Well-researched, well-written story that'll have you shaking your head... and your fist.
Dropped team at EIU leaves too many questions, not enough answers
By Jason Bryant
As if the NCAA?s Academic Progress Rate (APR) wasn?t under enough scrutiny by college coaches, Eastern Illinois University?s decision to drop its wrestling program on May 17 might set in motion a damning precedent to administrators around the country.
Things to consider: The fact the program was cut after the school had finished up final exams and then EIU President Lou Hencken retired, and the APR has now had the finger pointed at it for the elimination of a college wrestling program.
On May 17, Athletics Director Dr. Richard McDuffie stated in the school?s press release: ?For the past three years, the NCAA has collected academic performance data and implemented its new Academic Performance Rate (APR). Due to wrestling?s academic performance over the past few years, the sport has received NCAA penalties in scholarship reduction and further penalties could include post season competition restrictions and/or recruiting restrictions.?
?Therefore based on wrestling?s academic performance as per the NCAA?s new Academic Performance Rate, the discontinuation of the wrestling program was regrettably a decision that had to be made,? said McDuffie in the release.
Let that soak in for a second.
At first glance, you might think McDuffie has a point. EIU?s wrestling APR ranked dead last in the 22 sports at the Charleston, Ill., campus with an 867 APR, well below the 925 cut off. Case closed, EIU wrestlers haven?t performed in the classroom.
Simple, right? Not so much.
The APR is a measure of academic retention and graduation rates among scholarship athletes at a certain school. Only athletes who are receiving scholarship money from their program are counted for the APR ratios. The 925 number is equivalent to a 60 percent graduation rate of those athletes. Also consider that athletes already have timelines required of them just to remain eligible for competition.
The problem athletes are the ?0-for-2? students, as the NCAA calls them. Described on the NCAA web site, the ?0-for-2? has become a ?four-letter word.? Athletes who are on scholarship and are ineligible, lose a point towards the APR. Athletes who leave school while ineligible lose two points. Athletes on scholarship who transfer, but remain eligible, only lose one point. Athletes who transfer and are ineligible ? 0-for-2.
A wrestler who might be collecting as little as five percent (scholarship) and went away from home, realizes he can?t break the lineup and transfers to a program more suitable, closer to home, and probably less expensive, will hurt his initial school?s APR by transferring.
Wrestling, like baseball, soccer and many non-revenue sports, is what the NCAA deems an ?equivalency? sport, whereas football and basketball are ?head count? sports. Football and basketball cannot split scholarships; it?s either all or nothing.
By design, it would appear APR numbers are best suited for sports receiving the maximum allowable scholarships, whether or not the sport is a head count or equivalency one, because it gives the school more scholarship athletes do pull from, giving a greater sample size and greater room for improvement should those numbers be below the breaking point of 925.
Eastern Illinois was far from being fully funded. While the Panthers wrestling team hasn?t produced an All-American since 1997, McDuffie said in an interview with InterMat on May 17 that performance played ?absolutely no role? in the program?s elimination.
The Board of Trustees at Eastern Illinois University held an open meeting where supporters of the program came in, literally, by the bus load. But any hopes of the administration listening to the supporters of the students they crushed was unlikely.
While the Board did listen (theoretically), there was little response, no forum for a Q&A, no outline of what wrestling could do to rectify this ?academic decision.?
Robert Webb, chairman of the Board of Trustees at EIU had this to say in a prepared statement at the June 25 meeting: ?We are obliged to remind ourselves when considering decisions of this kind that Eastern Illinois University is an academic institution. At this institution, academics are accorded first priority in all matters pertaining to the programs in all departments, including the athletic department.?
Basically, Mr. Webb doesn?t care one way or the other. He made no statements about what EIU could have done to help the wrestling team?s struggling APR. Made no mention of the NCAA programs in place that could have helped the APR. Made no mention of supporting the athletes at EIU.
The entire wrestling portion of the meeting was over in roughly 20 minutes and the standing-room-only crowd supporting the program little chance to state their case.
McDuffie was notably absent during the meeting, as the Charleston (Ill.) Journal Gazette reported as ?health problems.?
?These are not standards that I came up with or the university came up with,? said McDuffie back in May. ?This is something the NCAA has come up with.?
?Part of our concern that as additional penalties come about, it becomes more difficult for the program to succeed on the mat and in the classroom, so we were concerned that we wouldn?t see a turnaround in the foreseeable future,? he said.
That?s the fighting spirit! Just give up. Just what we need out of our leadership.
Because the introduction of the APR was so recent, it?s not expected to get to any major sanctions against schools until at least 2009, so EIU may have viewed its decision to be proactive, but the crux of the move is the administrators didn?t give the wrestling program any chance. Bye Bye, thanks for paying your tuition.
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McDuffie explained to one wrestling fan in an e-mail forwarded to InterMat the following:
?The wrestling program has been penalized twice by the NCAA for this level of academic performance and would be penalized next year (the third time) for the academic performance using four years of data (including this past academic year-06-07). With a perfect score in 07-08 it is very unlikely the wrestling program would reach the 925 cutoff. With four years of unacceptable academic progress in wrestling the NCAA would re classify the ENTIRE athletics program to the Restricted Membership status---which means EIU would not be considered a NCAA Division I institution. I don?t believe it wise for the University to take the risk of losing its NCAA active membership status.?
When contacted about what teams can do to help prevent sanctions, Erik Christianson, the Director of Public and Media Relations for the NCAA said: ?Teams below 925 must take immediate action to address lack of performance. The NCAA national office stands ready to assist these teams in the development of their required academic recovery plans.?
When asked if one or two students can adversely affect an APR rate, Christianson said: ?The APR is a fair and accurate measurement of current academic success. To account to small squad sizes, a margin of error was provided to teams in the first three years of the program. Some small teams will still retain that margin of error next year. For teams which feel individual situations merit special consideration based on unique circumstances, they can apply for a waiver.?
So the NCAA is ready to assist those programs, but where was EIU? Did McDuffie seek out assistance to help his wrestling program ? a team that?s represented the school at the NCAA Division I Championships for each of the last 24 years?
And what about those individual circumstances? Family issues, lack of funds to attend, etc.? Did EIU even consider looking into the individual athletes who brought down the wrestling team?s APR to a misleading 867?
NWCA Executive Director Mike Moyer isn?t opposed to the APR, but does realize that schools need to be aware of the policies the NCAA has brought to the table.
?There have been some brilliant academicians who have put this program together,? said Moyer. ?I trust that they have the best interest of the student-athletes and intercollegiate athletics in mind. The NWCA has to fully investigate how wrestling can best perform under the new guidelines.?
?We need to first understand how the APR impacts our sport,? continued Moyer. ?We also need to work with the NCAA to make sure institutions understand that the intent of the APR is to improve academic performance and retention of athletes, not to punish.?
Ralph McCausland, the head coach and 1978 Division II National Champion for Eastern at 142 pounds, said that the program was never contacted in regards to a possible elimination.
McCausland didn?t pull any punches in his open statement, but he points out his own administration?s lack of attention to the APR to what amounts to selling out his program.
?But according to the NCAA, there were any number of avenues short of program elimination available to the administration, which they chose to ignore. For example, there is a detailed procedure set up by the NCAA for teams to recover from low APR?s, yet our administration chose to deny our wrestlers the opportunity to recover. Furthermore, there is a grant funding program developed by the NCAA to give financial assistance to programs which fall below the minimum APR score. Rather than seek those grant funds to help its athletes, the EIU athletic administration chose instead to drop the program suddenly and without warning to the team and the coach.
-- Ralph McCausland
June 1, 2007
McCausland?s team has been getting shafted by the administration for over a decade. In 1994, EIU had the equivalent of 6.4 scholarships to use -- primarily in-state ? to fill 10 weight classes and 18 athletes received financial aid.
In 1997, EIU had two Division I All-Americans, David Pena and Matt Hughes.
Ten years later, EIU had 3.8 scholarships and 15 wrestlers receiving financial aid. Of the 23 wrestlers on the roster, 19 were from Illinois.
Other points to ponder has been the nearly eight thousand dollar decrease in an already small budget and McCausland, in 24 years as head coach, has never had a paid full-time assistant coach.
The Eastern Illinois wrestling budget, including coaching salary, scholarship budget and graduate assistant stipend does not equal either of the two highest individual salaries in the Athletics Department.
So to anyone not named McDuffie, this stands out as a school just taking a proverbial dump on a group of kids and blaming the NCAA for things in which the administration has a responsibility for taking care of. Sanctions were still years away, if it would have gotten to that point.
* * *
And the story isn?t without its share of ironic twists.
You won?t have to scroll too far down EIU?s Sports Information page to see the release about wrestling being cut -- but below it, a release about 184-pounder Greg Perz being named to the NWCA All-Academic Team for the second consecutive year.
Start scratching your head, because it gets a bit more convoluted here. How many wrestlers on academic money weren?t counted? Those who don?t fall under the NCAA guise, or McDuffie?s, who were academically successful?
How many athletes from the equivalency sports fall under this criteria -- solid academically, but not on an athletic scholarship? Decisions like the ones McDuffie made at Eastern Illinois will hinder a coach from looking outside his own scholarship allocation to recruit, not just for fear of losing scholarships, but now the fear of losing the sport entirely.
A standard practice for programs that have athletic scholarship limitations is to recruit kids who can get admitted and be on an academic scholarship, thus freeing up money for kids who need some athletic aid to attend for one reason or another.
Moyer says there?s already work in progress in helping to save the EIU program, on the grassroots level at www.saveeiuwrestling.com and from the association.
?The NWCA is working with high profile Illinois community leaders, local, regional, and national politicians, and EIU alumni/parents to establish a strategy that will lead to the ultimate reinstatement of the wrestling program,? said Moyer. ?Further, we are working with the NCAA to gain a full understanding of how the APR impacts wrestling so we can do a better job of coaching our coaches on how to thrive under this new program.?
Some of the issue is that while the APR has been in place for a few years, the full scope of the potential penalties and how points are gained and lost is still a gray area for many coaches.
?Our immediate challenge is that we don?t have enough information to determine how the APR is affecting wrestling,? said Moyer. ?We are collecting data so we can make informed decisions as we move forward. Thankfully, the NCAA has been helping us with that research, rather than making us do it on our own.?
There?s one way to look at it: ?For example, if we find that the majority of APR points that are lost in wrestling are due to ?retention,? then we need to focus our energies on that aspect. If this is the case, it might make sense for wrestling to consider waiving the one time transfer rule so student athletes have less incentive to transfer. The downside of that approach is that many coaches probably don?t want an athlete in their program that doesn?t want to be there.?
And there?s the other: ?If we determine that most APR points lost are due to eligibility, then we need to focus more energy on keeping the athletes eligible,? said Moyer. ?In some cases, athletes that change their major mid-stream can run into problems specific to ?making satisfactory progress toward graduation? as they approach their junior and senior years.?
It?s not just wrestling coaches who are miffed at how the APR is constructed. Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk is also a vocal, outspoken, detractor of what the APR represents, especially to equivalency sports.
The May 20 edition of The Clarion Ledger, a newspaper based in Jackson, Miss., quoted Polk: ?APR does not reflect the most important thing that an academic report should reflect, its grade point average.?
So based on the APR, a scholarship athlete from an equivalency sport majoring in, say, leisure studies could cruise along with a 2.0, stay barely eligible and graduate in five years might be more attractive than a Civil Engineering major taking back-breaking courses who changes his major because of the strain and becomes ineligible for a semester.
Or like in the case of Kenny Robertson, a two-time NCAA qualifier at Eastern who was a match away from placing in 2006, a student who needs coursework not offered in the summer and must return the following year to complete their degree.
Robertson will be coming back to EIU in the fall to finish up his student teaching, something he couldn?t do during the wrestling season. For his trouble, representing EIU at the NCAA championships twice ? he loses an APR point because he did not graduate within the time allocated by the NCAA.
Said Polk: ?If a boy starts school, they should never leave, ever. If they do, it affects your APR.?
Polk?s aware of the losses suffered in regards to proportionality and Title IX ?compliance? in the wrestling world and agrees that EIU?s APR cut is troublesome.
?You have to stand up for your kids and stand up for your programs,? said Polk. ?You?ve been taken advantage of. I?m not sure where the next generation of men?s gymnasts will come from.?
Standing up for your kids, something McDuffie and the heads at EIU didn?t do. They didn?t stick up for their athletes. It?s a terrible life lesson being taught by people paid to educate.
* * *
Something had to be in the works, but McDuffie denied (eliminating wrestling) had been on the table, even though the school had tried to cut wrestling 12 years ago. It's also notable that EIU was set to host the West Regional qualifier next season, but EIU admins nixed the idea, citing ?scheduling conflicts.? And speaking of the West Region, was it writing on the wall that EIU was a notable omission in the chartering of the Western Wrestling Conference?
As far as the cut in 1995, Dave Klemm, an Eastern alum and current head coach at Lincoln College explained: ?They tried to tag it on to the Title IX issue, but we fought and got it back. They cut back scholarships, they cut back the budget and now they?ve got less than some junior colleges.?
McDuffie denies EIU?s failure to join the fledgling WWC was a sign of the team?s demise.
?We discussed it (the APR) three years ago,? said McDuffie. ?(Was there a discussion) whether we were going to eliminate wrestling ? no.?
Robertson thinks differently.
"There?s always been talk about it, they tried to cut it before, but it upsets me personally after my senior year," said Robertson. "What did I do wrong? More than that, it really pisses me off for the last 25-26 years, we?ve sent someone to the Division I National Tournament. No one?s even come close to that. Team-wise, we?ve never done awesome, but wrestling?s an individual sport."
Mike Polz, head coach at Illinois powerhouse Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, is an educator, and EIU alum. The university is known for putting out teachers into the Illinois educational system.
?I?m an assistant AD here (at Sandburg),? said Polz. ?I?m a teacher, if (EIU) doesn?t do what?s right ? I?d just assume not send anyone to that university.?
?When you start doing stuff like that, I don?t trust the people in charge. That goes for the AD, the President of the University. Makes them look bad and I would urge students not to attend that university, not just wrestlers, all students.?
Polz was set to send two of his wrestlers -- Eric Pretto and John Doyle -- down to Charleston to wrestle next season.
?These are the type of kids that could bring a spirit and some hard work,? said Polz. ?Their active parents and could get some more support. I think that?s been holding them (the wrestling program) back, which is administrative support. There wasn?t any, because I think they wanted to get rid of it.?
Pretto still has his heart set on competing at Eastern.
?I?m not one that?s going to give up on something,? Pretto said. ?I wanted to wrestle for Coach McCausland and I still do. Other coaches have already contacted me, but I?m not ready to give up on Eastern yet.?
Grad assistant Clay French was also taken back by the news.
?This was a huge surprise, I found out on the internet,? said French, who was training back in Oregon for an upcoming MMA fight. ?My manager called me and told me what was going on. It?s pretty terrible.?
Hughes, who was in Las Vegas taping the next season of the UFC reality series ?The Ultimate Fighter,? was also surprised.
?My initial reaction was just question marks,? said Hughes. ?Why are they cutting the program or is there some unknown reason? Did someone have a problem with the program??
?I really didn?t know there was any problems after I left,? said Hughes. ?When Ralph and I talked, I never felt that (cutting the program) was a worry of his. I think Ralph was pretty caught off guard with this, as the rest of us.?
The reasons Hughes chose EIU over 10 years ago are similar to why many students elect to matriculate there to this day.
?I met coach McCausland and he and I had a lot of similarities -- country background, hard work. We hit it off well,? said Hughes. ?I like that Eastern was a smaller school, I wouldn?t get lost in the numbers. I?d walk into a classroom of 30 guys and the teacher would know my first and last name. I didn?t want to go to a bigger college and get lost there.?
The loss of the program will also undoubtedly have a trickle-down effect when it comes to grooming the next generation of coaches at the high school level.
?I always wanted to stay local and I was looking at Mizzou was one of my bigger choices,? said Hughes. ?But they didn?t have the curriculum I was looking for. I rather have stayed local and that was one of my big decision makers in the Eastern thing.?
?I don?t get it. I?m really hurt,? said Polz. ?I had a sick feeling in my stomach when I heard the news. I was a member of the team down there. Great years, great tradition. We were the most successful athletic program when I was there. Great people, great coaches have come out of that program. Hits closer to home for me because it?s my alma mater, but some other people have said, we really have to fight as a community to keep this program.?
?We already, as a state, don?t have enough opportunities,? said Polz. ?When you compare us to a state like Pennsylvania, it?s ridiculous. We should be adding programs.?
McDuffie contends the program was past the point of no return and clung to the APR stance.
?Part of our concern that as additional penalties come about, it becomes more difficult for the program to succeed on the mat and in the classroom, so we were concerned that we wouldn?t see a turnaround in the foreseeable future,? said McDuffie.
More difficult for the program to succeed? Well, when you only have 3.8 scholarships and a budget which has been reduced over the years, what do you expect?
* * *
Josh Centor, the Coordinator of New Media Communications for the NCAA, runs the DoubleAZone (www.doubleazone.com), a blog which serves as a voice for the organization and features a weekly audio interview with NCAA President Myles Brand.
?The NCAA?s academic reform initiatives were not intended to remove opportunities from student-athletes, but rather to change behavior of athletics teams that weren?t up to snuff with their academic performance,? said Centor in his blog. ?Cancellation of a program because of inadequate academic performance seems to be a copout and I don?t like the feel of it at all.?
?What the university is doing, however, is acknowledging that the wrestling program?s academic issues run too deep, and it?s not worth looking for a fix. I don?t support that attitude,? concluded Centor.
There is an academic paradox unfolding before our eyes.
Wrestling teams (and other equivalency sports) which have less than the NCAA maximum allowable scholarship limits have to recruit using every available scholarship dollar ? athletic or otherwise to bring in solid kids (sans the Ivies).
This will force college coaches to decide on how to give money to student athletes in sports which have scholarship limitations. Do you give scholarship money to the well-off academic kid who could pay for school with no problem ? because it?s going to help your APR ratio; or do you give scholarship money to a suspect academic risk who has had less than stellar academic support, but has promise, you could oversee better academically and is a pretty good athlete?
We know college is commitment, first and foremost to academics, but some just aren?t cut out for it. Should we exclude them even the chance of trying now because it?s a detriment to the APR?
How many of us know a suspect kid who went to college and thrived? How many of us know an academic superstar who went to college and became a bum? Wrestling isn?t a sport devoid of either type of kid, but the APR deters coaches from taking chances on kids anymore.
But it?s still the decision, and how it was made that stinks to the EIU wrestlers and coaching staff.
?I feel betrayed,? said Robertson. ?Especially trying to be an All-American and national champion and make Eastern look good, and Eastern?s all like -- you wrestlers, we?re done with you.?
Klemm, a two-time All-American and Division I runner-up at Eastern, has sent more than his fare share of JUCO athletes on to EIU, including Hughes.
?I?m not on the inside, I just don?t think the administration for the most part is real high on the wrestling program,? said Klemm. ?I understand what the APR, but a lot of that is based on 9.9 and Eastern doesn?t have that. If they gave him something to work with in terms of financial aid ??
The NCAA?s stance is all student-athletes are treated the same regardless if they?re on just books or on a full-ride.
?The goal of APR is still the same?teams need to graduate their scholarship student-athletes,? said Christianson.
McCausland, not surprisingly, agreed with Klemm.
?Let me state emphatically and without equivocation that I support the APR,? he said in his statement. ?Student-athletes go to college to earn a degree first; sports are secondary. This is especially true at a University such as Eastern Illinois University. But when your program has as few a number of scholarships as wrestling, it takes only a few individuals to penalize the program. Indeed, just one out of five will put the program in jeopardy?not a problem for teams with many scholarships but potentially problematic for teams with few. We have 3.8 scholarships to offer.?
McCaulsand concluded his open letter to appeal to the administrators who made the decision in a gutless, cowardly manner.
?I ask only that Eastern Illinois University do the right thing. The NCAA guarantees us two more years to recover. We made a commitment to these kids who chose EIU Wrestling rather than programs with better budgets, more scholarships and support staff. Let the wrestlers prove their mettle and save their program. The incoming recruiting class is very promising, the schedule is complete, spring fundraising is finalized, everything is in place for a successful next season. The only thing missing is the moral courage of the administration to reconsider a hasty and ill-advised decision.?
* * *
One thing overlooked is the time and effort EIU wrestlers have put in outside of the wrestling room in order to maintain the program.
?We always did PR stuff,? said Robertson. ?We did parking for the football games, we tried to stay out of trouble and all that stuff. We were aware that we had to be extra good.?
EIU wrestlers even reached out to the local community to lend a hand.
?One of our practices, we go and split wood for a family for the whole winter,? said Robertson. ?We were doing all sorts of stuff to get on the good side.?
?It?s just a low blow,? said Robertson. ?There?s so many great kids there. They?re young, they?re going to get better. (Perz) made it to the show two times, he could place if he works hard, what?s he supposed to do??
Robertson had goals of helping Eastern out next season and coach and try to push teammate Perz to become an All-American.
The scariest part about this is that it could give schools with Title IX proportionality issues another option to cut a team and have it not be attributed to gender quotas.
Got a problem with proportionality on your campus? Need a quick men?s team to axe? Use the APR to shroud blame at proportionality and focus it in another direction. It?s almost a perfect out for AD?s and school presidents who would rather cower and flee than face their athletes when they have to make a tough decision.
It?s a very slippery slope, and one that will be painted EIU blue and signed into precedent by a man named Rich McDuffie.