|« Jackrabbits have shoes to fill||Maine Begins Final Month of Offseason »|
Sanctions, TSU investigation add up to rough year for the SWAC
Doug Williams returned to his alma mater, Grambling State, for a second stint as head football coach earlier this year to find the Southwestern Athletic Conference seemingly encountering one problem after another.
“If we keep doing business the way we’ve done it, we are going to put ourselves right out of business,” Williams said last month at SWAC media day in Birmingham, Ala.
Since January, the SWAC has faced a wide range of indiscretions that include a current NCAA investigation into the Texas Southern football and men’s basketball programs and postseason bans for three schools because of poor academic performances. In two other embarrassing instances, a former football coach sued — and won — a lawsuit for wrongful termination and an athletic director at another SWAC school was arrested for allegedly soliciting a prostitute.
SWAC commissioner Druer Sharp said steps are being taken to avoid repeat offenses, particularly in the classroom.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” Sharp said. “The APR (Academic Progress Rate) issues that we have now, I think we’ve learned our lessons and will definitely take those to heart and move forward as a conference to address those issues.”
Likely trouble for TSU
Before things get better for the 10-member SWAC, comprising historically black colleges and universities, they’re likely to get worse when the NCAA reveals its findings in the TSU investigation. The school is awaiting the notice of allegations from the NCAA, which athletic director Charles McClelland expects will outline “major rules violations in the football program in regards to recruiting, unethical conduct and academic inconsistencies.”
A charge of unethical conduct and academic misconduct are considered among the most serious offenses, according to a former member of the NCAA’s enforcement staff.
“The NCAA Committee on Infractions had made it very clear (those are) the most egregious violations under NCAA rules and will be punished the harshest,” said Rick Evrard, who spent seven years as an NCAA investigator. Evrard, who has no knowledge of the TSU investigation, added, “If you have those two elements in the case, it’s going to heighten the seriousness.”
Sharp said the SWAC and its members have taken an active approach to correcting problem areas.
TSU fired head football coach Johnnie Cole and four assistant coaches earlier this year and hired academic advisers for the football and men’s basketball programs. In the case of basketball, TSU was facing a postseason ban last year but received a waiver after adding an academic adviser. As a result, the team’s APR score has jumped more than 100 points, McClelland said.
“When we took the job, we realized we had some challenges and realized we had a lot of work to do,” said McClelland, who was hired in 2008. “That’s what we’re going to do. We’ll get it corrected.”
The SWAC was one of the hardest-hit conferences, with five schools receiving penalties when the APR report came out in May.
Texas Southern, the league’s defending champion, lost nearly 15 football scholarships after posting the worst four-year APR score in the nation. Jackson State had to give up 12 scholarships in football, while Mississippi Valley State, Southern and Grambling all lost basketball scholarships.
In response to the report, SWAC presidents went a step further, adopting a policy that any school that receives an NCAA postseason ban will be ineligible from SWAC championship games and tournaments. That means Jackson State, the favorite to win the East division, and Southern won’t be eligible for this year’s football championship game. Southern and Grambling won’t be eligible for the postseason in men’s basketball.
Southern became the first NCAA program to be banned from the postseason in two sports (football and men’s basketball) in the same year because of low APR scores.
The APR “sends a clear message that we must and will improve,” Southern chancellor Kofi Lomotey said in a statement at the time, adding that the school plans to track athletes in the classroom to “correct some behaviors that have landed Southern University in this unenviable position.”
Sharp defended the decision but said having a championship game without Jackson State and Southern eligible — the two schools are among the league’s most storied programs and have large fan bases — hurts the league.
“It wasn’t to send a message but to say our commitment is to academics first and athletics second,” Sharp said.
Learning from the past
Sharp pointed out the conference is doing some good things: The SWAC has expanded its corporate sponsorship base and signed an extension with ESPN for the annual MEAC-SWAC Challenge in football. Also, several conference schools had programs recognized for APR success, among them TSU’s women’s cross country and bowling teams and Prairie View A&M’s women’s golf team.
Williams, who played for legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson in the 1970s and won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins, met with Sharp during the SWAC media stop to offer ideas on how to improve the league’s APR scores. Among Williams’ suggestions was for the SWAC to limit the number of junior college transfers.
“You’re going to have ups and downs. That’s in any conference,” he said. “No conference is immune from that. I think what we want to do is learn from the things that we’ve been through as a conference. I think we’ve done that.”
By JOSEPH DUARTE, Houston Chronicle