Diamond Diary by Kevin Cooney



Oct. 16, 2006

THE NUMBERS GAME...

I got into coaching because I loved baseball and hoped that this job would enable me to continue to enjoy the thrill of competition once I was unable to play any longer. Truth be told, that probably gives me too much credit for actually having a plan for my life. The record shows I worked as a sales rep for O'Shea Athletic Outfitters after being released by the Twins in 1974. It didn't take long for me to realize that the coaches, to whom I was selling, were living the life I wanted for myself.

Somewhere, deep inside, the aspect of being someone like Joe Garvey, who coached me at Essex Catholic, or my college coach, Clary Anderson, was a driving force leading me into the profession. I saw those men, and my other coaches, as a great influence on me and the teammates who shared the experience of being their athletes.

Coaching was a job that held the promise of being more than a way to make a living.

It's widely believed that coaches are in the position to have a positive influence on the young men who cross their paths. What many people may not realize is that the hundreds of players who have called me "coach" have had a profound effect on me and my life. It is definitely a two way street.

The biggest responsibility for coaches in the past revolved around winning games and championships, while developing young men during their college years. Understood by me when I started, and I assume, by my peers as well, was the importance of our players remaining eligible and being positioned to graduate when their playing careers were over.

One of the few intelligent changes made by the NCAA in the nineties was the establishment of satisfactory progress requirements. Student athletes were now expected to pass a certain percentage of their degree requirements each year. The days of taking 12 meaningless credits in order to play, and then being nowhere near graduation at the end of four years, were over. As a result, an athlete who stayed eligible and played four seasons, would have a semester, or two at most, left to graduate.

I always felt this was a good rule, because we could use the carrot of eligibility on kids who weren't very interested in academics. Then, when he was done playing, the athlete would be so close to graduating that he usually would make the effort. Often, this would be the first time the kid did his work for the right reasons. The value of finishing and getting a degree was not some vague concept, but a close reality.

Well aware of the importance of a college diploma, I, like other coaches would encourage our kids to plug away and get it done. But like leading horses to water, the desired result sometimes didn't happen. Some guys would get out and get involved in jobs or businesses that didn't require a degree, and filled an immediate need for income and a career. A lot of our players went on to take EMT and Paramedic classes, entered Fire School, and have good jobs as firemen. Others had access to a family business and got started without finishing school.

Did their coach fail them?

Is a college degree the only measure of success for the college student athlete?

The NCAA, in response to public criticism decided to implement a form of measurement and gradation, with appropriate punishments for athletic programs who were not up to the standards the NCAA felt would look good to the public.

Myles Brand is the head of the NCAA, and the driving force behind the "academic reform" measures under which we are trying to operate. Unfortunately, the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. Arbitrary mathematical formulae have been developed which set acceptable numbers to measure the ability of programs to "retain" and "graduate", their players.

Call me old fashioned, but isn't it the responsibility of the young men and women to do what is necessary to be retained, and to ultimately graduate?

And if it is the personal choice of an athlete to no longer compete, or compete elsewhere, or to take a break after four years, travel to Europe and experience life outside of a college campus, why should their coach and his program be penalized?

I can't break down the formula used to determine the APR, math was never my strong point, but our final number is supposed to equal 925. The system revolves around an athlete being capable of earning two points each semester. For example, Johhny Wholestaff passes twelve credits with the appropriate GPA in the fall, he earns one point because he is declared eligible for the next semester. If he returns to school in January, he earns his second point, and is 2-2. Good work Johnny! At the end of the spring semester Johnny again has the proper GPA and then returns in the fall, he becomes a perfect 4-4.

Each point lost is added and factored into the formula devised by some guy who constantly got beat up in gym class and now holds the hammer over the athletes. Enough lost points and the program falls below the 925 score and receives penalties in the form of lost scholarships. The beauty of this is that the "guilty "parties who contributed to the low score are likely to no longer be in school. A future team is punished for the failures of the past.

Let's look at some of the points lost in our program last year.

In December, a senior pitcher was told he would need surgery in order to pitch pain free. He was willing to endure the pain, but knew he wouldn't be effective and probably wouldn't pitch in any meaningful situations. He reluctantly decided to leave the team. His father owned a landscape business and offered to get the pitcher started in a lawn service business. This kid had a small scholarship while in school, and money was always tight. He was a good student with two semesters left, but was tired of living hand to mouth and wanted to make some money. So he put off school and started his business. I think he'll finish school eventually, but right now, he's started something he sees as a good future. He cost us a point by not coming back, and if he doesn't finish within five years we'll lose another.

Another pitcher has completed his fourth year, but only pitched two innings a few years ago because of two different surgeries. He counts for our APR because, despite not being able to compete, we honored his scholarship. However, his brother is at a school up north and they needed another infielder. Our guy had been a shortstop in high school and his arm felt good enough to be a non pitcher. He came in and told me he was transferring for the chance to be on his brother's team. As we shook hands, his eyes welled up and he thanked me for sticking by him with the scholarship. It was one of those warm and fuzzy moments that make the job special. Then I remembered his transfer will cost us one point in the APR- so much for warm and fuzzy.

Last fall a freshman pitcher came in with tears in his eyes and quit the team. This often happens, and the reasons vary. Sometimes a kid has been playing longer than he really cares to play. Many a kid keeps playing because it is expected of him by his friends and family. Some, like this kid, are strong enough to walk away from the game. He came here because of baseball, so after quitting, he realized he'd rather be close to home so he transferred. One of our APR points went with him.

After three years of college, a player needs 72 credits to be eligible. Last year, one of our juniors was injured and missed the entire season. Since he had only 71 credits, he planned to go to summer school and take one class to regain his eligibility and our APR point. I sounded like a good plan, but a Major League team decided to draft and sign him- see ya summer school. See ya APR.

Next on our list is a player who left the team without a word in the middle of the season. I can guess his reasons, but the fact his he quit and then got bad grades. He became a 2-4.

One of our players was dismissed from the team for violating our class attendance policy. This was a difficult time for all involved. Perhaps as a result, his grades suffered and he didn't return to school in the fall- another 2-4.

So let's look at this system, put in place to measure the effectiveness of coaches to influence their athletes to perform better as students. Which of these six cases, and their resultant APR score, can be attributed to a lack of direction or influence from their coach? Was I supposed to talk the sore armed pitcher into staying? Maybe I should have told him he'd still be one of our main relievers despite the injury?

A young man who makes the difficult decision to give up the sport he's played since t-ball, and is homesick, should be talked out of it to satisfy Myles Brand and his pals?

Why didn't I make the player who signed take a summer class while he played in the Rookie League? What was I thinking?

If we compromise the rules regarding attendance, perhaps players finish the season eligible and look good to Mr. Brand. By the way, exactly what sport did Myles Brand ever coach?

No sense beating a dead APR- you get the point.

What's even more ridiculous is that the APR and the GSR (graduation rate) only measure the progress and graduation of players who receive scholarships when they originally enter school. So the senior who gets rewarded with a partial scholarship and graduates Summa Cum Laude doesn't exist in the eyes and records of Myles Brand and his band of merry men. The many kids who play for the love of the game and no money are not recognized as being important enough to count. Should we ignore them and concentrate on those players with scholarships?

Back in the spring of 1971, I chose to change my major from History to Physical Education. I had valid reasons for doing so, and believe I made the right choice. It was my junior year. By today's rules I would have been ineligible to play baseball. I'm not sure what career path I'd have followed, but it's not likely to have been coaching. Because of this major change, there was no way possible to graduate in a timely manner.

I took seven, yes Myles, seven, calendar years to graduate college. By today's standards, my college coach would have been viewed in a bad light. He failed me. Maybe he would have lost his job.

Let's forget that he was the most brilliant mind I ever encountered and the single biggest influence on my life.

Since I didn't graduate in five years, I was an APR failure, according to Myles Brand and his mathematicians. And when my team's APR numbers don't match the NCAA's infallible number, I too, will be a failure, just like my coach Clary Anderson.

I've got news for Myles...

I'll be in good company.

KC

 

 

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