Wendy Whittemore, academic counselor to the University of Maryland men's basketball team this past season, resigned yesterday, saying she feels education is not the top priority for Coach Lefty Driesell, five of whose 12 players flunked out of school last semester.
In fact, one in 10 Maryland athletes flunks out every semester, but most simply apply for readmission, attend summer school, retake classes they have failed and continue to play without interruption. Attention has been focused on Maryland athletes' academic performances in light of the death last week of Len Bias and subsequent revelations that he was 21 credits short of his degree after four years and did not earn a credit last semester.
Larry Roper, the basketball team academic counselor who resigned because of academic concerns after the 1984-85 season, said he had talked often with Driesell about his feeling that, at Maryland, eligibility was more important than learning.
"The athletic environment is such a potentially volatile one. Many of the players may easily be described as emotional time bombs being pulled in many directions, living in a world of marginality and hurting because they don't know where to turn," Roper said in his letter of resignation, which he wrote to Driesell on April 11, 1985, with a copy to Athletic Director Dick Dull.
Whittemore, who also was unhappy because the advising duties for the team had been transferred for the summer to another person, said of her resignation from the athletic department: "It comes down to philosophical differences, and being unable to effect changes in the athletic department."
Roper summed up the philosophical split: "Do you keep them eligible and just build credits, or do you deal with human development? . . . This is something academic advisers in all athletic departments encounter."
Reached last night, Driesell said of Whittemore: "I don't know what her problem is." He said he was surprised by Roper's statements, that it was "absolutely false" that he and Roper had discussed academic philosophy problems frequently, and then cited a letter from Roper that read, in part: "I was very happy with my overall experience."
Roper acknowledged writing that letter in 1985 and said, "There were times when I worked very well with Lefty." But Roper said that "didn't change my feeling of what the athletic environment was all about and the potential for danger in that environment."
Driesell said, "Don't I have enough questions to answer right now without you all badgering me on an academic adviser resigning? I mean, what the crap . . . My record speaks for itself. Any of my players will tell you I'm more concerned about academics than their jump shots and defense."
At Maryland, 42 percent of the football players and 53 percent of the basketball players who entered as freshmen between 1977 and 1981 have graduated. Both figures exceed the overall university average of 41 percent and are in line with the 41.6 average of the 63-school College Football Association.
Nevertheless, Whittemore and Roper, a doctoral candidate and the resident director of a campus dormitory, painted a picture of basketball players caring about school but not having the time to be students. Whittemore said team members missed 35 to 40 percent of classes during the season, which stretches from late November to mid-March.
Whittemore said all players started the 1985-86 academic term with at least a 2.0 (out of a possible 4.0) grade-point average, which fell to about 1.5 after the fall semester and is only slightly better now. She described the team's grades this past year as "D-plus to C-minus."
Bias and Tom (Speedy) Jones were the only seniors to be academically dismissed from school, Maryland's term for flunking out. Whittemore said Bias stopped going to classes after the fall semester, and Jones said he attended one class a week.
"When you come here, you've got the pressures of keeping your grades up so you can play," Jones said. "But when you get to the last semester of your senior year, there's no pressure to go to class because you aren't going to be back to play ball. So it doesn't matter whether you get the grades or flunk out or not. It really didn't make a difference."
The three dismissed players with eligibility remaining are attending summer school, and Dull said Monday he expects them all to be back and eligible to play. Bias and Jones were both enrolled in summer school.
At Maryland, a student who is academically dismissed writes a letter to the re-enrollment office applying for reinstatement, and the applications are reviewed by the Faculty Petition Board. After the spring semester, a student is allowed to attend summer school before having to petition.
Many times in summer school, the athlete repeats a course that he or she has flunked. In computing grade-point average, Maryland does not consider the original F after the course is passed on a second attempt.
The GPA needed to keep from flunking out is on a sliding scale, depending on credits attempted. A first-semester freshman needs a 0.229 to stay in school, and from the middle of the junior year on the minimum is 1.939. A Maryland student also flunks out if he or she is on academic warning for two consecutive semesters; that criteria also is determined on a sliding scale, ranging from 1.289 to 1.999.
To stay eligible, an athlete need only not flunk out and earn 24 credits annually in a specific degree program. The NCAA defines 24 credits a year toward a degree as satisfactory progress.
At Maryland, a number of athletes -- including about a third of the football team, according to academic counselor Jim Wright -- are in a degree program known as General Studies. The university calls General Studies "a flexible alternative educational structure for students who choose not to select a specific major." The program basically allows students to determine their own curriculum, with "concentrations" of credits in whatever subject the student wishes.
Although Bias said he wanted to major in art or interior design, he chose General Studies, saying it fit his time constraints better. "I'd like to get my degree. That would really mean something," he said last season. "Then I wouldn't just be Len Bias the basketball player. People would say, 'There's Len Bias. He graduated from Maryland.' "
Sources said that Bias occasionally was steered by coaches toward recreation courses and was upset about it.
Whittemore and Roper said they never steered him that way. "Len had a sense of dignity," Whittemore said. "He was intelligent. He knew it and I knew it. He wouldn't have looked fondly on that. He wasn't the type to take the easy way out."
The basketball team was on the road so much the spring semester that Whittemore said she sensed academic frustration among her players, especially when they were on the West Coast in mid-March participating in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.
"They were getting anxious, and by that I mean depressed and angry," she said. "They were saying, 'How in the world am I going to catch up?' All of them were feeling like a mountain had been shoveled on them and there was no way they were going to get out from under it. That's something that I'd like people to know, that they were caring."
One of the problems, Whittemore said, is that, "It's hard to be two places at once, and that concerns me. Depending on the sport and the schedule, all of our athletes miss class at one time or another. That's discouraging to me as an educator, but it seems to be accepted by the world at large. . . . My feeling is that they care about class, but they are operating in an environment where it's hard to get it done."
Chancellor John B. Slaughter, who has overseen a continuing effort to improve the balance between athletics and academics, said recently: "I can't think of a single athlete in our program who can afford to be missing class."
Although they would not cite specific instances, both Roper and Whittemore said some of Driesell's actions are detrimental to the players becoming properly educated and self-sufficient. "Lefty would say that's a lie because, verbally, Lefty is supportive," Roper said. "He says, 'Are they going to class? Are they studying?' . . . It's a question of articulated values and actual practices."
Whittemore cited the need for more structure and resources in the athletic department's support of academics. "It doesn't happen by putting 25 people in a study hall room and expecting it to happen spontaneously," she said.
"I like the guys on the team a lot. Some have come in unprepared and they get blamed for this, and they're only half of the equation. It upsets me when I hear this is a group of students who don't belong in college. We brought them into the university and we're obligated to do as much as we can for them."
Whittemore, also a doctoral candidate and a career counselor, said she would work next as an academic adviser under the dean of undergraduate studies. "It's more consistent with my professional values, which are my personal values, as well," she said.
"Maybe," said Roper, "our type isn't cut out for basketball."
Staff writers Bill Brubaker and Dave Sell contributed to this report.