It's hard to say Arkansas is perfect in the latest Academic Progress Report. Jeff Long's team strives to leave no student-athlete behind.
But Long and his coaches, administrators and the student-athletes at the 19 programs at Arkansas have reason to smile Tuesday as there were a lot of home runs, dunks, touchdowns, goals, records and aces scored in the NCAA's latest report on the incredibly important APR. "Fantastic" was the word that most in the Broyles Center was using to describe the new report released Tuesday.
For those that don't understand APR, it's the NCAA's way of tracking individual sport graduation rates by semester. Penalties (some as severe as bans on post-season play and scholarship reductions) await any that don't meet the required 930 benchmark.
The good news at Arkansas is that all 19 sports achieved the 930, including a big jump in men's basketball as a horrible one-year mark of 755 from the 2007-08 season finally fell off the charts to boost the four-year average that is used to measure the individual sports. That 755 was the culprit two years ago in Mike Anderson's first year as coach when men's basketball had to take a one scholarship reduction.
The UA's program wide multi-year APR of 974.7 is a record, beating the previous mark of 970.3. Five programs scored a perfect 1,000 in projected graduation to earn special recognition awards from the NCAA. Those were men's golf, men's tennis, gymnastics, swimming and diving and volleyball. Women's soccer (995), women's golf (992) and women's tennis (984) were within an eyelash of perfect 1,000 scores.
Men's basketball, the big highlight Tuesday, improved 57 points to 951, topping the APR benchmark for the first time in five seasons, easily the highlight of the scores released by the NCAA at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. But Long was just as proud of the 12 other programs at the UA that improved or maintained their multi-year APR rate from last year.
"I'm proud of our coaches, academic staff and most importantly our student-athltes for the continued record-setting progress we are making in APR," said Long, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics. "For the first time, all 19 of our sport programs have exceeded the APR benchmark while establishing the best multi-rate in the history of our program. A record five teams earned public recognition awards while a large majority of our programs maintained or improved their APR numbers.
"We will continue to focus our efforts on helping Razorback student-athletes on the path to graduation and fulfilling our mission of developing student-athletes to their fullest potential through intercollegiate athletics."
While the NCAA has come up with a formula for tracking programs efforts to push student-athletes towards graduation, it is easy to see that the UA athletic department has improved its graduation rate. The Hogs have improved the department-wide graduation rate to 53 percent, just under the overall university rate of 59 percent. Only student-athletes that are on scholarship are figured into APR and graduation rates.
The men's basketball multi-year rate was as low as 886 in numbers figured into the multi-year APR through the 2008-09 season. That began to rise as a comprehensive long-term plan was implemented in the UA athletic program that included the hiring of former player Scotty Thurman in the men's program. Thurman was praised by Jon Fagg, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Compliance Student-Athlete Services.
Long and Fagg both credited Anderson's efforts over the last two years to emphasize academics on a daily basis with both class room attendance and effort.
"To see the progression our men's basketball program has made in APR in the past five years is truly remarkable," Long said. "It was not a short-term process and was accomplished only as a result of a strategic and focused plan developed by our academic and coaching staffs and through the concentrated efforts of our men's basketball student-athletes. I am pleased we have positioned our program for future academic success and am confident with the leadership of Coach Anderson we will continue to see measurable academic progress resulting in graduation."
Anderson thanked the administration.
"I am pleased that our program continues to make significant progress in the classroom as reflected by our APR performance," Anderson said. "I appreciate all the efforts made by our administration and academic staff to help provide our student-athletes with the guidance and resources necessary to succeed.
"I am proud of our young men who have made the commitment to work in both the classroom and on the court. We will continue to have the expectation within our program that student-athletes work toward graduation while competing for the University of Arkansas as a member of our men's basketball team."
Fagg said it's easy to see the impact Anderson has had on APR just in his daily work with the team.
"Without speaking for him, from my vantage point," Fagg said, "Coach Anderson expects his kids to never miss a class. That's an important thing. He talks about performance in class. And then are you giving effort? Are you behaving? You know, not just going. When someone veers off the path, he's going to be discussing that directly with them.
"Having Scotty Thurman on staff is a benefit. Scotty is our director of student-athlete development for basketball. So he kind of plays a hybrid role of being a mentor in a generic term. He is someone they can talk to off of the floor, along with our coaches, and then be a liaison for our academic staff. So we have another person down there that can think on academics and allow the coaching staff to continue to coach in a good way. I think that culture is part of the success we're having."
Looking at next year, Fagg thinks the men's basketball APR could have another jump forward.
"You would like to think," Fagg said. "APR doesn't seem like it should be so many moving parts, but it is. And sometimes we focus on maximizing our points and then letting some of those other things take care of themselves. So we track less on where it is percent-wise as opposed to making sure that we are keeping ourselves above that 930."
The 755 of a few years back in men's basketball jump started a lot of the change of culture to improve in all the sports. Fagg said it was a teaching school department wide.
"Certainly, it (was a tool) with basketball and football.," Fagg aid. "I think if you look at the other sports, they have roughly taken care of themselves anyway.
"Everyone is doing their job and it's flowing pretty well. With basketball and football, basketball is tough because it's a small team, so every point that gets lost translates into an APR difference and we've talked about that in the past, depending on how it's going. Each point loss accounts for about a 25-point difference, give or take. Football is a little different in that each point doesn't translate quite the same, but there is turnover in football teams across the country and you're just always concerned about that.
Some of the problems with the 755 were just bad timing, along with a sport that has a low number of scholarships anyway.
"That was a tough convergence of a coaching change, a big senior class and things like that," Fagg said. "That was a tough convergence of circumstances, so I would certainly trust that we're tracking on it well enough and our kids are bought in enough with our coaching staffs that that's not going to get repeated.
"I can't stress enough that Mike Anderson sets a great academic tempo, just like he is setting a strong athletic tempo."
Fagg said the strong score for men's basketball is a direct reflection on Anderson.
"I do think it is," Fagg said. "Some of it is the math, certainly, but if you look at what we're doing, it's going to continue to translate into strong scores. Especially as he completes a transition, getting the people who were finishing this year, some of those guys weren't recruited by him and once he gets his full roster, we'll continue to see strong scores."
Fagg took time to praise football coach Bret Bielema for his efforts in academics. It was noted that the Wisconsin football team had a perfect 1,000 APR last year, almost unheard of in football where there are 85 scholarships. The multi-year football score this year at Arkansas is 938 with a 2011-12 mark of 924.
Fagg was working closely with Long when Bielema came into the picture in the interview process. Fagg said that 1,000 APR jumped off the page when the resume was checked.
"I knew from my perspective," Fagg said, "and I don't want to speak for Jeff, but from my perspective, it was a real component. When you look at Bret's athletic success, that was really clear. There were three things that got me, when I was looking at it. His athletic success, his lack of off-the-field problems. I mean if you go back and look at the time that Bret was coach at Wisconsin, he had virtually no arrests. Literally, virtually none. And then his APR success, to me, says that's an unbelievable coach as a teacher and a mentor. And that's certainly what he seems to be proving so far with us.
"Bret has really come in and made a renewed, a different commitment to academic performance. Bret weaves academic performance into the daily lives of our student-athletes just differently than we have had previously. Not saying better or worse, just differently.
"They generally talk about it all the time. Without speaking for Coach Bielema, from my vantage point, I watch them talk about the need to take care of business off the field to ensure you can take care of business on the field.
"Lots of coaches around the country talk about translating their discipline from the field to the classroom. Bret talks about it an opposite manner. Translating your discipline from the classroom and off the field to the field. And they really go hand in hand for him.
"That's the way I see him doing it. It's an interesting dynamic between he and the kids."
Football and men's basketball are the high profile sports at Arkansas, but Fagg knows the culture is right at Arkansas when he sees the overall APR so high in so many sports.
"I think in general when you think about college athletics, the vast majority of the kids that play sports are going to school and playing sports," Fagg said. "They have no intention of becoming professional athletes in any manner, whatsoever, and I think that's a testament that we are recruiting the right kind of kids. They're coming to school, they're happy at Arkansas and they are graduating from Arkansas. So I think that's a great testament to our coaches and to the kids for following through. We have a really strong culture within our program."
Fagg used the word "fantastic" several times during his time discussing the 19 sport APR jump.
"I think it's fantastic," he said. Again, I'm a big believer in culture, if you can't tell. I've said that word several times now. I think making individual decisions is difficult. I call them team decisions. Making team decisions don't translate into long-term success, but making program decisions does. We've been making program decisions academically.
"We set out, when Jeff got here, to renew the culture and I think that's showing that that's been successful. We continue to plow forward and make those incremental gains with the APR. I think we're confident that those other rates, graduation rates, federal graduation rates and graduation success rates are going to follow when the time comes. We're still a year or so away from those things showing up on our watch, but it just feels fantastic. We're so excited for our kids and our coaches."
UA Multi-Year APR Scores
Baseball - 964
Men's Basketball - 951
Women's Basketball - 945
Men's Cross Country - 975
Women's Cross Country - 977
Football - 938
Men's Golf - 1,000
Women's Golf - 992
Gymnastics - 1,000
Soccer - 995
Softball - 966
Swimming - 1,000
Men's Tennis - 1,000
Women's Tennis - 984
Men's Indoor Track - 958
Women's Indoor Track - 964
Men's Outdoor Track - 949
Women's Outdoor Track - 962
Volleyball - 1,000
Arkansas Academic Report 'Fantastic'
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