10 Years Later, Bias's Death Still Resonates
By David Nakamura and Mark Asher
Washington Post Staff Writers
June 19, 1996
On a gray, rainy afternoon last month, Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes emerged from their room in Washington Hall on the University of Maryland campus, Profit holding a basketball and Stokes clutching a handful of pens and pencils.
It was finals week, and as Profit headed to the gym, Stokes was preparing to take his math exam. For the two freshmen basketball players, it was difficult to tell which activity was more important.
"Itís tough," Profit explained, "because youíve got to say to yourself, ĎIím here for academics, but basketball is paying for me to be here.í Which do you pay more attention to?"
That question has been discussed in depth at Maryland for a decade. Ten years ago today, the university entered one of the darkest periods in its history when basketball star Len Bias (pictured in red) died of a cocaine overdose in his dorm room at Washington Hall. Biasís death and the universityís two ensuing internal reviews prompted a series of fundamental changes to athletic department policy: a stricter admissions process; an enhancement of its new mandatory, random drug testing program; higher academic minimums athletes must achieve to remain eligible to play; an expanded tutorial and guidance staff.
University officials say these changes represented a reordering of the athletic departmentís priorities: that athletesí academic and social well-being are more important than winning championships. But a closer inspection of the athletic department shows that, after a series of seasons in which the football and menís basketball teams were not competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the department fell nearly $7 million into debt, some of the toughest academic reforms have been modified so Maryland again could compete at the highest level of college sports.
Meanwhile, the academic performances of the athletes in the two revenue-producing sportsómenís basketball and footballóremain well behind the performance of the general student population. According to the university systemís annual report on intercollegiate athletics, 90 percent of all College Park undergraduates were in good academic standing at the end of the 1994-95 school year. Among all athletes, the figure was 83 percent. Among all menís basketball and football players, the figure was 66 percent. That same year, the average grade-point average among all undergraduates was 2.79 (out of a 4.0 scale);among all athletes, it was 2.59; among men in football and basketball, it was 2.25.
The NCAAís most recent menís basketball graduation rate for Marylandówhich covers athletes who entered school in a four-year period from fall 1985 to fall 1988óis 38 percent, comparable to the national average of 37 percent for large public universities.
Recently, university president William E. Kirwan said the university has maintained "the spirit, if not the letter" of the academic reforms that followed Biasís death. Others are more critical. Raymond Johnson, the chairman of the universityís math department who was a member of the panel that recommended the academic reforms, said the school is beginning to forget the lessons learned from the Bias tragedy.
"The comfort level has gotten too high in my opinion," Johnson said. "That means youíre closer to the next problem. .ā.ā. I think every college president ought to go to bed at night worried about when the bomb is going to explode. .ā.ā. Sooner or later, itís going to explode; the question is whether itís going to happen on your watch."
Attacking the Problem
A panel chaired by former U.S. attorney general Benjamin Civiletti recommended major upgrades in the universityís drug-testing program, which had begun one year earlier. Another panel, chaired by physics professor and then-acting dean J. Robert Dorfman, made 60 recommendations concerning the academic and social issues; 54 were implemented, Kirwan said last month. Among the major changes were:
A reduction in the number of freshmen athletes who are admitted with academic records lower than those the university usually requires for admission. Maryland accepts such students, known as individual admissions (IAs), in all departments. In 1986 there was no limit on the use of IAs by the athletic department, which had 48 that year. Following the Dorfman Report, the department was allowed a maximum of 18 freshman and three junior college transfer IAs per year.
A ban on the offering of national letters-of-intent to recruits until the admissions office has decided that they are likely to be accepted to the university.
The creation of grade-point-average standards athletes must meet in order to play. These standards are more stringent than the ones the NCAA subsequently implemented.
Removing athletic department personnel from the academic advising of athletes. Athletes now get advice and approval on course selection from counselors working for the colleges in which they are enrolled.
An upgrading of the academic support unit from a three-person staff to a nine-person staff with a budget of $545,000 last year.
The athletic department had trouble adjusting to these changes in admissions and academic policy. In the four years before Bias died, the basketball team had a combined record of 88-44 (31-25 in the ACC) and four NCAA tournament berths, and the football team was 34-14 (22-2 ACC) with four bowl appearances. In the four seasons following Biasís death, Marylandís menís basketball and football teams struggled to be competitive even within the ACC. The basketball team went a combined 55-64 (13-43) with one NCAA tournament berth; the football team went 17-25-2 (11-14-1) with no bowl bids.
In addition to the academic changes, there were changes in key athletic department personnel. After decades of stability, Maryland had three football coaches, three menís basketball coaches and four athletic directors from 1986 to 1994.
Under Bob Wade, Driesellís replacement as menís basketball coach, Maryland suffered another powerful blowóa scandal involving a series of NCAA rules violations. The resulting sanctions took the menís basketball team off of live television for one season and out of the NCAA tournament for two. They also limited Marylandís recruiting activities.
In 1989 Gary Williams replaced Wade, returning to his alma mater after successful coaching tenures at American University, Boston College and Ohio State. He discovered that his ability to recruit top athletes was limited not only by the NCAA sanctions but also by the tougher admission standards adopted after the Dorfman Report. Williams attempted to bring in at least one top playeróLawrence Motenówho was rejected by the admissions office because of his academic credentials. Moten, a star at Carroll High in the District, went to Syracuse and became an all-American and the Big East Conferenceís all-time scoring leader.
"The school made a statement at that time, which is their right," Williams said. "I didnít like it; I didnít think we could ever get competitive to play against the teams we play against in our conference if that was going to be the case."
Linda Clement, director of undergraduate admissions, says that in the era before Bias died, Maryland coaches routinely signed an athlete to a binding letter-of-intent before she reviewed the athleteís transcripts. If she then rejected the athlete, she and the coaches often would argue their cases before the university chancellor, who occasionally overruled Clementís decision.
Such episodes ended following the Dorfman Report. "The biggest single change [is] that no athlete is signed to a letter-of-intent without a review by the office of admission," Clement said.
In 1990 Kirwan hired Andy Geiger as athletic director. Geiger came to Maryland from Stanford, a school among the nationís academic and athletic elite. While attempting to tackle the budget problems, Geiger began restoring trust between the academic and athletic sides of the university, a process that involved altering some of the changes prompted by the Dorfman Report.
For example, following the Dorfman Report, the director of the academic support unit was the only athletic department staffer allowed to speak with Clement about athletesí admissibility to the university. Geiger sought a more open dialogue. Now coaches and the athletic director can communicate with Clement.
"I wanted to earn the trust of people on campus and earn the self-respect of the campus," Geiger recalled. "I wanted to show the campus that we were good people and could manage our affairs."
Geiger worked hard to change the basketball programís reputation. Over time Clement became convinced that the academic support unit, headed since 1992 by Javaune Adams-Gaston, was strong enough to support athletes with lower academic profiles. In 1992 Williams landed a top-notch recruiting class that included guard Johnny Rhodes, who had struggled to meet the NCAAís freshmen eligibility standards on the Scholastic Assessment Test. One season later, with the addition of a class that included Joe Smith and Keith Booth, the Terrapins reached the NCAA tournamentís round of 16 for the first time since 1984-85.
Clement said she has been more "flexible" about admission decisions during the past few years.
"I have confidence that when Iím going to be flexible, the communication with Javauneís operation [is such that] she can sit around the table with me and we can discuss whether this athlete can be supported," Clement said. "That wouldnít have happened eight years ago. I would have made a decision, and that decision might have been perceived by the coaches as harsh, and the decision would have stayed. Now, I think thereís more give and take, and more discussion."
Kirwan said recently that the university granted an increase in the number of IAs for football to help the team become more competitive. In 1988, the first year in which IAs were limited to 21, the football team received eight. That was supposed to be the teamís maximum following the Dorfman Report.
Since then, according to university records obtained under a state public records request, there never have been fewer than 10 IAs for football in one year. In fall 1993 there were 13 out of 19 granted by the admissions department, and in fall 1994 there were 14 out of 21 granted.
However, the IAs Maryland now accepts have better academic profiles than did the IAs accepted before 1987 because the university has upgraded its overall standards. A potential IA now has a combined SAT score between 700 and 850, out of a possible 1,600; an IA before 1987 could have had an SAT score as low as 550.
"Itís difficult because youíre in a very competitive environment, where in some sports you need more talent than others," said Ray Gillian, an assistant to Kirwan and a member of the universityís Athletic Council, a panel that advises Kirwan on athletic department policy issues such as the number of IAs granted to each team.
The football team had a 6-5 record in 1995, its first winning season since 1990 and its second since 1985.
Ten Years After
In the past year, four Maryland football players were suspended for violating NCAA rules by gambling on college sporting events, one football player was charged in a series of dormitory thefts, and three menís basketball players racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets.
"The university has come a long way because of the leadership of our president, who is not going to allow things to happen that had happened before, and [the university will] never be embarrassed again," said Paul Mazzocchi, the dean of Marylandís college of life sciences and chairman of the athletic academic policy oversight board. "And then what happens as soon as you say that? Someone goes out and gets 50 parking tickets."
Kirwan and Athletic Director Debbie Yow say academic achievement, good citizenship and competitive success are not mutually exclusive concepts. The NCAA bases graduation rates on the number of recruited athletes who earn a degree within six years from the school at which they originally enrolled. Kirwan and Yow cite a 68 percent graduation rate for Marylandís athletes who originally enrolled in fall 1989 (it was 66 percent among the general student population). They also note that the football team has been honored by the College Football Association twice in the past three seasons for having a graduation rate of better than 70 percent.
Yow said in a recent interview that she would like each of Marylandís teams to have a 70 percent graduation rate.
Maryland officials continue to search for new ways to encourage academic progress among athletes. Yow, who took over from Geiger in 1994, has built into the contracts of many of her coaches academic incentive clauses based on athletesí graduation rates and/or academic standing. And the university started a program that allows players to return to school and use scholarship money to earn their degrees after the normal five-year scholarship period ends. Larry Gibson (who completed his basketball eligibility in 1979) became the first former basketball player to graduate from this program, and Kevin McLinton (1993) is enrolled.
Among the current generation of Maryland players, Profit and Stokes exemplify the two types of student-athletes the university believes it can help achieve success on and off the court. Yet, even with all of the changes that have occurred in Marylandís athletic program in the past 10 years, both offer cautionary tales about the demands on college athletes.In addition to his impressive basketball skills, Profit was a fine high school student in Dover, Del., who said he scored 1,010 on the SAT. He earned a 3.3 grade-point average while taking 13 credit hours in his first semester at Maryland, a course load that would enable him to graduate in less than five years. The average time required for graduation among all Maryland undergraduates is 4.8 years, and it is 5.0 years among all Maryland athletes. But, in the second semester, there were more games and more travel. Profit also began to get more playing time, as he played well late in the season. His overall GPA fell to a 2.5 after this past semester.
"Itís so tough because youíre traveling so much and youíre getting in late," Profit said. "You lose track of when things are due because youíre thinking about the big game. .ā.ā. Youíve got to practice, and youíre tired, and you come home late, and youíre like, ĎDarn, Iíve got a game tomorrow and Iíve got to study.íā"
Stokes, who grew up in Philadelphia, says he scored 850 on his SAT. Stokes attended the mandatory six-hour study table required of Maryland freshman athletes in their first semester, but he still struggled in the classroom. More than once, Stokes said, Maryland assistant basketball coach Jimmy Patsos caught him skipping class.
"That happened to me quite a few times," Stokes said. "I was so beat that to get up and go to class on time, we just werenít going to make it. As hard as we try to force ourselves, I just couldnít make it sometimes."
Meanwhile, with more and more underclassmen leaving school early to enter the NBA draft, Profit and Stokes are beginning to think about that possibility. Upon hearing that his former high school rival, Georgia Tech freshman guard Stephon Marbury, had entered the draft, Stokes said, "I feel like I have one foot in the NBA already."
With that, Stokes looked at his watch, excused himself and headed off to take his math final.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post