It doesn't have to be either-or. That's the way this issue has been framed: You can either have a high graduation rate or that banner hanging at Comcast Center; pick one.
Full disclosure: I stole that observation from myself, written in this space 53 weeks ago, when the NCAA's annual report on graduation success rates (GSR) showed Maryland men's basketball team at 0 percent for the classes entering from 1997-98 to 2000-01.
The Terps' latest number, for the classes entering from 1998-99 to 2001-02, is 10 percent. Not speaking facetiously at all, that's an improvement - still the worst figure in the Atlantic Coast Conference by a wide margin, but better than zero.
And it will rise again in future years because it will include several recent players either already graduated or on track to do so in time - Nik Caner-Medley, D.J. Strawberry, Bambale Osby and James Gist, among others. That's not a small distinction. It has been a major point of emphasis by the school, athletic department and program. The GSR, senior associate athletic director Kathy Worthington pointed out, "is not a real-time snapshot of academic progress. These are [records for] players who came in 10 years ago."
Here's another reason the distinction is important, though: The group that encompassed the 2002 national champions contributed mightily to the 0 percent and 10 percent figures. The ones who are now collecting degrees on time are the ones who have missed the NCAA tournament three times in the past four years.
When coach Gary Williams steps before the microphones this afternoon at Comcast Center, the day before preseason practice officially opens, he will have to answer for the lousy GSR again. But he will hear much more about the recent National Invitation Tournament trips, and about the chaotic offseason that drastically thinned this season's roster.
Williams' feet ought to be held to the fire on that. And, of course, the academic shortcomings of the past were on his watch. But on the idea that at Maryland, winning and grades are mutually exclusive - that's not just on the coach; that's on the entire department.
This is not a new concept; all were brought up a year ago, and Maryland officials have known for a while that they faced a few years of grilling over these ugly statistics. Still, there simply is no good reason Maryland can't have it both ways. Every visit to the campus unveils new proof that the bar has been raised in resources, capital improvements, academic reputation and athletic upgrades (the huge Byrd Stadium expansion, just to toss out an example).
Seven of the 12 ACC schools exceed the national average men's basketball GSR of 62 percent: usual suspects Duke and North Carolina, all three of the recent football additions (Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech) and two with perfect scores, Florida State and Wake Forest. Those are the targets.
Those schools are proof that there are enough scholar athletes (as opposed to the NCAA's pretentious term "student-athlete") to go around, that they aren't the sole possession of the Dukes and Carolinas. They all have created environments in which success in both areas is expected, cherished and rewarded.
Maryland has what the other ACC schools have, in many cases more of it. There's no obvious reason it can't be on top of the conference in both.
Good grades, and a return to the regular trips to the Big Dance. Not just to revive Williams' reputation, but the school's, too.
No more either-or.
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