How classroom success saved San Jose State football
Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News Aug. 15, 2011.
By Jon Wilner
Off the field, the San Jose State football program has never been healthier. The Spartans are on sound footing financially and performing well in the classroom. For the first time in school history, they will have a full complement of 85 scholarship players this season.
It’s a far cry from the situation a few years ago, when a woeful academic performance threatened the program’s very existence.
Several dismal Academic Progress Rate scores resulted in the loss of dozens of scholarships over a four-year period, placing the program at a severe competitive disadvantage. The scores also pushed the Spartans to the brink of a bowl ban that could have permanently crippled the program.
“It was like a disease,” athletic director Tom Bowen said. “It starts and there’s no quick fix, and it takes years of academic success to offset.”
Because SJSU has its academics in order, Bowen and former football coach Dick Tomey agreed recently to discuss the depths of the APR problems that began in 2005, shortly after their arrival, and haunted the Spartans for the entirety of Tomey’s tenure.
“We didn’t say anything about it at the time because we thought it would kill the program — we thought it would hurt recruiting,” Tomey said. “People wondered why we didn’t have as much of this or that, why we lacked depth. We were fighting through it.”
The Academic Progress Rate was implemented by the NCAA in 2003 as a means of measuring a school’s ability to keep student-athletes on track to graduate. The baseline score is 925 (out of 1,000), which equates to a 50 percent graduation rate. Teams averaging less than 925 over a four-year cycle are subject to penalties, including the loss of practice time and scholarships and, in severe cases, postseason bans.
In the early years of the APR, the Spartans posted a series of scores in the 800s as players recruited by former coach Fitz Hill (2001-04) failed to graduate or became ineligible and left the program.
But the problem wasn’t Hill, according to Tomey. It was the lack of academic support for the football program: SJSU didn’t even have an organized study hall.
“During Fitz’s tenure, they didn’t have an appropriate understanding of what academic support needed to be,” Tomey said. “They didn’t have the same support as any other program that I know of. He was at a tremendous disadvantage.”
Hill could not be reached for comment.
When they were hired in December 2004, Bowen and Tomey were unaware of the APR storm about to wallop SJSU. Tomey, who had been out of college coaching for three of the previous four years, said the topic never came up when he interviewed for the job.
“I don’t believe anybody knew the depth of the academic disaster except the faculty,” said Bowen, who also was coming from the outside, having worked for the 49ers before taking charge of Spartans athletics.
Less than two months later, SJSU was notified by the NCAA that several sports, including football, would lose scholarships due to academic deficiencies and could potentially suffer more severe penalties.
“I’ll never forget my first day on the job,” said Eileen Daley, an eligibility specialist hired in early 2005 to fix football’s APR problems. “Dick came up to me and said, ‘Am I going to have a team?’ ”
Bowen and Tomey immersed themselves in the nuances of the APR. They joined NCAA committees that focused on academics and met with APR specialists. They consulted with coaches at schools with similar issues, like Temple. And they got help from above: Don Kassing, then the school president, increased the size of the academic support staff.
Bowen, who previously worked in Cal’s athletic department, also implemented sweeping changes. Players would be subject to weekly grade and attendance checks, and have their financial aid pulled if they became ineligible.
“We glorified players who had great grades rather than glorifying great plays,” Tomey said. “The guys understood they had to do as well as they could to get us out of the hole.”
The Spartans won the 2006 New Mexico Bowl and competed for a postseason berth the following two seasons despite limitations on practice time and having fewer than 70 scholarship players. The success during that span remains an immense source of pride for Tomey.
But unbeknown to the public, the APR penalties were devouring the program from the inside out. The scholarship reductions slowly stripped away SJSU’s depth and made it difficult to compensate for injuries. At the same time, the fragile academic existence meant the Spartans couldn’t take chances on talented but academically at-risk recruits.
“If we went backwards,” Tomey said, “we were in danger of losing the program.”
By 2008, the changes implemented by Bowen, Tomey and Daley had taken hold. But because APR penalties are based on a team’s rolling four-year average, the Spartans’ multiyear score remained well below the 925 baseline. They were staring at a bowl ban.
Notified of “Occasion Three” penalties, SJSU was on track to be barred from postseason play.
The consequences were lost on nobody: It would kill recruiting and eliminate any chance of SJSU fielding a competitive team for the foreseeable future.
“We were petrified,” Daley said.
In his appeal to the NCAA, Bowen wrote that SJSU was “immersed in the transformation of the academic culture” and promised that the following year’s APR would show dramatic improvement.
The NCAA agreed — “They hit the pause button for us,” Daley said — and San Jose State delivered on Bowen’s promise with an impressive single-year score of 956, well above the baseline.
But the reprieve did nothing to stanch the scholarship bleed. By the time the 2009 season arrived, the Spartans had lost a total of 57 scholarships over a four-year period.
Facing a brutal schedule, battered by injuries and devoid of quality depth, SJSU won just two games. Tomey retired after the season, having never uttered a word publicly about the damage wrought by the APR penalties.
“It was frustrating that nobody knew the story except us,” he said, “but it would have killed us.”
In the spring of 2010, six months after Tomey’s retirement, the NCAA informed SJSU that its multiyear score had finally climbed above 925: The Spartans were out of the penalty phase and permitted to have 85 players on scholarship — to stock the roster with enough quality depth to field a competitive team.
“It was like winning the Lottery,” Bowen said.
That year, Daley and Tomey were asked to address a special session of the NCAA Convention. The topic: How to improve your APR score.
“They knew we had come full circle,” Daley said. “The NCAA wanted us to share our story.”