Five months before the NCAA plans to enforce the academic reform package its president, Myles Brand, called a "sea change" in college athletics, many top men's basketball coaches say they don't entirely grasp the new system, see significant flaws in what they do understand, and will not change the way they recruit players because of it.
Some even went so far as to say that maintaining a satisfactory Academic Progress Rate, or APR, was incompatible with trying to build a winning program in an era when virtually all top players turn professional before exhausting their collegiate eligibility.
"When I take a player, I am not going to be concerned about my APR," said North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, whose national champion Tar Heels lost four non-seniors to the NBA this spring, a development that will hurt the school's score under the new requirements. "I am not going to care about the APR at all. The fact of a guy leaving early for the NBA, that may be what I think about, but the APR is not what I will be thinking about."
The new reform package arose from concern over poor academic performance by student-athletes, particularly men's basketball players. It is intended to reward schools whose players perform well in the classroom and penalize those schools whose players do not.
But while supporting its intent, many coaches say the APR's complex system, in which programs can be penalized for scores below 925 on a 1,000-point scale, seems to invite "what-if" scenarios and is full of confusing parlance such as "contemporaneous penalties" and "10 percent gap."
Baylor Coach Scott Drew, one of several coaches interviewed at a camp for top high school players in Hackensack, N.J., joked that he had to take a semester course in the APR before grasping it.
"It's like the salary cap in the NBA and NFL," said Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, who acknowledged that he does not completely understand it. "You've got to have a capologist just to figure out the numbers. Instead of hiring an assistant, I'm going to hire an accountant for my next assistant job."
When a reporter asked Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar about North Carolina's APR score being adversely affected because four underclassmen left early for the NBA, Romar countered, "Not if they are in good [academic] standing."
Told that the Tar Heels would still be penalized one point for each player who left early, regardless of whether he was eligible, Romar acknowledged: "See, that's what I mean. It's confusing, very confusing," adding that he doesn't "totally" understand the APR.
University of Hartford President Walter Harrison, the chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance, said: "It seems to me, the central message for coaches is, 'You'd better recruit students capable of doing academic work at your institution.' . . . That does not seem to me to be too complicated. Whether they have focused on it or not, they are going to have a vested interest in making sure their athletes are doing well academically."
Harrison's committee is expected to discuss significant adjustments to the APR next week in San Francisco, and recommendations will be made to the board of directors in early August. In December, the NCAA will for the first time notify schools of penalties for unsatisfactory scores.
"What we will try to do is come up with solutions that are responsive to legitimate concerns by coaches and students," Harrison said, "but at the same time not create a loophole big enough to drive a truck through."
NCAA officials agree that penalizing programs merely for having NBA-caliber players is unwarranted. After all, the past three national championship teams had a combined eight players leave for the NBA before they exhausted eligibility.
As a freshman at Syracuse, Carmelo Anthony led the team to the national title and would have been eligible for his sophomore season, Coach Jim Boeheim said, had he chose to finish school in spring 2003 rather than attend NBA workouts. As it turned out, Anthony would have compiled only two out of four possible points for the year, had the APR been in effect, because he was not eligible to return after leaving school.
"You can't have too many of those guys," Boeheim said. "You can have eight players be Rhodes scholars. . . . And you have two guys good enough to go to the NBA [early] and you won't get a 925. The better players you recruit, the lower your APR is going to be."
Greg Oden, a 7-foot Indianapolis high school senior, made a much-publicized oral commitment to Ohio State last month. Oden was expected to be the top pick in the 2006 NBA draft before the league instituted a rule requiring players to be at least 19 years old; he likely will leave Ohio State before his four years of eligibility are exhausted. If and when that happens, the Buckeyes' APR score will be reduced, barring a waiver.
"It's hypocrisy," said Sonny Vaccaro, Reebok's director of grass-roots basketball who is considered among the most influential people in basketball over the past 30 years. "Student-athlete, in the purest sense, does not exist in college sports and certainly does not exist in college basketball. They are going to hold everyone responsible for the ills of an individual you may have recruited, and you penalize the whole team by these rules for what is bound to happen."
No college coach interviewed -- including five of the past seven national champions -- said he would be reluctant to take a player who might leave early because of APR implications. And there are indications that the pursuit of the best players, many of whom likely will stay only one year, is as intense as ever. In fact, Cincinnati high school junior O.J. Mayo, considered the best guard prospect since LeBron James, said he received 30 telephone and text messages, many of those from college coaches, the day the NBA's labor deal was announced.
The scholarship reduction "might be worth it," Boeheim conceded, "if you end up winning the national championship."
Romar, whose top recruit, Martell Webster, opted to become a first-round draft pick in June rather than attend college, scoffed at the notion that he would hesitate signing a player who could leave after one season -- "No, no, not at all."
And Izzo, who has lost players unexpectedly early to the draft, said: "If I lost a scholarship for those reasons, when I know what my track record has been for 10 years, so be it. Doesn't bother me."
The NCAA views initial scholarship reductions, also known as contemporaneous penalties, as less of a hard-line deterrent and more of a red flag for a program, warning that it is on the wrong track and at risk for more serious penalties. Chronic underachievers, based on a rolling four-year average APR score, will be subject to harsher penalties, such as postseason bans or restricted NCAA membership.
Murray Sperber, professor emeritus at Indiana University and critic of big-time college athletics, said the reform package is more a public relations move by the NCAA than about educating athletes.
"I truly believe you're not going to see much in the loss of scholarships," Sperber said. "And you will see a kind of movement toward more Mickey Mouse [watered-down] courses" for athletes to remain eligible.
Teams can only be docked a maximum of 10 percent of the total allotment of scholarships, meaning that no more than two scholarships can be taken away for a year in men's basketball. Because many programs do not annually field a team comprising 13 scholarship players, coaches said, penalties would hurt a program's perception more than hamper its ability to compete.
U-Conn. Coach Jim Calhoun said 10 players from his program have left early for the NBA draft during his tenure, and three may do so in 2006.
"So, in your judgment," he said, "would Connecticut not be doing its job" academically because of a lower APR score?
Harrison said coaches' "fears will be put to rest" after adjustments are recommended during next week's meeting, adding: "The APR was not meant to discourage students from turning professional. I'm much more worried about four or five times the number [who leave early for the NBA] who just drift away from college every year or, in the vernacular, just flunk."
The reform package has promise, Boeheim said, because if an athlete stays for three years before turning pro, at least a program would receive some points for retaining him six semesters. In past measurements of graduation rates, there was no difference between an athlete who left after one semester and one who missed graduating by a few credits.
How to account for players who leave early for the pros remains a challenge for the NCAA, even though Harrison said there could be an automatic waiver for players who leave early for professional leagues.
For example, Brand said during last season's Final Four that he did not think a program should be penalized if a player who was eligible when he was last in uniform left school the final few weeks of the semester to pursue a professional career. But the task of determining a player's academic performance mid-semester is difficult, Harrison cautioned, because "colleges don't keep running tabs on how students are doing. . . . How would a faculty athletic representative be able to determine that?"
Some coaches also said that maintaining a satisfactory APR score could be at odds with enforcing discipline. Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins asked a reporter whether he should dismiss a player who fails multiple drug tests even though it would hamper the program's APR score.
"I believe you should dismiss him," Huggins said. The APR "undermines discipline."
Harrison, in response to a scenario in which a player gets dismissed or expelled because of drug problems, said: "Should the team lose the [retention] point for that? That's a good question. I don't know. . . . That's another issue [discipline] we are going to have to sort of draw the guidelines on."
Said Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt: "Anytime you have a rule that has 30-40 different waiver possibilities, there is something flawed in the rule. There are so many real-life scenarios that have been brought up that the people who put together the rule never thought of because they are not involved in the day-to-day operation of an athletic team."
For example, two Arkansas-Little Rock basketball players graduated after the fall semester but returned to school in the spring to finish the season. They left school after the season to pursue professional careers, which negatively affected the team's APR, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters said. The NCAA declined the school's initial appeal, Waters said, but then agreed to review the case.
"Our suggestion was that after you graduate you should then be taken out," of consideration for the APR, Waters said, "and we say, 'Congratulations.' But that will never happen."
And former U-Conn. player Tony Robertson returned for a fifth year of school while still on athletic scholarship but after his eligibility was exhausted, only to drop out and negatively affect the Huskies' initial score released in February, Calhoun said.
Huggins said if he had an "African kid, [who] came in crying, mother was dying and he went home, I'm penalized for that. There's an appeal process, but what am I supposed to do, fly to Africa to get medical reports?"
Said Harrison, "These are real students with real problems and I would hope, as the NCAA, we can be flexible enough to deal with them."
Some coaches, such as Calhoun, praised Brand's efforts for attempting to understand the coaches' perspective. But Izzo called the reform plan "ridiculous. . . . I'm embarrassed that coaches, in a way, are thought of so small that we have to put standards on. I don't know who thinks a coach would not want to graduate a kid. Are we punishing 5 percent again -- I am tired of that."
To other coaches, the reality is this: "I can have a 1000 APR every year," Boeheim said. "I can graduate every guy. I won't be coaching here very long. You're not going to win."