Will academic reform hurt SEC football?

Vanderbilt Athletics Director Todd Turner is pushing for tougher academic standards in the SEC, but even his own head football coach seems less than enthused about some of Turner's ideas.

This fall's incoming freshmen face a 40-60-80 rule which demands that they complete 40 percent of their degree work after two years on campus, 60 percent after three years and 80 percent after four. The old rule was 25-50-75.

Turner wants the SEC to go further, though. He proposes ''disincentives'' -- penalties for schools who fail to graduate a certain percentage of their athletes. These penalties would involve loss of scholarships, forfeiture of revenue and even bowl bans. Since Vanderbilt has the SEC's highest graduation rate and never goes to bowl games, Turner's agenda is blatantly self-serving.

Still, Commodore head coach Bobby Johnson knows he must choose his words carefully when asked about academic reform.

''Students need to be making progress for a degree,'' Johnson said during a recent SEC teleconference. ''I don't think any of the NCAA proposals that were passed are out of reach. I like putting the bar up a little higher. I don't think it'll affect us as much as most people.''

When asked about taking away scholarships to penalize schools with low graduation rates, however, Johnson changed his tune.

''Scholarship reductions would be one of the last disincentives they would have,'' he said. ''I'm not really for that, even though my athletics director (Turner) is on the committee that is proposing all of those things. I think most things can be handled by the school. It's all based on different standards. All schools aren't alike. Some things need to be addressed but taking away scholarships ... that's pretty tough.''

Auburn's Tommy Tuberville is probably the most outspoken opponent of the disincentive plan.

''For some reason our faculty reps don't believe we'll push for graduation if we give 'em (athletes) five years,'' he said. ''With the new rules they're creating, we're not going to have anybody left after four years anyway. They're making it almost impossible for athletes in every sport to remain eligible unless they're rocket scientists. Not many of us are.''

At many schools, including UT, the graduation rate among athletes is a little higher than the graduation rate of the general student population. Still, some leaders of the academic reform movement aren't satisfied.

''Everybody's graduating a pretty good amount -- usually more than their regular students graduate,'' Tuberville noted. ''But for some reason presidents across the country feel we're not graduating enough of them. If they want to graduate, they'll get it done. This 40-60-80 rule is not fair to athletes.

''Hopefully, somebody'll wake up and smell the roses on this thing before it gets too far out of hand.''

Inside Tennessee Top Stories