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Catch 22: Admission standards and football

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Darius Walker will attend Notre Dame next fall. Walker also will play football. The Georgia running back was admitted to the University this winter after a typical recruiting process, and on Feb. 4 he signed a national letter of intent to play at Notre Dame.But while other schools might have focused exclusively on Walker’s athletic prowess, Notre Dame’s regular recruiting process emphasized Walker’s academic history and credentials.”It’s one of the first things they do,” said Walker, who will graduate this spring with a 4.0 GPA and a 1110 SAT score. “They find out about the players’ academics before they even start [recruiting]. Since they have such high standards, they want to know whether they can recruit you or they can’t.”After the team’s third losing season in five years, Notre Dame football fans are worried that rising admission standards for incoming students have caused the admission standards for football players to rise. The team’s performance, some fans say, has suffered accordingly.In the early 1990’s, the Knight Commission – chaired by University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh – led a charge to prevent Division I schools from lowering admissions standards to admit unqualified athletes. Ironically, today some Irish fans want Notre Dame to lower its standards to accommodate more athletes. But University officials insist admissions standards have remained constant and are not tied to grade point averages or standardized test scores. And the school’s director of admissions says that Notre Dame will overlook below-average numbers as long as it believes a potential recruit can survive in Notre Dame’s rigorous academic environment.”I’ve seen the profiles of the athletes over the 40-plus years,” director of admissions Dan Saracino said, “and the academic profiles of the classes of football players has not changed. … The 1984 recruits [who were seniors during the 1988 championship season] were no different as a class than any other year.”Saracino also said the athletic department and admissions office have a working relationship and a common understanding of their expectations for athletes.”We give a list [of required course work] to the coaches,” Saracino said. “And it’s a good statement of where we are … this is what our expectation is for someone who is an outstanding athlete that they would be interested in.”Especially with this group of coaches now, we’re really on the same page. We want young men who are going to be successful.”Whether the football program’s recent struggles are due to admissions policies, coaches in charge of recruiting confirm that they stress academic success to their recruits – early.”We’ve been asking [for players’ academic records] since February,” player personnel director Jimmy Gonzales said.But Gonzales does not mean the current incoming freshman class who signed letters-of-intent in February.”No, I’m talking about the [current] juniors,” he said.

BREAKStandardized test scores of Notre Dame’s overall applicants have grown steadily over the past 15 years, and the class of 2008 has a projected average SAT score of 1370 – the highest in school history and 11 points higher than the current freshman class. Notre Dame also has the fourth-highest graduation rate of its overall student population in the country behind Harvard, Princeton and Yale at 94 percent.But while Notre Dame’s overall academic rankings place it among the nation’s elite, next year’s incoming freshman football players were so lowly regarded by recruiting experts that the class of 2008 barely ranked in the nation’s top 30.Paul Hornung’s recent comments in a radio interview, which were well-publicized because of racial undertones, addressed a concern that academic demands of such a prestigious university could be the reason for the Irish recruiting fewer top-rated players.”I respond by really just kind of shrugging my shoulders,” Saracino said. “Obviously the people that would say that don’t get it, the fact that the student-athlete who would be interested in Notre Dame is interested precisely because of the fact that we have student-athletes who want to exceed in academics. The ones who we don’t want really wouldn’t be good matches for Notre Dame.”Both the admissions office and athletic department are confident in their ability to recruit student-athletes who will be good fits for the school, and vice versa. The qualifications for the regular student who ‘fits’ at Notre Dame have increased significantly over the past decade.According to statistics compiled by Lee Sigelman in a Social Science Quarterly article entitled “It’s Academic – or Is It? Admissions Standards and Big-Time College Football,” Notre Dame’s average student SAT score in 1993 – the last year Notre Dame seriously contended for a national championship – was 1220, while the university’s average SAT score for football players was 899.Echoing Saracino, University President Father Edward Malloy said that the profiles for past football classes are consistent with the profiles of current recruiting classes.”In the past 30 years, our standards for the ‘special interests’ have remained constant,” Malloy wrote in an April 4 letter to The New York Times, “while the academic profile of the student body as a whole has grown even stronger.”But statistics show that the average SAT scores for athletes have risen at almost the same rate as the scores of the regular student.The SAT scores for football players jumped roughly 6.3 percent from 1993 to 2004, while the scores of the average student rose 6.7 percent over the same period of time.Saracino, however, maintains that standards for football players have not toughened as the standards for regular students have risen.”The overall academic quality of the football players has not kept pace in terms of test scores, AP courses, overall curriculum and grades with the overall classes,” Saracino said. “We have not been any ‘tougher’ on the admissions of football players in recent years as we have with the overall applicants.”Based on statistics originally published by the South Bend Tribune, the average 15 SAT test scores for this year’s recruiting class – excluding the scores of defensive back Terrail Lambert and wide receiver Christopher Vaughn, which were not provided – shows an average football SAT score of 1024.Still, University officials continue to emphasize the continuity of football admissions.The athletic and football departments sift through the players’ academic records before the admissions office even sees the players – tossing aside ones it knows will not be able to succeed academically at Notre Dame.”The coaches are out there trying to assess athletic talent and then also trying to decide if they have the academic background to be successful here,” Saracino said. “And the coaches don’t waste my time by presenting a young man who isn’t close to being a competitive candidate for admission.”So how do the football program and University define competitive? Saracino believes a competitive student at Notre Dame is the student who is interested in the school because of its emphasis on the well-rounded candidate.”If you’re not interested in being a student-athlete [after looking at the academic requirements], then Notre Dame is not a good match for you,” Saracino said. “We are who we are, and we’re proud of it. [The academic requirements are] not a hindrance to the program, it’s to want the young man not to be used for just his athletic abilities.”News reports over the last five years said that talented players like Randy Moss, Carson Palmer and T.J. Duckett could not get into Notre Dame for academic reasons, and Saracino admits that Notre Dame will not be able to admit every top athlete in the country”Are there going to be young men who are great athletes who we cannot admit? Sure,” Saracino said. “…Of the top 100 [recruits], maybe there will be 50 that we can’t sign. I don’t know whether that number is 20, 30, 40, 60, I don’t know. All we know is we just need 20 [recruits] each year who academically can make it through Notre Dame and athletically can help us.”Still, out of that top 100 list of recruits, only three made it to the Irish this recruiting season – Walker (No. 63), Lambert (No. 85h) and outside linebacker Anthony Vernaglia (No. 95).”We get beat, and have gotten beat [in football] over recent years by young men who we clearly wanted to come here,” Saracino said. “Reggie Bush was cleared by admissions, Allen Smith was and so was Lorenzo Booker.”Top running backs Bush and Booker went to USC and Florida State, respectively, in recent years. Smith committed this winter to Stanford, also a school with a prestigious academic reputation.So why are these players choosing schools, even a school like Stanford that has rigorous academic standards, over Notre Dame?”I don’t really know, but I am frustrated that we seem to be having less success in recruiting [top players] compared to the past,” Saracino said. “It could be that our current coaches just don’t understand Notre Dame and its “positives” well enough to convince these young men that Notre Dame is the place for them.”Saracino insists that admissions and athletic officials will not recruit and admit a student-athlete who they believe is not serious about academics.That is just fine with Walker.”I try to be well rounded and have the ability to do it all,” Walker said. “Notre Dame has standards that encourage that type of player, and for me, personally, they are the type of players I would want on my team, players who can be an overall person, not just someone who has one thing but doesn’t have it all.”Walker represents the player Notre Dame wants – a talented player who values academics. But top-rated players like Walker are increasingly turning down Notre Dame.Saracino doesn’t know why. But he’s confident academics aren’t to blame.