also the faculty athletics representative to the NCAA, pointed to changes in the way classes are scheduled and structured as a way to improve opportunities for Cal’s student-athletes.

“We expect our students to graduate at the same rate (as the rest of the campus),” Jacobsen said.

Often, it is difficult for student-athletes to schedule the basic classes they need to graduate. This can lead to athletes choosing to pursue their sport — often professionally — over their degree.

“You’d be stunned at the number of them that were one class, two, three from graduating,” Williams said.

Jacobsen believes that athletes shouldn’t have to be faced with the choice between academics and professional athletics and that an ideal system would see a student-athlete graduate right before he or she is ready to attempt to play professionally.

“We need to get students to the point where it all ends together,” Jacobsen said.

One small step of many

Because the GSR reflects data that lags so far behind the reality current student-athletes face on the ground, Cal Athletics has turned to more up-to-date measures of student-athlete achievement. One of these is by looking directly at the GPAs of athletes.

According to Williams, the cumulative GPA of 11 men’s basketball players who took summer school was 3.46. Football players who did the summer program had a GPA “just under 3.0.”

Williams said Chancellor Dirks hired new men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin in part because the coach stressed academics while at Tennessee. Williams added that every player Martin recruited at Tennessee is on track to graduate.

The goal is to bring the graduation rate of student-athletes in line with the 90 percent rate of the rest of campus.

“The standards should be the same for everybody,” Jacobsen said.

Ultimately, the improvements Williams and Cal Athletics hope to see will not be reflected in the GSR report for a number of years, but Williams believes the school is putting the right programs in place to raise the graduation rates of student-athletes.

“We could see dips,” Williams admitted. “But you’re seeing the beginning of a trend that is up.”

Riley McAtee is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee