UT basketball goal: more grads

All college coaches promise to emphasize academics, as well as athletics, when they make their sales pitch to prospects' parents. Few of them practice what they preach as diligently as Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl.

Pearl proved he gives more than lip service to academics in his first week with the Vols back in the spring of 2005. During the gap between the firing of Buzz Peterson and the hiring of Pearl, star guard Chris Lofton decided to skip a study hall. The transgression did not occur under Pearl's watch but that didn't matter. The new coach made Lofton do some early-morning running as penance. Lofton was so impressed by the show of discipline that he decided to stay put rather than transfer to a school with a more stable (and successful) hoops program.

That wasn't a one-shot deal for Pearl, however. In his first two years overseeing the UT program he has routinely penalized players for cutting class and underachieving in the classroom, occasionally benching them. He also has rewarded athletes for quality academic work with additional minutes of playing time.

Naturally, Pearl is judged for the success his players achieve on the court more so than the success they achieve in the classroom. Still, maximizing his players' abilities in the latter is crucial to Tennessee's reputation as an academic institution. That reputation took some hits in recent years.

For instance, statistics from a recent NCAA evaluation show that just 18 percent of the Vols' scholarship basketball players in the 1996-99 time frame have earned degrees. That span covers the last two seasons of Kevin O'Neill's coaching tenure at UT and the first two years of Jerry Green's stint.

Mark Adams, described as "a college basketball analyst on the ESPN family of networks," recently penned an article (visible elsewhere on this site) entitled "Who's Smarter? Men or Women College Coaches?" Adams notes that men's basketball ranks dead last among the 29 college sports in graduating its athletes. He reports that just 45 percent of the NCAA's male basketball players in the 1996-99 time frame graduated. Thus, Tennessee's 18-percent mark wasn't even half the national average.

By comparison, women's basketball players graduated at a 65-percent clip during the 1996-99 time frame. At Tennessee, the number was 100 percent. Adams touched on this in his article, noting:

"Pat Summitt at Tennessee just won another National Championship. She graduated 100% of her players in the 1996-99 evaluation vs. 18% of the Tennessee men's players over the same period."

After winning 22 games in Year 1 and 24 in Year 2, Bruce Pearl has closed the gap a bit on Summitt in terms of on-court success. Perhaps, in time, his diligence will enable the Vols to close the gap on the Lady Vols in terms of classroom success, as well.

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