The Challenges of Recruiting: Admissions

College coaching is a tough business. Assembling the right team, "coaching 'em up" so they're ready to play, and then actually coaching them in game-time is a hard enough job. The job has become much more difficult in recent years because the NCAA has increased academic standards and requirements. Read inside for an in-depth look at those challenges at USC.

When prospective athletes and their parents take official campus visits and talk about their desire for the athlete to also be challenged academically, in many cases their initial worry isn't about being challenged at the University of South Carolina, it is about meeting the challenge of being admitted. USC coaches have stated privately that USC is one the toughest public universities in the Southeastern Conference to get athletes admitted. Vanderbilt, the only private college of the 12 SEC members, is acknowledged to have the strictest admissions standards overall.

USC head football coach Steve Spurrier created headlines nationwide when he expressed frustration after having recruited and signed two players in the 2007 recruiting class, only to have them not be admitted by USC. The university, at that time, was studying the admissions process for student-athletes, and has since changed their admission procedure to address some of the challenges that coaches and potential student-athletes faced.

After signing this year's recruiting class, Spurrier says the university worked hard so the coaches wouldn't be blindsided by having recruits who had passed the NCAA clearinghouse not be accepted into the university. Some of the recent signing class "have some work to do academically," Spurrier acknowledged, but added, "So do a lot of players everyone has signed. Many players have academic work to do to qualify."

South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman said of the changes, announced shortly after Spurrier's initial statement of frustration, "We were fast approaching bringing this to an acceptable resolution, before it became public, for the university and the athletic department. Coaches are going to know almost immediately whether a student-athlete can be accepted or not."

Hyman continued, "I totally respect the academic mission at USC. In higher education, it is very theoretical. It's all about committees, conversation, discussion and debates. In our arena, it's more bottom line driven; it's more measurable on a day-to day basis. In a theoretical world, I understood what the university was doing, but it really wasn't practical because of the calendars and timelines we faced. We had to do things that fit into our timelines, but be respectful to what the university is trying to achieve."

Hyman said he worked closely with USC provost Mark Becker to accomplish the changes needed. "Dr. Becker really understands the problems. Long before any public discussions, Dr. Becker and I had in-depth conversations about it. He is one of the very few provosts in the country that understands athletics and how it fits into the academic model. The cultures are different. In higher education there is a flow, a balance, a rhythm, and you can't totally disrupt that rhythm in a timeline. That was the challenge, and that was bound to cause some friction."

USC is constantly working to address the academic challenges coaches and athletes face, according to USC's Senior Associate Athletic Director, Val Sheley, who oversees the issue. Two of the major challenges facing athletics are the bar for regular admissions to USC, which is getting higher each year, and the NCAA's stringent Academic Performance Review (APR) that each member institution must meet. Because of those two issues, she stated it is no longer as simple as letting coaches know that recruits have met the NCAA standards for the recruits to be considered.

"Now we carefully consider if they a have a legitimate chance of being able to stay in school and graduate. That's all changed now; the APR has changed all that. Now our teams could receive substantial penalties if their student-athletes lose eligibility or do not stay in school. " Sheley said. "It's a good thing for the institutions to be raising their academic standards, because we need to stay competitive with similar institutions. It's also pulling our athletic standards up too, long term."

USC and its athletic director have received much criticism from athletic supporters over the issue of athletes who had met the NCAA minimum admission standards not being admitted to South Carolina. Sheley responded to the criticism by saying, "The NCAA sets a baseline. With APR being part of the equation now, there will be a cultural change regarding academics, with severe consequences. We have to be more selective now or we will pay for it down the road."

Sheley explained the different standards between the NCAA and USC. "(There is) quite a big standard difference. To be admitted as a regular student, USC requires 19 academic core courses. The NCAA required only 14, although that changes to 16 for the fall 2008 enrollees. USC has its own matrix for the 19 required academic core courses, GPA, and the test score, which is higher than the NCAA's requirement. The NCAA currently has a sliding scale for the 14 required core courses, GPA, and the test score. As a result of successful litigation against the NCAA initial eligibility standards, they are now much more permissive; this is the baseline that no one can go below. The chances of an athlete coming in with just the bare (NCAA) initial eligibility standards and being able to graduate from many institutions are probably remote."

Speaking of the changes USC has made to their admissions process, Sheley said, "As with anything academic, when you're dealing with a major institution, you have to go through channels and you can't do anything quickly. We have to be able to articulate why the current process was problematic for athletics, and then work with them to resolve the issues. That's exactly what Eric did - very methodically and in a very educated way, worked through the proper channels to say, ‘We have to change this process. The admissions process was putting us at a competitive disadvantage .'"

USC coaches had told GamecockAnthem that under the previous system they felt like they were chasing a moving target. On that issue, Sheley repsponded, "That's exactly what it was like, because each year the admissions bar was raised. The coach thinks, well, I got this one in here two years ago with these academic credentials, so I should be able to get this one in now. But the admissions standard has been raised and we have a limit on the number of special admits. So it's very hard for them to recruit, because as you know, they recruit two to three years out in most sports now. It became very frustrating."

Hyman said of the moving target issue, "They have a baseline now. They have an understanding. The coaches have a much, much better grasp now of the admissions process than they did before. It was very gray before, and coaches are historically more black and white. It's never going to be totally black and white because it will never fit into higher education. So what you have to do is fit the needs of what you're trying to accomplish into higher education."

University sources told GamecockAnthem that this season a 1000 SAT and 2.8 GPA in the required 19 academic core courses were roughly the minimum standards that must be met for a student-athlete to be admitted as a regular student. Sheley said USC now has a "3 of 5 rule," which states that a prospective student-athlete must meet a specific level of criteria in three of the following five areas in order to be admitted as one of the countable special admits:

1. High school graduate

2. Class Rank

3. GPA

4. Test score on SAT or ACT

5. Sub Score - individual scores on verbal or math portions of the SAT or ACT

With the changes, Sheley was asked where she would perceive USC to be in the SEC as far as admissions standards, and if the school would still be harder to get into than other conference schools. She replied, "I honestly don't know. It is more realistic in our competitive market place. It's our process when dealing with student-athletes that's changed. So we're probably in the same place. But now the process is such that the coaches know - they can look at a transcript now and see that a kid's got 3 out of 5, so they can continue recruiting them."

The NCAA has a minimum standard, and Sheley stated that USC will always have its own standard that differs from the NCAA standard. "We have 19 core courses they have to have, which is a lot higher than the NCAA, and we require a lab science," she said. "Now if you're a South Carolina student, you should have the lab science because you need that to graduate. But most of the out-of-state and foreign kids don't have it, because it's not required for high school graduation."

The athletes who signed a national letter-of-intent to attend South Carolina on February 6 will be the first admitted under the new process. The seven football players already on campus who were admitted in January of this year came in under the old process.

Regarding how many athletes are actually accepted at the university prior to signing a letter-of-intent to compete athletically for the university, Sheley said, "It varies. Several of them that applied prior to signing already are admitted. It wasn't an issue at all. For the most part, especially football, they don't even apply until they're signed. But Admissions does see unofficial transcripts and gives us an unofficial evaluation prior to signing all our athletes, so we have some idea of where they stand. But some of them we're going to have to wait on test scores, senior grades, things like that, which can take us into June when they graduate from high school."

Hyman looked at a number of the other SEC schools' programs, in addition to programs at Clemson, North Carolina, and NC State, before modeling the new standards at South Carolina on those of the two North Carolina schools. "I looked at several of them," he said. "When I looked at North Carolina's, and North Carolina State's, I liked what they were doing. Ours is different, ours is the Carolina way, but it's based on their parameters, how they have it structured."

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