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Given D-I pressures, the classroom still rules in UCD athletics

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From page B1 | May 23, 2014 |

It’s been more than 10 years since UC Davis athletics ventured into Division I.

There has been a changing of the guard, too, as Terry Tumey replaced Greg Warzecka as athletic director. School legend Bob Biggs retired as head football coach, clearing the way for the first non-Aggie-grown head coach in more than 40 years — Ron Gould, formerly of Cal.

High-profile names like basketball’s Jim Les and men’s water polo’s Daniel Leyton have come to campus.

Along the way, most of UCD’s teams remained in the competitive Big West Conference while football moved into Football Championship Subdivision’s Big Sky Conference — a big leap forward from any previous league affiliations.

With each passing season, local fans have seen the level of competition increase. Name recognition for athletes and coaches has vaulted. Recruiting has spiked as individual and team accomplishments grow. While the Aggies don’t always win, their place in the D-I world continues to evolve.

So what has all this meant to the integrity of the UC Davis student-athlete? Are excellence in the classroom and wins on the field mutually exclusive?

Just days after the NCAA released Academic Progress Reports showing many Aggie athletic squads at the head of their respective conference classes, Tumey took time to talk about the balance between books and ball fields.

“I know, when they heard (about going) D-I at Davis, some people thought (there would be) cannibalizing or compromising of our athletic integrity,” Tumey told The Enterprise. “Athletics is a very proud part of the university and our university would never allow that to happen.”

The NCAA APRs — a team-by-team, term-by-term view of how individual scholarship student-athletes are doing academically and how secure their path to graduation might be — have shown UCD ranking among the top programs in the nation.

The APRs were introduced 2004.

In the most recent figures, seven Aggie teams (including football and men’s basketball) had the top APR numbers in their conferences.

Women’s tennis, coached by Bill Maze, earned the squad’s seventh straight perfect APR (1,000 points) and was given an NCAA Public Recognition Award earlier this month for those academic efforts.

“We try to recruit young women who not only can hit the ball pretty well, but who I think can do well (in the classroom) here at Davis — because it’s not easy,” explained Maze, who has coached at UCD for 19 years.

Between 2003 and 2006, in the Aggies’ early days in D-I, the NCAA says 87 percent of UCD athletes graduated, and that number that has stayed consistent through the years. That same study said 82 percent of student-athletes nationwide went on to graduate.

The 23 Aggie teams have had mixed success in their D-I athletic adventures.

Nonetheless, Tumey believes UCD does sports the right way, and that Aggie Pride is alive and well.

“We feel as though we’re winning on all fronts,” the former UCLA football standout continued. “And that’s what that APR tells us. We’re winning on the field of play, but we’re winning as citizens of the university (too) … we’re very proud of that.”

The fall grade-point average for all UCD student-athletes was 3.0 (only the second time in 18 years the school has attained such a high figure — and both came during the D-I era), according to Assistant Athletic Director Mike Robles.

The 2014 winter quarter checked in at 2.96. More than half of the 600 Aggie student-athletes were above 3.0, and on nine teams, every athlete tallied a 3.0 or above.

Women’s basketball coach Jennifer Gross — who was an all-league Aggie in the 1990s — said the attention to academic excellence has changed over the years:

“It has changed in a positive way. There’s so much more support for the student-athletes as we’ve transitioned into Division I,” she explained. “The advising staff has grown, which has been so important. The availability of tutoring, different options for study hall. As the demands of being a D-I student-athlete continue to grow, that support is essential for our success.”

Gross frequently talks with other schools’ coaches about student-athletes, and added, “I know at UC Davis we truly embody the word and the meaning.”

Maze said he’s been lucky that his women know what’s expected going in and that there’s not a lot of pressure from the staff.

“I expect them to be responsible, go to class, get their work out on time,” the Stanford grad continued. “We just happen to have some bright young women. I’m very proud of them.”

Maze added that being on the road presents special challenges — and the Aggies answer them. Maze isn’t the only coach whose team designates one or more of their hotel rooms as “study rooms.”

He, Les and Gould concur that most professors are quick to account for athletes’ special circumstances, given enough lead time.

Les and Maze say, like most coaches, there are times they’ll proctor exams on the road. They agree that student-athletes often tutor each other.

Les added that it’s as important to get it done in the classroom as it is on the court:

“There’s a lot of hard work. An education at UCD is demanding, but beneficial.

“As I talk to employers, they love the fact that our guys have been able to hold down two full-time jobs — a Division I athlete can go a long way, staying competitive in the classroom. It makes them awfully marketable … when companies are looking for bright, young, hard-working, talented young people.”

As he answered The Enterprise’s questions, Gould sat outside his campus office and checked his text messages. At any one time he has up to 80 texts from his players as they report regularly about their test grades and quarter GPAs. Gould demands that his guys stay focused on their education: He wants to know how class is going and asks players to reach out for help before there’s a problem.

Entering his second season, Gould is proud of his team’s 90 percent graduation rate (a tip of the cap goes to Biggs, he said) and by staying in close touch with his players “it allows me to know how they’re doing and for me it’s an opportunity to ask more questions.”

If a team at a school averages below 930 in APRs for two years, the NCAA begins to hand out sanctions, which often cuts scholarships. Of the UCD teams, the lowest APR was men’s cross country (939) while four women’s sports — tennis (1,000), gymnastics (997), water polo (993) and volleyball (989) — led or tied for first in Big West rankings.

Men’s basketball’s 974 was best among BWC schools. Football’s 972 paced Big Sky gridiron teams.

Coaches and administrators across the board say UCD will not cut corners to get that blue-chip athlete into the fold.

“No. We won’t do that,” promised Tumey, who said the university has passed on many game-changing athletes because of its lofty requirements. “The standards have gotten harder because (an education at UCD) has gotten harder.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these young people. As much as some people may not appreciate their talents on the field, when you look at them in their entirety — their talents on the field, their talents in the classroom — these are very special individuals.”

The Aggie Way. According to Tumey, Aggie Pride will not be compromised.

Notes: Visit www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/graduation-success-rate to get more detail on the APRs (and penalties) at the nation’s universities. … It should be noted that the Pac-12 average APR for football was 952.5 (almost 20 points behind UCD) and the average SEC football number was 957.

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at bgallaudet@davisenterprise.net or 530-320-4456.

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