Dean Tolson returned to the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1984. He was bitter, in a sense a defeated vagabond. Ten years of professional basketball had taken Tolson, a 6'8" center, to exotic places, but at 32 he had little to show for his career.
During his first stop at the Fayetteville campus, in the early 1970s, he rarely opened a book and repeatedly skipped classes. This time around—his mother had challenged him to return to school—he vowed to study until he collapsed. Getting a college degree, he figured, was his only salvation.
Tolson's first year back was draining. Most days he studied for nine hours. At times, the frustration was too much. He would curse all of the coaches who had allowed him to take academics too lightly when he was younger, and he would scream about the teachers who had permitted him to graduate from high school without being able to read well.
"No one knows what it's like to be recognized all your life for something, to be a basketball star—to be somebody—and then, to no longer have that," Tolson explains. "You're a zero.
"I affected hundreds of thousands of basketball fans at Arkansas, in the NBA and all over the world. But when my career was over, I was worth $3.50 an hour. That's all. Do you know how much that hurts?"
Four years later, after seven semesters of pain and perseverance, Tolson walked across a gymnasium stage to receive his Bachelor of Science in education. On May 8, at 36, he became one of the oldest Razorback athletes to complete a degree.
Tolson's accomplishment also carried a dubious distinction. Few students had gone back to Arkansas with a worse transcript. He had to overcome 38 credit hours of F's and an abominable 1.43 grade point average (on a 4-point scale). In order to obtain a degree, he had to repeat two thirds of his credits; in all, 83 credit hours. Those courses he had taken to remain eligible to play basketball—golf, tennis, swimming, square dancing, typing and coaching football—translated into nothing but a lot of wasted time.
Tolson's dismal record also meant he had to adhere to rigid academic standards: If he dropped below a C average (2.0) in any one semester, he could be dismissed from Arkansas for a year.
Some university officials tried to dissuade Tolson from returning to school. "It was such an uphill battle," says associate registrar Guy Nelson. "I told Dean several times to start over at another school. With his transcript, he had a better chance of graduating from someplace else."
Donald Pederson, vice-chancellor for academic affairs, says: "Any other student would have dropped out and never gone back to school."