Gary’s point on graduation rate is a slam dunk

October 05, 2007 | Drew Forrester

So now we find out that no Terps basketball recruit from ’97-2000 graduated from College Park.  And?  What’s your point?

Let’s face it, the kids who play hoops at Maryland are essentially nothing more than “hired guns”.  Yes, they get $120,000 worth of free schooling, a nice place to live, plenty of decent food and, I assume, around the clock assistance with their studies if necessary.  As an aside, is it just a coincidence that only the hottest of the hot 23-year old blonde grad assistants get “placed” with the athletic department to help the athletes (oops, I mean, “student-athletes”) with their schoolwork?  Yep, a coincidence, I’m sure.  Anyway, while the kids get a free ride – wait a second – probably not a good idea to use the words “free ride” in the same paragraph as the question posed about hot 23-year old blondes serving as tutors… – allow me to start again with that thought – While the student athletes receive an outstanding – complimentary – education, plenty of people at College Park are making money off of the their athletic prowess. 

It’s all well and good to have a top 25 college basketball team, but you can’t tell the players without a program, right?  And in those programs are?  ADVERTISEMENTS.  And someone SELLS that advertising for the University of Maryland, right?  You don’t think Toyota calls the Terps and says, “Hey, we have an extra $50,000 to spend this winter so we figured we’d see if you’d give us an ad in your game program, some courtside seats to all the games and a bunch of advertising on the concourse of the Comcast Center.”  It doesn’t work that way.  Some lucky soul over there at College Park makes his (or her) living off of the fact that Maryland’s basketball program is not only a competitive team, but an outstanding “sales vehicle” for people like Toyota, Pepsi, Royal Farms, etc.  Signage in the arena, sky suites, radio and TV advertising during game broadcasts…they’re all money makers for Maryland because the athletic programs are thriving.  But someone SELLS that stuff for the Terps – just like Dennis Mannion sells that stuff for the Ravens, as an example.  It doesn’t sell itself.  You need a professional or two or three in that marketing department to make sure everything is sold at the highest possible price.

College sports – at the highest level – are just as much professional as professional sports, truth be known.

It’s the best “quid pro quo” going.  Go to Maryland, demonstrate your athletic skills, get a free education and allow the school to make millions off of you and your teammates.  What’s wrong with that?  The Athletic Director has a mortgage too.  And so does the sales professional who brings in Toyota for $50,000.  And the coaches have houses, and expensive cars, and vacations, and golf club memberships. 

And that brings us to this latest uproar with the Men’s Basketball team at College Park.

From ’97-2000, no player recruited by Gary Williams and/or his staff graduated from Maryland. 

Yes, that’s rather embarrassing.  3 players graduating would be alarming.  2 players graduating would be troublesome.  1 player graduating would be cause for great concern.  0 players graduating is, well, indicative of possibly two things – a) they need to bring in smarter kids or, b) they should figure out if the graduation rate is really THAT important, because clearly, to the kids in question, graduating isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Leave it to Gary Williams to come up with perhaps the best response to this whole issue.

When speaking directly about the kids from his basketball program who failed to graduate because they pursued careers in professional basketball in lieu of completing their education, Williams rightly deflected the criticism by saying:  “These people (his players) are successful people.  If you go to school with the intent on improving yourself economically and you do that, where have you failed?  They make far more than the average college graduate.  Far more.  If you’re judging them just based on getting a degree then, OK, they haven’t gotten a degree.”

Gary is right.  Perhaps in the D.C. area they have the same problem with Williams that Baltimore has with Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick.  No matter what, never admit he’s right.  About anything.  In this case, Gary’s response is a slam-dunk.

Those players from 1997-2000 came to Maryland to play basketball, get an education and take whatever advantages they could – either through hoops or books – to make a better life for themselves.  Why should we – or the government – really care HOW they better themselves, as long as they’re doing it legally and as long as they’re abiding by the rules set forth in their scholarship agreement when they signed on the dotted line?  What’s the difference between a basketball or football player and a young man who goes to Maryland on an academic scholarship and later opens his own financial advisory company?  Shouldn’t we be celebrating the mere fact that these young people are utilizing their schooling to not only better themselves, but the communities they live and work in?

Should it be any of our business that Juan Dixon didn’t graduate?  Sure, somewhere along the line, somehow, you, me and everyone else reading this contributed in some small way to Dixon’s free ride at College Park through state taxes, tolls, etc.  So, if you want to get ultra-technical, you can certainly wave your “I paid for his education and he didn’t even go to class” flag, but Gary’s point is this:  Juan Dixon went there to play basketball and to figure out what he was going to do with his life.  He thought about being an attorney, a doctor, or an engineer and would have greatly benefitted from the great learning options at College Park had he decided to pursue a career in any of those three areas.  He could have used that $120k worth of free schooling to become a computer software programmer.  Instead, he used that $120k to become a professional basketball player and, based solely on the fact that’s he making $3 million a year doing that, I’d say the joke is on everyone else who thinks Juan didn’t come out ahead by choosing College Park.

It’s not a perfect set-up.  Lonny Baxter is an ex-Terps star who had a brief fling with the NBA before becoming a hoodlum who waved guns at police officers near the White House a couple of years back.  In dire need of more education, he goes to the library every day now.  In prison.  But it’s not Gary’s fault that Baxter didn’t understand the “quid pro quo” formula that guys like Dixon, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox and Drew Nicholas clearly absorbed when they were in Gary-land.  Those guys are ALL millionaires.  And they’re contributing to their communities in Portland, Los Angeles, etc. 

A lot of times, coaches in college sports get very defensive when graduation rates come up because it tends to paint a picture of a coach who only cares about winning and not much else.  In Gary’s case, he was honest, intelligent and, frankly, a bit “un-Gary-like.”  You’d expect an abrasive, combative response from him rather than an insightful one. 

Don’t get me wrong, the kids get a sweetheart of a deal when they’re “on scholarship”.  Free everything.  And sometimes more.  But the school makes money off of them – ticket sales, sponsorships, advertising, etc. – and, at the same time, uses their athletes to draw new students into the institution by promoting the athletic programs as the gateway to a memorable, exciting college lifestyle.  When’s the last time you heard two young girls say they were thinking about going to the University of West Virginia because they love the peace and tranquility of Morgantown during fall, winter and spring? 

In the end, Gary’s basketball program should make it a point to more carefully monitor the academic progress of their student-athletes.  Like it or not, the Terps could lose a couple of scholarships if the graduation rates don’t improve.

But Gary’s program has churned out some winners.  Plenty, in fact.  And they’re winning on AND off the field, even without a college degree.