SMU's Focus On Academics Is Destroying Its Football Program

Fans, boosters and even the coach are up in arms over the rejection of two recruits on academic grounds, even though they qualify for almost any other program in the country. It's the polar opposite of the classic debate, and it's fascinating.

Two weeks ago, after their bags had already been packed, Darryl Jackson and Jeremy Hall found out that they had been denied admission to the university, even after signing letters of intent. Their cases were decided by SMU's Faculty Athletic Admission Subcommittee, a somewhat mysterious body charged with evaluating "borderline" recruits.

Anyone with an SAT below 900 (out of 1600; they ignore the new writing section) or a high school GPA below 2.5 must go before the committee, and meet their standards: a recruit must have a 50 percent chance of graduating. In their estimation. Jackson and Hall did not.

The NCAA has their own rules on qualifying, and the vast majority of schools simply go by that. But even among those who don't SMU's standards are notoriously high. As pointed out in the Dallas Observer's excellent piece, offensive lineman Ben Gottschalk was turned down twice by SMU, even though he was academically qualified enough to be extended admission to an Ivy League school.

It's curious that it's Southern Methodist, of all universities, to take a hard line on this. It's an excellent school, no doubt (it placed 68th on US News & World Report's latest rankings), but that's not the explanation.

Traditional powerhouses like Notre Dame, Penn State and USC all rank higher academically, yet none of them have such draconian standards for their players. Even in-state rival Rice, ranked 17th, simply uses the NCAA guidelines for eligibility.

Whence the stringency? It's tempting to generalize. SMU is, as the name suggest, a Methodist school, though not overwhelmingly so. It's also regularly counted among the most politically conservative schools in the country. But neither provides the answer. There are plenty of more religious, more conservative schools that don't have nearly the rigor in their admissions processes.

It's almost certainly an (over?)reaction to the "death penalty" handed down to SMU football in 1987, that decimated the program to a level from which it has never recovered. But that was a punishment for old-fashioned payments to players; it had nothing to do with suspect academics.

Fresh off their first winning season in 13 years, and first postseason appearance in 25, SMU backers are questioning the logic of their long-held policies. A group affiliated with the school's athletics alumni circulated an open letter last week that read in part:

We are fed up, and no longer willing to accept the administration's position with regards to (specifically) the refusal to admit certain incoming student athletes to SMU. If these demands are not met, the gloves are coming off. It will be ugly and it will be very public. Enough is enough. We are not going back to the days of Phil Bennett and 1-win seasons."

Coach June Jones paid lip service to the school's academic standards in a boilerplate statement, but has privately expressed his doubts about honoring the remainder of his contract.

Everyone in the program is frustrated," says the source. "There's the thought of, 'If they want to go 1-10 every year fine, but they'll do it without us.'"

He has yet to sign an extension offered to him in October. If driving away a coach that took a 1-win team to a bowl game within two years is the upshot of SMU's stubborn policy, perhaps they ought to rethink their priorities.

It's odd to write a sentence about priorities and not mean it the other way around: how the FSUs and UTs of the world will forgo any illusion of building student-athletes. But while SMU's purposes are noble, they're doing their students and fans a disservice. College sports has always been about striking a balance between academics and athletics. It's no better to go overboard on one end than the other.