APR Spurs Proposal That Would Have Wide-Ranging Effects

Division I coaches were promised at January’s American Baseball Coaches Association convention that big changes were on the way as a result of baseball’s poor score in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. Two months later, it’s clear that was more than just grandiose talk.

The Baseball Academic Enhancement Working Group, charged with improving the game’s academic performance, drafted a proposal at its March 5 meeting, one that will bring sweeping changes to college baseball if approved by the NCAA’s Board of Directors in April.

The proposal, which working group members hope will be approved as a complete package, contains three major reforms that all tie in together. Players will be required to be academically certified at the start of the fall semester rather than the start of the spring, eliminating mid-year transfers and putting more pressure on athletes to take full course loads in the spring, because they will no longer be able to use the fall semester to catch up academically.

In addition, the proposal will eliminate the one-time transfer exemption, thereby requiring all Division I transfers to sit out a year like they do in basketball and football. In years past, baseball has resisted that change because it’s not a full scholarship sport, so it didn’t seem fair to prohibit a player on a minimal scholarship from transferring if he wasn’t getting playing time.

In order to combat that objection, the proposal includes a third prong that will require any scholarship player to receive at least 33 percent athletic aid and will cap the number of scholarship players at 27. In addition, rosters will be capped at 35, with the aim of eliminating the over-recruiting and open tryouts in the fall that often result in players being run off. The idea is that if schools make a substantial commitment to players in the form of increased aid and a better opportunity to compete for a roster spot, the players can make a more substantial commitment to the schools by sacrificing the ability to transfer freely.

While member of the Working Group weren’t talking publicly, the proposal was receiving positive reviews from those who had seen it.

“I think it’s very innovative,” NCAA managing director of baseball Dennis Poppe said of the proposal. “I think it’s one that’s been arrived at with a lot of thought and study.”

Transfers are a hot-button issue because most of baseball’s lost APR points are a result of low retention (due largely to baseball’s high transfer rate) and ineligibility at the end of the spring (because there’s no reason to be academically certified for the next season until the next spring).

The fall certification will have several ramifications. For one thing, junior college transfers–who lost retention points in the APR 21.8 percent of the time in 2004-05 and lost eligibility points 22.2 percent of the time–will have to be academically eligible before they ever arrive on a Division I campus, forcing schools that rely heavily upon juco transfers to be far more discerning. Texas A&M, for example, brought in a 26-member recruiting class in the fall, 13 of whom were junior college transfers.

“We’re going to have to re-evaluate what we’re doing and how we go about it. Those are sweeping changes,” Aggies coach Rob Childress said. “It’s going to eliminate us having the opportunity to go recruit that juco player if he’s not immediately eligible before he gets here. There are still going to be great junior college students who will have the opportunity to move on, but it will be interesting to see what happens.”

The fall certification also puts more pressure on players to perform academically in the spring, unless they want to forego summer ball to take summer classes.

“I think it will require a young man to plan out his academic career as well as his athletic career,” Poppe said. “It really places an emphasis on academics, as it should. They were losing ground, because they weren’t getting enough credit hours.”

Of course, players already struggle to balance full course loads with baseball in the spring, and some coaches fear it will be even more difficult next year with the institution of the change-of-season plan, which compacts the schedule. Moving the start date back into late February without moving back the end of the season will force teams to cram more games into every week in order to get to 56 games. That means more midweek travel and more missed classes.

The end result could mean a devastating blow to summer baseball, as many players will undoubtedly be forced to take summer classes. Another possible result is even more distasteful to college coaches: the 56-game schedule might eventually be reduced if the season isn’t lengthened.

Most coaches seem OK with the elimination of the one-time transfer exemption, and even those that don’t care for it say they can deal with it. The stipulations on how coaches can allot their 11.7 scholarships are far more controversial.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett, whose team is in no danger of falling below the APR cut line that will cause penalties to kick in, said he thinks the plan will punish every school instead of just the offenders. The schools that fall below the cut line will be hit with penalties including scholarship reductions and, potentially, loss of games, and Leggett said he’d rather let the penalties run their course, rather than restrict how schools can distribute their 11.7 scholarships.

The problem with requiring all scholarship players to receive at least a 33-percent aid package and limiting scholarships to 27 players, Leggett said, is that it leaves little flexibility if something unexpected happens. And because of the significant impact of the draft on college baseball, the unexpected happens routinely.

“For instance, we’ve got a kid injured who can’t play the rest of the year,” Leggett said. “We thought he could play professionally. Are we going to tell him he can’t come back to school now (for his senior year)? That is certainly not right.

“I think you’re going to create more problems with the APR, because you’re going to have to tell some kids they can’t come back to school because you don’t have a scholarship. Let’s say three or four juniors come back that you didn’t expect, and three or four freshmen come in that you didn’t expect, now you have to call up kids and say they can’t have the scholarship. Now you’ve created bad will and taken away an opportunity for a kid to come to school.”

Leggett, who used to coach at Vermont, said the proposal will be even harder for Northern teams that are not fully funded. Instead of stretching that allotment to bring in as many players as they can, they’ll only be able to bring in a few players on 33 percent aid.

Other coaches object to the 35-player roster cap, saying it will cost opportunities for walk-ons. Childress cited the case of former Nebraska pitcher Justin Pekarek, who walked on when Childress was an assistant coach for the Cornhuskers. He redshirted his freshman year, added 15 or 20 pounds of muscle, and by the time his Nebraska career was over he was an eighth-round draft pick.

“That kid won’t have the opportunity now to play at the school he wants,” Childress said. “If you grew up an Aggie and wanted to be an Aggie, you’re a marginal player that wanted the opportunity to develop. You’ve got a chance to get the degree where you want to get a degree from. You’re not going to have the opportunity to do that now, and that’s disappointing.”

Limiting scholarships to 27 players could also force some players who might be happy on a smaller scholarship to leave once their aid is taken away completely. It also gives a larger advantage to schools such as Georgia, Louisiana State, Rice and Stanford that have non-athletic aid to give out. Those schools can distribute their 11.7 scholarships among 27 players, then give the remaining eight players on their roster academic or institutional money. Those last eight players won’t get any money at places like Clemson or Texas A&M.

Still, other coaches have said they are excited about the entire proposal and hope the package gets accepted as is. That’s what the working group hopes, as well.

“We recognize that there is some controversy involved with this proposal,” said Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, the chair of the working group. “There will be some people concerned about it. But the baseball community as a whole has embraced it. The vast, vast majority of them were positive about it. They’re obviously sweeping changes, but we think the baseball community is ready for it.”