Setting a standard
C-USA coaches divided on academic requirements
Updated: Friday August 17, 2001 2:31 PM
By Al Myatt, Special to CNNSI.com
East Carolina was a hot topic at the Atlantic Coast Conference football media kickoff in North Charleston, S.C., and the Pirates, of course, aren't even members of the ACC.
ECU's policy on recruiting non-qualifiers brought the school into discussion at the ACC meetings.
Non-qualifiers were also a hot topic a few days later at the Conference USA media gathering in New Orleans, with Southern Miss coach Jeff Bowers proposing that C-USA should prohibit them.
ECU, which enters its fifth year in C-USA, is allowed to take up to five in-state non-qualifiers a year. Non-qualifiers don't make minimum NCAA requirements in terms of high school grade point average or standardized test scores.
Non-qualifiers are not allowed to practice or play their first year in college and must pay their own way to college. They may join a football program with three years of remaining eligibility if they pass 24 credit hours of study in their first year.
If they graduate within four years, the NCAA rewards their academic achievement with a fourth year of eligibility. ECU defensive linemen Chris Howell, Ty Hunt, and Bernard Williams will all play for the Pirates this season as a result of that provision.
"I'm not going to apologize to anyone for what we've done for these kids academically," said Pirates coach Steve Logan.
N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler and his ECU counterpart, Mike Hamrick, have discussed extending the NCSU-ECU series beyond a Presently contracted 2004 meeting in Charlotte. A 2007 game in Raleigh and a game in Greenville in 2008 or 2011 are possibilities.
N.C. State coach Chuck Amato was asked how he felt about playing the Pirates. Citing an "unlevel playing field" because ECU can recruit non-qualifiers and, by ACC policy, NCSU can not, Amato indicated that he preferred not to play the Pirates.
ACC schools are allowed to bring in a total of two partial qualifiers a year in all men's sports. A partial qualifier has either made an NCAA minimum in terms of grade point average or standardized test score. Partial qualifiers may practice but not play in their first year in college. Fowler subsequently met with Amato and the Wolfpack staff and cordially established that he was in charge of scheduling.
ECU has games contracted with North Carolina, Duke, and Wake Forest among ACC teams. Because of legislative pressure from ECU supporters, the Pirates and Tar Heels will play for the first time in 20 years, in Chapel Hill, this season on Oct. 6. UNC will visit the Pirates in 2003.
New UNC coach John Bunting indicated he had no qualms about playing ECU.
"Is it an unlevel playing field?" Bunting said. "Hell, yes. Do we want to play them? If they have a good football team, yes, we want to play them."
Duke coach Carl Franks, who deals with institutional admission requirements above those of the ACC, said he liked the atmosphere at ECU games because of the enthusiasm of Pirates fans.
New Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said ideally he would like to schedule non-conference games with teams who are in similar situations as the Deacons. He mentioned Northwestern, Rice, Vanderbilt, and the military academies as examples. Grobe indicated he doesn't want to play Division I-AA programs, which would omit regional rival Appalachian State. Grobe's first game as Deacons' coach will be at ECU on Sept. 1.
Like Amato, Bower also feels he is at a recruiting disadvantage since he doesn't have access to non-qualifiers.
"There needs to be some standard in this league," Bower said in New Orleans. "If we're going to take them, let's put a number on what we're going to take. That levels the playing field."
C-USA leaves the matter of taking non- or partial-qualifiers up to the individual discretion of its member institutions. Army and Tulane don't take academic exceptions. And Southern Miss no longer takes them under a policy established by its newest school president.
New Memphis coach Tommy West is on record favoring the inclusion of non-qualifiers. So is Louisville coach John L. Smith. Cardinals tight end Ronnie Ghent, an All C-USA choice as a sophomore in 2000, has worked his way up since failing to qualify in high school in Lakeland, Fla.
Logan, whose institution's policy generated the reaction in the ACC setting, said it is a matter of inclusion versus exclusion.
"Duke's mission, they chose many moons ago," Logan said. "Stanford. They chose. Vanderbilt. They chose many, many moons ago to be very exclusive about their mission and I think that's good. I think the quilt, the fabric of things needs that.
"I think the quilt of college athletics needs an inclusive element. The truth be known, the Big Ten is inclusive. The Pac-10 is inclusive. The Big East is inclusive. Conference USA is inclusive. The Big 12 was inclusive up to two years ago when they changed their policy.
"The Southeastern Conference isn't and the ACC isn't. The MAC is. You can go around the country and some are, some aren't. There are two or three schools in our conference that don't do it and that's their mission. ... Within each conference you'll find diversity."
ECU has taken 20 non-qualifiers starting with the 1995-96 school year, including four in the 2001 incoming class. Only three have left under academic suspension and latest NCAA figures show that the Pirates are graduating 48 percent of incoming players.
ACC and SEC programs can eventually take non-qualifiers if they prove themselves academically in prep school or junior college. Cincinnati coach Rick Minter doesn't see the distinction between taking a non-qualifier out of junior college or prep school as opposed to one that pays his way to Cincinnati and earns his eligibility academically.
UAB coach Watson Brown rejects the contention that its non-qualifier policy has kept C-USA from having direct access to the Bowl Championship Series.
Logan said that in terms of a level playing field, athletic budgets and access to the BCS are factors favoring some of his ACC neighbors. Logan favors a playoff system in Division I-A, which would eliminate the influence of computers in determining a national champion, as in the present BCS system.
C-USA commissioner Mike Slive said he will take a league policy on non-qualifiers under consideration although he appears content with the status quo. Slive said he has no problem with non-qualifiers if they progress academically.
Changing C-USA's current policy would require a vote of the league's board of presidents and it's not likely that the policy will even be addressed, let alone changed. New ECU chancellor Bill Muse, a former president of the SEC, hasn't shown any signs of favoring a change at his institution or for the league in general.