Class Work

Sept. 20, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

To pick up where we left off last week with a soft vetting of Brian Gregory . . . you’d better get in your books or you’ll be gone.

Sure, it’s a simplification, but that might as well be the new men’s basketball coach’s direct order to his players at Georgia Tech. I came up with this distillation as I was leaving the office of the Tech coach recently, and met Mfon Udofia as he dropped his cell phone in a tiny basket on the receptionist’s desk.

The junior guard was signing in for study hall.

There is little to no glory attached to this side of things, but academics are a big deal at Tech, of course, and they have a lot to do with Gregory’s hiring.

Tech was for the last two seasons on the NCAA’s books ranked last in the ACC in APR for men’s basketball. The 2010-11 school year is not archived yet, but Tech’s two marks before that were 908 and 915 for basketball.

Under Gregory, the University of Dayton’s men’s basketball team posted scores of 979 and 985 for those same two seasons, ranking No. 2 and No. 1 in the 14-team Atlantic 10.

“We want to get in the upper half of the ACC,” Gregory said. That would be quite a move, given the stiff academic hurdles that student-athletes face at Tech.”

It would probably be folly to suggest that Tech can post the same caliber of APR scores that Dayton has of late. Without knowing what’s what at the Ohio school, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that academic achievement at Dayton is not as difficult to come by as it is at Tech.

Plus, at Dayton Gregory didn’t have to deal with student-athletes leaving his program early, which has significantly impacted APR scores in men’s basketball at Tech in recent years.

There are ways, however, to mitigate those effects, and Gregory didn’t waste time employing them after he was hired last spring.

In recent years, a few Tech players left school early to chase NBA dreams without finishing their academic terms. By failing to leave in academic “good standing,” they pinched Tech’s APR numbers.

This is another simplification, as all cases have unique merits. But with Iman Shumpert considering an early departure from Tech as Gregory was hired, the new coach met the player quickly and implored Shumpert to finish out the semester in class regardless of what decision he would eventually make.

Similarly, Gregory practically chased down seniors Moe Miller and Lance Storrs, whose eligibility had just expired the month before he was hired. Neither student-athlete was setting records in class.

“I met him the second day after he was here,” Storrs said. “My last two semesters, my GPA had kind of gone down and I was just kind of struggling. He told me to stay serious in my studies, that [potential employers] look at your last grades kind of the most.”

Storrs and Miller graduated in August, and although Shumpert left early – he was drafted in the first round by the Knicks in June – he left in good academic standing. All of that will help with regards to APR numbers.

As the Yellow Jackets have for a week now been allowed to gather on-court all at the same time for the first times since Gregory was hired last spring (for two hours total practice time per week), that does not mean they’re spending any less time in class or hitting the books.

A significant part of re-storing the public’s perception of Tech basketball will have nothing to do with the sport itself. The work referenced here will be academic.

It’s not standard when a new coach is hired for an athletic program or university to over-comment on how the hiring relates to his/her effect on the first part of the student-athlete label.

Frankly, it’s not so sexy to fans who tend to be more vocal about – and less likely to buy tickets because of – on-court developments.

Yet when those fans learn of their school falling short in class, especially when that news is heaped upon a meandering track record on the court and all that news goes public, it hurts.

At a place like Tech, the pain is great. The academic mission on The Flats is serious business, and president Bud Peterson takes it that way to the bone.

Over the last six years of recorded APR data, Tech’s men’s basketball scores (beginning in 2004-’05 and continuing through ’09-’10) were 948, 944, 931, 914, 908 and 915. Over the same span, Dayton’s numbers were 980, 979, 974, 979, 979 and 985.

Only twice in that span was an ACC men’s basketball program penalized by the NCAA for lagging APR numbers (with scholarship reductions), and both times it was Tech (in ’07-’08 and ’09-’10).

Dayton led the A-10 three times in APR in that span, was twice second, and third once.

Again, comparing the academic missions of Dayton and Tech is silly, but there’s clearly a point at play here. Tech prides itself on academic acumen.

Said Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich, “as we went through the process, Brian’s focus on the academic development of his student-athletes was something that resonated with me, the search committee and certainly president Peterson.”

Part of the recruiting process at Tech, and this is true in all sports, goes to pursuing student-athletes who not only can get into the school, but stay in school. Sometimes once those young men and women arrive, extra pushing is required by the coach, his staff, and the academic support personnel at The Institute.

Gregory’s going to push.

“We want to do everything the right way academically, socially, basketball-wise,” he said. “We want to recruit high-character kids who do those things on a consistent basis.”

Miller and Storrs finished school last summer while still on scholarship, and worked at Gregory’s basketball camps as well – even though they never played for him, and never will. They graduated in August.

Fans are going to spend more time talking about winning games than what men’s basketball players are doing in class. The academic stuff tends to reside in a dimly-lit corner of the fans’ mind. But when those APR numbers and other academic sag and become public, the light goes on.

Then, there is an ugly step child that nobody wants to talk about. One of Gregory’s goals is to send that ogre away.

“He wants everybody go get their degree,” Storrs said. “He said we’re all part of the family, and we need to take care of each other.”

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