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May 9, 2012

Part 2: RMU's role in academic, scholarship reform

This is the second part in a special three-part series examining Robert Morris' place in athletics. Today, ColonialsCorner examines how scholarship and academic reform is poised to impact RMU.

When the NCAA released its approved proposal to increase the Academic Progress Rate (APR) standard, schools across the nation panicked. By 2015-2016, teams must have a four-year APR average of 930 to be eligible for the postseason.

Had those standards been in place prior to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, 99 of the 343 Division I schools would have been ineligible for postseason play. Even if the first stage of the gradual increase of APR standards, which requires a 900 multi-year APR score for 2012-2013, had been in effect this spring, 30 teams would have been ineligible.

Schools across the country are concerned, from the major powers who lose players to the NBA Draft or struggle academically, to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other low-resource schools. Toledo and UConn are already facing postseason bans, and more known programs in other sports could face the same consequences once the latest APR reports are released in late May.

Despite basketball and football transfers, Robert Morris officials aren't among those concerned. Athletic director Craig Coleman and university president Gregory Dell'Omo are among the supporters of the new APR standards and like the tie-in to postseason play.

"The APR is probably the biggest success of the NCAA in the last couple years," Dell'Omo said. "It's gotten serious."

The new numbers won't be released until the end of May, but Robert Morris' 2011 numbers show every program above the current multi-year standard of 925 except women's basketball. The women were not penalized because their most recent yearly score was 980 and has improved on a regular basis since the program was docked scholarships in 2007-2008. Only two other programs have been docked in Robert Morris' history - football lost scholarships because of low scores (906 and 923) in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, while lacrosse was docked in 2007-2008 for a score of 916.

But Coleman and Dell'Omo explained those faults, at least specifically with lacrosse, were not because of a failure on behalf of the students or because of a failure on behalf of Robert Morris to provide academic support.

The penalties for lacrosse, in particular, were the result of a failed experiment to build up the program. When the school launched men's lacrosse in 2005, the program wanted 45-50 athletes on the roster. That's a high number, especially for a new program. Robert Morris reached out to nearly anyone interested, including many who would normally be walk-ons. But the lacrosse coaches enticed them with a roster spot courtesy of small scholarships worth a couple hundred dollars.

There was one issue. When those players decided to transfer, they now counted toward the program's APR. The APR differentiates only between scholarship and non-scholarship; it doesn't matter how much the scholarship is worth, only that it's for athletic reasons. Walk-ons do not count against the APR. Robert Morris' plan had backfired.

"Strategically, it wasn't a bad idea to do it that way to build our program," Coleman said. "But it looks like hell when the APR comes out."

Robert Morris changed the practice. Those incidental scholarships are now awarded to the players who stick around and perform well academically. Sophomores and juniors, eligible academically, are now getting the scholarships. Men's lacrosse's APR score shot up, with the latest numbers showing a multi-year average of 959 and a 2009-2010 single year score of 985.

"We didn't change the academic support," Coleman said. "We didn't really change the kind of student we brought in."

It's that background that has Robert Morris confident that they'll continue to succeed with the new APR standards. How multi-year scholarships impact the school, though, will remain to be seen. Much of that has to do with the murkiness surrounding the overall status of multi-year scholarships in general. Back in February, NCAA membership just missed vetoing the proposal, prompting NCAA president Mark Emmert to tell the Associated Press that those concerns will drive the discussion going forward.

"[I]t's clear that there are significant portions of the membership with legitimate concerns," Emmert said. "As we continue to examine implementation of the rule, we want to work with the membership to address those concerns."

The proposal still passed. Multi-year scholarships will not be mandatory, but they will become an option. Some major programs, including Alabama football, have already started awarding them. It will be a university and program based decision, one that will likely have more to do with the specific environment rather than anything else.

"The multi-year scholarships were not to benefit the coaches," Coleman said. "It was to benefit the athletes."

The concern was too many athletes were having their scholarships removed for poor performance or other minor factors. Multi-year scholarships would eliminate that concern. But Dell'Omo said that even student athletes recognize that multi-year scholarships could become a burden. Dell'Omo said members of the Student Advisory Council admitted those awarded multi-year scholarships could slack off, tying up scholarship money that could go to someone else.

Coleman said that's a primary concern for coaches, too. But he admitted a change still needed to be made. The only question is how it shakes out.

"There are many coaches who fear that there will be kids who think their scholarship is safe and not work has hard and so on, and the coach, to some degree, will have their hands tied," Coleman said. "Those are issues that are going to have to be worked out. I would hope as an athletic director that my coaches can motivate their players to work hard without having a threat to cut their scholarship over their heads all the time."

Tomorrow, this special three-part series concludes with a look into RMU's future plans for athletics, including hopes for a new basketball arena

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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