Tackling the Tassle

The NCAA reports said that FAU football yielded the ninth lowest graduation rate in the country. FAU is working to improve the issue, but first they need to address that there is one.

April 24, 2014

As low as the graduation rate is at Florida Atlantic, an even scarier statistic may exist within one FAU athletic program.

The latest reports from the NCAA say that FAU football yielded a graduation success rate of 54 — meaning 54 percent of players that enrolled in the fall of 2006 have graduated within the last six years (NCAA measures graduation on a six-year scale). That mark is one of the worst in the nation — only nine programs generated a lower percentage out of 128.

Director of Academics for Athletics Marlon Dechausay is in his first year on the job. The woman who preceded him, Michelle Brown, now has the same position at the University of North Carolina.

Earlier this year, a scandal was uncovered: A UNC tutor revealed that many football and basketball players were steered into fake classes and given illegitimate grades for very little academic work. Brown did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Former Athletic Director Craig Angelos worked at FAU from 2003 to 2012, meaning his tenure spanned the time period (2006-2011) of the NCAA’s latest findings. After being fired, Angelos took a job working in the Athletic Department at the University of South Florida. He, too, did not respond to requests for comment.

The graduation success rate, or GSR, of all FAU athletes enrolled during the spring of 2006 is 66 percent. According to Dechausay, the overall athletics graduation rate for FAU was much better in past years and they are trying to return to its previous levels.

“If you look back historically at FAU, the [graduation success rate] was actually pretty high for a while, around 70-some-odd percent. Right now, as a department, we are in the 60s, so obviously that’s some place where we want to get that up,” Dechausay said. “If we’re 75 [percent] and above, or 80, that’s really where we’d like to be for the GSR. Our goal is to graduate them within four years.”

Dechausay is incorrect in his assumption that FAU was once a place that graduated its student athletes with regularity. The NCAA information on the subject goes as far back as 1998, and the overall athletics graduation rate for FAU has been in the low to mid-60s during that entire time.

In fact, the most recent GSR for all athletes (66 percent) is as high as it has ever been, with the exception of one period — the school graduated 67 percent of the athletes who arrived in the fall of 2005.

Football is the biggest athletics program on campus in terms of scholarship allocations. The NCAA allows Division 1 (also referred to as FBS) football programs to have 85 scholarship players at any one time — meaning football players on scholarship account for one-sixth of the total number of athletes at this school. Because of those sheer numbers, the overall graduation rate for FAU athletes is affected when a significant portion of football players do not graduate.

The GSR for the football program specifically has been between 48 and 54 percent for its entire existence. Dechausay has an idea of why the GSR for football in particular has been so low. He attributed the bulk of it to players who pursue the NFL instead of coming back to finish their degree.

“The problem is, you get a lot of guys that play for four years and they don’t graduate in that fall semester,” he said. “Well, in the spring semester, when they probably should graduate, a lot of them are now trying to chase that NFL dream. Now, you chase the NFL dream, maybe you get an opportunity to play in Canada, or you try and fail, and unfortunately they don’t come back to school.”

Dechausay believes that hastening the academic track that football players are on will result in more men walking across the stage and grabbing a diploma.

“One of the biggest things that I told my staff when I got here, and that I told coach Partridge when he got here, is that we need our football players to be on a three and a half year cycle,” Dechausay said. “ If we’re doing a good job and our players are doing a good job, they should, in theory, play their last game — hopefully a bowl game — and graduate in the same semester.”

Dechausay explained that his method of making sure that players graduate early, if at all possible, will save FAU the burden of finding players who make a run at the NFL and imploring them to come back and complete a degree. He understands that getting football players a diploma will make the overall GSR for the school look a bit more favorable.

“That way we would ensure that they would all be done [with classes],” he said. “Then we don’t have to worry about chasing them down, trying to make sure they go back and finish their degrees. That will actually help increase our graduation rate, especially in the sport of football.”

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In addition, a significant portion of the kids who graduated in past years have a degree in general studies, which does not provide expertise in any one area since there is no specific track for its classes. According to the FAU sports website, 20 of the 105 men on the 2014 spring roster are listed as general studies majors.

Athletics Media Relations Director Katrina McCormack says that the bios seen on the website are not to be trusted. “What we have on our bios may or may not be current. Don’t necessarily go by what’s there. We get those when they are freshmen, and sometimes they get updated, sometimes they don’t.”

According to Dechausay, the general studies major actually preceded the football program. To his knowledge, there are no football players majoring in general studies or interdisciplinary studies (a very similar degree to general studies). He did, however, indicate that there may be a similar academic program in the works.

“We don’t have any student athletes, especially any football players, that are in interdisciplinary studies. I know there is talk of bringing a major like that back here to campus, but the one we have right now really isn’t attractive or conducive to student athletes.”

Former offensive lineman Troy Niblack graduated from FAU in 2011 with a degree in general studies. He now works for Jimmy John’s. Photo (left) courtesy of FAU Media Relations. Photo (right) courtesy of Troy Niblack
Former offensive lineman Troy Niblack graduated from FAU in 2011 with a degree in general studies. He now works for Jimmy John’s. Photo (left) courtesy of FAU Media Relations. Photo (right) courtesy of Troy Niblack

Three of the men who should be graduating this spring are listed as interdisciplinary studies majors: Josh Orsino, Randell Johnson and Cory Henry. Former players who majored in interdisciplinary studies or general studies are adamantly against anyone else doing so.

Troy Niblack is a former offensive lineman who graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in interdisciplinary studies and regrets his decision to this day.

“Now that I am in the real world, I do regret not majoring in something else due to the fact that I have come across numerous job opportunities that I have been passionate about,” he said. “Had I studied another field, I would’ve been better qualified for the position I was pursuing.”

A semester or two of poor grades led to an indecisive Niblack deciding to delve into the general studies major. He claims an adviser led him there after his performance in some business classes went awry.

“I had a really good freshman year, then I hit my sophomore slump after I tried to take a lot of business courses that year,” Niblack said. “After that, my adviser kind of pushed me to the general studies major.”

Niblack does not recall the name of the adviser who guided him. The UP asked to speak with advisers Eric Zeaman and Keva Anderson-Konkser, but was told that only Dechausay would be available for an interview.

Given the opportunity, Niblack would have handled his academic situation differently. He explained that once he chose general studies, he was reluctant to change his major, fearing that he would be ineligible to play football because  NCAA rules state that players must be on track to graduate at all times if they are to compete.

“It’s like a percentage thing where you have to have a certain percent of your major classes completed [or you] must be on track to graduate in a certain amount of time,” Niblack said.  “In a nutshell, if I had changed my major and the classes didn’t crossover to the new major, and I dropped below that percentage, then I would become ineligible.”

Niblack acknowledged that the situation he found himself in is one that happens frequently, not just on the football team, but within the athletics program as a whole.

“I think that some student athletes stick to a major that they aren’t into because they don’t want to become ineligible if they switch.”

As useless as the degree has been to Niblack, he was reluctant to suggest that FAU get rid of the general studies major altogether. He does know that the lack of expertise coming from his major made for a frustrating learning curve upon entering the workforce.

“[The degree] wasn’t very beneficial to me because I didn’t truly find out what I wanted to start a career in until after I had already graduated and that field is a polar opposite of what I studied.”

These days, Niblack supports himself with two jobs — one at Jimmy John’s sandwich company and the other at a resort selling timeshares. He says that he would have loved to study computer animation or marketing if he had the chance.

Niblack laments his degree, but another former football player, Brian Sirmans, does not even have a degree to lament over. Once a wide receiver in the FAU football program, the Jacksonville native did not graduate and to this day, he still has no idea why.

When asked about the factors that contributed to him leaving, Sirmans candidly placed blame on the men who were responsible for placing him on the football team in the first place. Those same men pulled the rug out from under him years later.

“I can only speak for my situation. It was the coaches, and I never was told why I couldn’t return to finish my last semester.”

Sirman said that if the school taught athletes how to study, his experience as an FAU football player might have been vastly different.

Dechausay spoke at length about the academic services offered to FAU athletes, football players and non-football players alike.

“We have a very comprehensive academic support office. In-house tutors, an in-house mentoring program, we also collaborate with the class office to use their tutoring program, they’ve gone now to Skype tutoring, so that is an additional benefit to our athletes to now, while they’re traveling, be engaged with a tutor while on the road,” he said.

“All I can say to young collegiate athletes is this: Never let an academic adviser tell you what degree to seek.” – Jeff Blanchard, former FAU Football player

Former running back Jeff Blanchard, who graduated in 2009 with a degree in general studies, claims that the responsibility of academic success for athletes is purely on the athletes themselves. He claims that he fully employed the resources that he was afforded during his time at FAU.

“I took advantage of every resource we had, and spent extra time at the [Oxley Center] going to tutor sessions,” he said.

Blanchard called the GSR for football “a little embarrassing, due to the fact that things such as tutors and study hall were put into place for us to succeed.”

He suggests that the school isn’t the issue when athletes do not graduate — all of the blame should be placed on the athletes themselves.

“Other than hold the athletes’ hands, there isn’t much more the school can do. There are definitely more resources for an athlete [to use] than for a student who goes to school and pays out of pocket,” Blanchard said.

He realizes now that the influence of an adviser steered him into a degree that he had no real interest in. He referenced youth and naivete as reasons why he chose the major.

“All I can say to young collegiate athletes is this: Never let an academic adviser tell you what degree to seek,” Blanchard said. “Stick to your plan, despite the talk about how hard it is.”

Blanchard has just one class to complete before earning a second bachelor’s degree (criminal justice) and says he would have considered medical school in hindsight. He is a firefighter and emergency medical technician, currently training to become a paramedic.

Another former teammate of Blanchard, Di’Ivory Edgecomb, sees the issue of non-graduating Owls as a result of miscommunication between his alma mater and the NCAA.

“Most issues I remember regarding ineligibility were due to the fact that the school and NCAA requirements are different, and if not caught could hurt the player. The NCAA only requires a percentage of degree completed for every eligible year towards your major track,” he said. “If a player takes a variety of classes but is not hitting that percentage required by the NCAA, he would be deemed ineligible. I think the school counselors and athletic counselors should work together so everyone is on the same page regarding the rules, and not just grades.”

Edgecomb graduated in 2008 with a degree in criminal justice and made a point to disparage the general studies major and expressed disappointment with those associated with it.

“I feel a general or interdisciplinary studies major is just something to get you by, to graduate. It’s broad and doesn’t really hold any weight in the real world,” he said. “I see it more now, and feel sorry for those who graduated with it, but it was more common with those who just don’t know what they want to do after school.”

Regardless of major, Edgecomb tried to strongly dispel the notion that athletes have everything academically laid out for them. To him, athletes are under guidelines much more stringent than that of the average student.

“General students don’t realize that athletes are held to a much higher standard than they think, meaning pressure from the school and also rules from the NCAA,” he said. “That’s why there are two different sets of academic counselors. You have to be able to handle your course load, along with the added responsibilities of being an athlete.”

Every player interviewed claimed that the school did nothing for players as far as post-graduation job placement. Edgecomb, who now works as as a police officer and realtor in the South Florida area, sees the low graduation rate and the lack of job placement assistance as symptoms of a school with a young football program.

In the next few years, he figures that both issues will correct themselves — and he plans on being there to help future players firsthand.

“With all the ideas floating around the school, some of the important stuff gets lost like helping graduates transition to careers,” he said. “I’m establishing myself now to become a booster who gives back and make sure the next generation gets things like that and also to make sure graduation rates are high.”

Dechausay realizes the importance of preparing athletes for life after graduation and also understands why he should make it a priority moving forward.

“Part of what we try to do here is expose them to different opportunities,” he said. “We had a career event where we brought in 26 employers who just wanted to hire student athletes.”

The event, which took place in November 2013, had representatives from both the FAU Police Department and from Palm Beach schools, among many other companies.

“At the end of the day you actually never know how you’re going to use your degree,” Dechausay said. “Most people, whatever they got their degree in is not what they’re doing for a full-time profession. What we’re trying to do is make sure they get the skill set to be well rounded into whatever their passion may be.”

After graduating in 2013, former wide receiver Deandre Richardson began working for Enterprise, a car rental company. He came back and spoke to the team at the career event that Dechausay mentioned.

Dechausay also claims that the Athletics Department is working with the Career Development Center to create an internship program, and to find methods of tracking where and with whom players gain full-time employment. He understands that the more efficient the school is at helping players into the workforce, the better the school looks to athletes looking to play any sport here, whether it is football or not.

“We are in recruiting business, a competitive business,” he said. “For us to be able to say that 80 percent of students got full-time jobs upon graduation, that is an attractive stat for us.”

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