Gottfried Doing Things the Right Way

Saturday morning, Earnest Shelton will walk across a temporary stage inside Coleman Coliseum, receiving a bachelor's degree in management after only three-and-a-half years at the University of Alabama.

Saturday night, he'll run across that same floor, launching three-pointers and scoring baskets as a senior shooting guard for the No.17 Crimson Tide basketball team against Tennessee State.

Shelton's big day is unusual, if only because he's graduating in less than four years and, amazingly, playing a game the same night in the same gym where he gets his degree. Truth be told, however, what Shelton is really doing Saturday is joining a big club. He'll become the 15th consecutive UA senior over the last five years to earn his degree under Mark Gottfried, a streak that is as impressive as the three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances or the Elite Eight that Gottfried led the Tide to last season. Too often in college athletics, academics are pushed aside in favor of success on the field of play.

Players are pushed into do-nothing classes all in the name of keeping them eligible – and keeping hopes of lucrative postseason success alive.

Cases of alleged academic fraud have surfaced at powerful universities like Tennessee and elsewhere, gaining the attention of sports reporters and the entertainment industries alike.

When their eligibility is up, they're pushed out into the world with few marketable skills and fewer prospects for success, unless they're one of the lucky few that plays professional sports at a high level.

That's why graduating – no matter what degree you leave with – is so important.

A college degree is a passport to the outside world and all its possibilities, be it in communications, management (Shelton's major), law, English, medicine, finance or even journalism (if you like low checking account balances, clipping coupons and the wonders of all-you-can-eat buffets).

Gottfried's program is a shining example of doing it right. Shelton, the SEC's leading scorer at 19.4 points per game, is only one of four players on Alabama's roster who'll graduate this season, extending Gottfried's streak of graduating seniors to 18-for-18.

Fellow seniors Lucky Williams and Jason Reese will follow in May, as will junior forward Chuck Davis, who'll graduate in only three years and return for a second degree next fall.

Seven of those graduates – Shelton, 2002 SEC Player of the Year Erwin Dudley and past starters Kenny Walker, Terrance Meade, Jeremy Hays, Antoine Pettway, Tarik London, and Travis Stinnett, were also members of the SEC's All-Academic team, honoring players who maintain a 3.5 grade point average.

Those stats are even more impressive when considering the travel-intensive schedules most major college basketball teams undertake.

A week in the typical Southeastern Conference schedule looks like this: travel Tuesday for a Wednesday game, play Wednesday night, return by charter after the game in the wee hours of the night before attending classes on Thursday.

Repeat on Friday and Saturday, then start all over again Monday afternoon.

It's a grind that takes considerable discipline and skill for success.

"Plenty of times on planes and buses, there'll be three, four, five lights on with guys doing schoolwork," Shelton said. "You have to stay on top of things to do this. The teachers don't give you anything. They expect you to do everything as normal students."

So does Gottfried.

"It's the most important thing," he said of graduating players. "I'm very well aware of the expectations to win on the court, but having grown up in that environment (as the son of a college coach), I really care about people and want to help young people do the best they can and stay on track to graduate.

"A lot of coaches preach eligibility versus graduation. They have players stay eligible and when they finish playing, they're a long ways from graduation. We want guys constantly thinking about graduation from the time they touch campus here. They're all capable, or they wouldn't be here. Our mindset is to make sure they get their work done."

Alabama's graduation rate isn't 100 percent, but that's only because the NCAA counts all players who ever set foot on campus, whether they finish their careers where they began or not. That means players like Rod Grizzard (who left after his junior season for the NBA) or freshmen like Akini Adkins and Glenn Miles (both of whom have transferred in the past two months) drag down the rate. They aren't truly representative of the job Gottfried has done, however.

Adkins and Miles could both transfer elsewhere and earn degrees, and it'd still count against Alabama because they didn't finish their educations in Tuscaloosa.

What's important is that the last 18 seniors who started and finished their careers at Alabama – from stars to benchwarmers – have graduated.

That won't be hanging on a banner in Coleman anytime soon, but it should.

It's a sign that Gottfried's program is accomplishing the goals that really matter.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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