John Calipari's first University of Kentucky team performed much better on the court than in the classroom. Its fall semester grades were the worst of all 20 UK athletic teams and the worst of any UK men's basketball team since spring 2002.
The same Kentucky team that won the Southeastern Conference regular-season and post-season tournament championships had a cumulative grade-point average of 2.025 for the fall semester, according to records obtained by the Herald-Leader through an open records request. That was the worst of nine SEC schools that gave their men's basketball GPAs to the newspaper.
Among teams outside the SEC willing to provide their GPAs for the fall semester, Duke (3.01), Louisville (3.0) and Kansas (2.95) all outperformed Kentucky.
"I was disappointed," UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said recently.
"It's not something we're happy with, I'll tell you that," said Sandy Bell, UK's senior associate athletic director and the person in charge of student services. "And we'll be working on it to get it up. We certainly anticipate that going up in the spring" semester.
Through a spokesman, Calipari and UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart declined to be interviewed for this story, citing "privacy concerns."
The UK players' individual GPAs in the fall semester ranged from 3.59 to 1.667. Four were at 2.0 or lower. Two were better than 3.0. (UK released only the individual averages, not the names of players who made the grades.)
Bell noted that UK players must have had at least a 1.8 grade-point average in the fall semester to be eligible in the spring, according to NCAA rules. Yet two UK players had GPAs below that standard: 1.667 and 1.765.
The minimum GPA requirement of 1.8 does not take effect until the start of an athlete's second year, so the 1.667 and 1.765 averages apparently belonged to players in their first years.
Athletes and their academic performance is a perennial topic. This year, the discussion reached a higher level when, in the midst of March Madness, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan questioned how seriously some schools take academic performance by athletes. Duncan proposed that teams with graduation rates of less than 40 percent be banned from post-season play. (Kentucky's rate for the most recent group of men's basketball athletes tracked was 31 percent.)
After the basketball season ended and five UK players entered their names in the NBA Draft, the NCAA named a new chief, Mark A. Emmert, who has said he will continue the emphasis his predecessor, the late Myles Brand, put on academic requirements for athletes. Todd recently became a member of the NCAA Division I Board that Emmert will work with to improve academic performance.
The UK men's basketball team GPA for the fall semester fell short of the average for all undergraduate students (2.919) and for all freshmen at the school (2.818).
In December, Calipari proudly noted that freshman John Wall had all A's and B's in the fall semester, and UK touted three seniors plus junior Patrick Patterson on target to graduate this spring. So the burden of the 2.025 GPA appeared to fall on some combination of other players.
Bell cautioned against the assumption that any one group of players should be held responsible for the team grade-point average.
"It's not the freshmen," she said. "It's not the seniors. It's not any one group. It's kind of across the board and for a lot of different reasons."
Bell suggested that the change in coaches, from Billy Gillispie to Calipari, adversely affected academic performance as players and a new staff adjusted to each other and to UK's academic standards. She also said upperclassmen were taking difficult classes to complete requirements for a degree.
Every college coach must balance the desire for standout players with the need to have athletes who can succeed as students. Todd asked Calipari about that high-wire act before offering him the coaching job last spring.
After noting that 19 of the 22 players who played four seasons for him at the University of Memphis graduated, Calipari told the UK president that he placed great importance on classroom performance.
"He said he assigns each coach two players they track to make sure they're doing what they need to do," Todd said. "If they don't show up for tutoring sessions, he takes it seriously and takes time away or sits them down."
Rockne and Calipari
Murray Sperber, a professor and an outspoken critic of college athletics, said he was not surprised that a program like Kentucky's excelled on the court and struggled in the classroom. In researching the book Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, he said he discovered that famed football coach Knute Rockne battled the priests who ran Notre Dame about admitting players with questionable academic credentials.
Rockne "was fighting the same fights as Calipari and most other coaches have fought," Sperber said.
Sperber, now a visiting professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, said a coach can make a significant difference in classroom performance. He cited Mike Montgomery as a coach whose players did well athletically and academically while he was at Stanford from 1986 to 2004.
When asked for his impression of Calipari, Sperber said: "If you're obsessed with winning, you take the basketball talent above everything else, and you hope everything else fits in place."
With the NCAA announcing last month that CBS and Turner Broadcasting will pay $10.8 billion to televise its post-season tournaments through 2024, the stakes are higher than ever in the give-and-take between athletics and education.
Sperber — also a professor emeritus of English and American studies at Indiana University — noted that "the system" works against excellence in the classroom. Athletes get identified and their talents nurtured in sports camps from the time they're in elementary school.
"They get to a university and they're told, 'You must play at a higher level than you ever played before and, by the way, you also have to perform academically like you never have performed before," Sperber said. "Surprise. Surprise. Many are not prepared or not interested" in devoting themselves to the higher education part of the equation.
"I'm always sort of surprised when people quote bad graduation rates and say, 'Isn't this awful?' " Sperber said. "It's a product of a complicated system. Rather than being awful, it's almost inevitable."
Of course, it's possible to recruit players who excel on the court and in the classroom. One recruit who committed to UK this spring, Brandon Knight, has a grade-point average of 4.3.
'How serious are you?'
In the latest statistics compiled for the NCAA by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at Central Florida, Kentucky had a graduation rate of 31 percent for incoming freshmen from 1999 through 2002. That made UK one of 12 schools in this year's NCAA Tournament that had a graduation rate less than the 40-percent minimum standard proposed by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
"That's a low bar," Duncan said during a March teleconference about his proposed 40-percent graduation standard. "If you can't graduate two out of five of your student-athletes, how serious are you about the academic part of your mission?"
Todd and Bell suggested Duncan was poorly informed to draw conclusions from Kentucky's 31 percent graduation rate.
"Everybody agrees with the feeling that we'd like to have higher graduation rates," Todd said. "But it's more complex, unless you've been involved in it, than he might understand."
Bell questioned the fairness of banning one group of players from the post-season because of the graduation rates of another group of players. The graduation rates measure athletes' ability to graduate during a six-year period that begins when they enter college as freshmen. Athletes have four years of eligibility to compete in their sports.
"We're two (coaching) staffs since then," Bell said of the graduation rate for freshmen who came in under Tubby Smith. "They're all gone, and you're anticipating preventing a current team from participating in the current tournament based on that?"
The Knight Commission, a de facto watchdog group that seeks to reform issues in college sports, has called for a graduation rate of 50 percent as a requirement for post-season play.
While recent NCAA reforms have led to improved academic performance, football, baseball and men's basketball lag.
Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, cited the "entertainment value" and fan expectations involved in those sports as obstacles to academic achievement.
"There's a push and pull in values,' she said.
A better tool?
Todd and Bell suggested that another academic measurement, the Academic Progress Rate, provides a better tool than graduation rates for measuring academic performance by athletes.
The APR is a real-time measurement of athletes' ability to maintain eligibility and stay on track toward a degree.
Perko agreed, but she called for higher standards. Currently, basketball programs risk ineligibility for post-season play if the APR is lower than 0.900 for three straight years.
Kentucky's most recent APR was a 0.979, which Todd and Bell said put the program among the nation's top 10 percent.
Bell said Kentucky's graduation rate of 31 percent reflected poor management. During the period cited by Duncan, UK was slow to adjust to a new rule requiring athletes to complete six hours of classwork each semester, she said.
In that time frame, UK had several players leave school for the NBA.
"They had excellent GPAs," Bell said. "Everything was fine except they didn't complete that six hours in the spring.
"We're now doing a better job of managing it. We are being very proactive with kids that we think will make that decision (to turn pro) in the spring. And we schedule them in classes they can complete, like an online class they can complete wherever they are."
Todd noted that UK took a public relations hit when a USA Today story on Duncan's proposed post-season ban mentioned Kentucky in the lead paragraph.
"That's the disadvantage of having a No. 1 seed, I guess," Todd said. "They choose to put us up there."
But the UK president expressed hope that the graduation rate and the team's GPA will improve.
"I think graduating three seniors and a junior is going to show up in our numbers," Todd said. "And hopefully that kind of leadership will cast its way through the best of the team members."