Two weeks ago, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln fired its athletic director, Steve Pederson, after the football team started the season 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12 conference. Following three more losses, Nebraskas perennially dominant football team has now been outscored 150 to 59 by Big 12 opponents in its past four games. Chancellor Harvey Perlman had seen enough, and pulled the plug on Pederson only three months after extending his contract for five years. Nebraskas football coach Bill Callahan is likely next to go.
In his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column last week, Gregg Easterbrook, an ESPN.com columnist, jokingly identified Nebraskas "real" problem: studious football players. According to Easterbrook, Nebraska is one of a "small number of high-profile football-factory schools where athletes actually go to class."
Easterbrooks got a point. While he writes somewhat in jest, he raises serious questions about incentive structures for coaches and athletic personnel. Are universities emphasizing the wrong type of victory for coaches, victory on the field over victory in the classroom? (Yes.) Are these misguided incentives for coaches contributing to the academic under-performance of most football teams? (Probably.)
In the case of Nebraska, its pretty obvious why Pederson was fired, and why Callahan will most likely be gone at the end of the season. Nebraskas Chancellor Perlman explained the firing of Pederson by saying that "you make the best decision you can with the information you have." Perlman certainly took into account information about performance on the football field, which without question has been sub-par this season.
But did Perlman take a look at the academic performance of Nebraskas football players recently? As Easterbrook pointed out, they are doing pretty well in the classroom. The four-year cohort graduation rate of Nebraskas football team from 1997-2000 was 83 percent according to the NCAAs "Graduation Success Rate (GSR)" (which takes transfer students into account) and 77 percent according to federal graduation rate data (which doesn't). Thats far above the 67 percent average GSR and 55 percent average federal rate for other Division I-A football teams. While Nebraskas "Academic Progress Rate (APR)" for football isnt spectacular at 935, its still doing better than eight of the other 11 teams in the Big 12 conference.
In fact, Nebraska would have creamed its last four Big 12 opponents if the games had been decided on graduation rates: Nebraska (83 GSR, 77 federal) over Missouri (60 GSR, 51 federal), Oklahoma State (64 GSR, 63 federal), Texas A&M (62 GSR, 51 federal), and Texas (42 GSR, 32 federal) by an average of 26 GSR percentage points per game! Thats a lot of football players graduating with degrees.
Were not saying that the University of Nebraska should be throwing a ticker-tape parade for Pederson and Callahan because of the academic perfomance of its football players. What were pointing out is that the issue of academics almost certainly did not enter Chancellor Perlmans mind before (or after) making his decision.
In his column, Easterbrook also mentions Notre Dame as a high-performing academic school that isnt having success on the football field this year. If Notre Dame finishes the season an atrocious 1-11, will it matter to the school that its football GSR is an impressive 93 percent? Or that the football teams APR of 964 is in the 80th to 90th percentile of all football teams? Probably not, and Notre Dame coach Charlie Weiss job safety certainly wont rest on academic indicators. Its going to rest on Ws and Ls. (And the fact that Notre Dame cant yet afford to axe his 10-year, $30 to $40 million contract).
Schools are telling coaches: win football games, and well extend your contract. It would be nice if you could figure out a way to also graduate your players, but thats not how youre going to keep your job.
The incentive structures for coaches and athletic personal are not aligned with the NCAAs mantra that student-athletes are students first. Thats not to say that winning football games shouldnt enter the equation. But when job security depends solely on athletic success, its not likely that coaches are going to encourage players to spend an extra hour on homework instead of studying football film.
Were going to look more into these incentives in the future, for example in the form of bonuses in coaches contracts. For now, when you watch Nebraska players on the football field, remember: even if theyre losing to Missouri 41 to 6, most will be leaving college with a diploma in hand.