College Sports

Spurrier rekindles admissions battle at USC

USC coach Steve Spurrier discusses the admissions policy at South Carolina at USC Media Day in Columbia.
USC coach Steve Spurrier discusses the admissions policy at South Carolina at USC Media Day in Columbia.

John Gerdy played college basketball against South Carolina for four years, and later went to work for the NCAA and SEC.

In the past decade, he has written four books on sports and become a crusader for academic reform in college sports.

So when Gerdy heard USC was standing firm in having higher admission standards than the NCAA, his reaction was swift.

"I say hooray for USC," said Gerdy, who played at Davidson in the 1970s and is a visiting professor at Ohio University. "Somewhere along the line, someone has to stand up and say, you know what, education is more important than athletics."

That opinion is not shared by many in this state, based on public reaction to football coach Steve Spurrier's comments on Aug. 5. After two of his recruits met NCAA minimum standards but were denied entry to USC, Spurrier said he was "embarrassed" and might have to leave if it continued.

Spurrier and school officials said they have talked behind the scenes and will address the timing of the decisions. Gerdy said he also agrees with Spurrier that the school denying a recruit in August is unreasonably late.

A larger issue remains: Should a public university such as USC have standards higher than the NCAA minimums?

State Rep. Jackie Hayes (D-Dillon) is among many who say the NCAA guidelines should be sufficient. Hayes, who also is the football coach and athletics director at Dillon, is considering proposing legislation that would require state schools to admit athletes who meet the NCAA minimum standards.

That might sound unprecedented, but it is not.

Mississippi's two largest colleges, Mississippi and Mississippi State, have been under court order since the early 1970s to admit all athletes who meet NCAA standards. The ruling dates to the period following the end of segregation, when those two schools tried to use higher admission standards as a way of excluding black athletes.

Segregation might be relagated to the history books, but Mississippi State athletics director Larry Templeton said the rule remains sufficient.

"The NCAA standard is stronger than most of the other criteria that we have to operate under," Templeton said. "Now, are we perfect? No. But I'd put our graduation rates up against anybody."

Of course, private schools can set any admissions standards they want. When Chuck Reedy coached football at Baylor, a private school, he said his players were automatically accepted if they were NCAA eligible.

"There was certainly the understanding that if you were going to compete with Texas and Oklahoma and Texas A&M, we were going to have to be able to recruit the same athletes that they were recruiting," said Reedy, a former assistant at Clemson and South Carolina who is the coach at Goose Creek.

So what happens if an athlete is denied entry to one SEC school and is admitted to another? SEC commissioner Mike Slive, speaking two weeks ago, declined to criticize USC's approach.

"Each of our institutions have to make the decision, and make the determination as to whether or not a prospective student-athlete has the necessary educational background to succeed at that institution," Slive said.

That issue of competitive balance might come into play for the South Carolina men's basketball team and coach Dave Odom.

The Gamecocks have had two recruits denied entry in the past year: Chad Gray last summer and Aaron Ellis last month. Gray eventually re-applied and was admitted during the winter. Ellis has been contacted by other SEC schools. On Tuesday, Ellis visited Wichita State, a Missouri Valley school coached by Gregg Marshall, the former Winthrop coach, and committed to the program.

Last week, Odom called admissions at USC "an ongoing process" and said he and other coaches need guidance on what precisely will be the standards.

The NCAA minimum standards are a sliding scale: The higher the grade point average, the lower the SAT or ACT test score needs to be and vice versa. But the Gamecock coaches complain that the new admissions process has been decided by a committee, without much definitive word on what exactly is needed.

"Our university is trying to do the right thing," Odom said. "But I think what's happening is our university is in search of who we are and where we want to go, academically. I think they know where they want to go; they're trying to figure out how they're going to get there."

An issue for both high school and college coaches is that the state of South Carolina consistently ranks among the lowest U.S. states in national test scores. So is it unreasonable for the state's flagship institution to raise its standards for athletes?

Reedy thinks colleges need to consider a student's educational background, including the quality of the school system and his home situation.

"No committee, unless they can look inside a young man and determine his desire to get an education, his commitment, can determine whether a kid can graduate or not," Reedy said.

Of course, much of USC's worry is based upon the academic progress rate (APR), the NCAA's new measuring device for academics, which penalizes schools for poor classroom performance by its athletes. South Carolina has cited the APR as its reason for raising standards in order to avoid the loss of future athletic scholarships.

As a result, coaches say the responsibility trickles down to the high schools, where coaches on both levels say the most work needs to be done.

Odom has suggested partnering with Clemson to sponsor a seminar for guidance counselors, coaches, principals and superintendents about the APR and college entrance requirements.

"If we want to help this state, that's what we ought to do," Odom said.

Hayes said there is a need for high school coaches to pinpoint their future college prospects early and get them on the right track. But, he adds, it also starts at home.

"The parents have to be aware of that, that they're on the right academic track and do the things they need to do," Hayes said. "You can't wait for your junior year and say I want to be a college football player."

In the meantime, what happens if schools such as South Carolina and Clemson continue to raise their standards and more athletes are denied?

Slive was asked whether it was dangerous for SEC schools to do so, when their states rank near the bottom of the nation in SAT scores and other academic barometers.

"What's the alternative?" Slive said. "We have provided as much opportunity and continue to provide as much or more opportunity as anybody in the country. And that opportunity will continue to be there.

Odom compares the current period to that after forced integration in the 1970s. Then, everyone was navigating new territory because of race, and now it is because of academics.

The key at this moment for USC, according to Odom, is clearly identifying what will allow an athlete to be admitted.

"I'm sure that's coming. But nobody's identified that for us yet," Odom said. "When we get that, then I think we'll be able to do a better job."

• Cover from USC, Clemson scrimmages • 6D