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Diamond Diary by Kevin Cooney

Dec. 8, 2004

Dustin Hoffman's graduation present was getting seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the 40 something mother of his character's girl friend. It's funny. Ann Bancroft looks a lot better to me now at my current age than she did back then.

My graduation from Montclair State College didn't present me with anything like Hoffman's reward; as a matter of fact, it went largely unnoticed in the Cooney family. I can't blame my parents. Seven years is a long wait for your son to graduate from anywhere but medical school.

One of the problems with the NCAA and their fixation on graduation rates is that all sports are not the same. College baseball presents problems that are not found in other sports, and at many schools, receives fewer of the benefits accorded football and basketball.

When you see a football player on television being praised for "graduating in four years", remember that the young man probably attended summer school each year while he worked out in the school's offseason strength and conditioning program. Remember too, that these are full scholarship athletes whose summer expenses are subsidized by their schools.

So, in reality, that athlete's "four years", likely consisted of at least 12 semesters of classes instead of the normal eight semesters.

The average college baseball player spends his summers playing in NCAA sanctioned summer baseball leagues. This is an integral part of a player's development. The only reasons that someone might not be in summer ball would be because of injury or academic deficiencies. This fact prevents college baseball players from gaining additional credits in the off season, practically ensuring that the student athlete will not graduate in a timely manner.

But here comes the big problem...Professional Baseball!!!

If a kid is a great player, he is likely to be drafted high enough to leave college after his junior year and sign a pro contract. It's hard to argue the point of staying in school when life changing money is offered to a 21-year old, along with the promise to fund the balance of the player's education.

Many players aren't signed until after their senior year. At least these players are closer to graduating than the big money guys. Once a player has been eligible over four years, he is usually between a semester, and a year from graduating.

At Florida Atlantic we have had 28 seniors sign professional contracts over the last six years.

The NCAA decrees that if these players do not graduate within six years of entering school, they are counted against our graduation rate. But what happens to baseball players makes this a tough task.

If a player has a great rookie season he is often invited to Instructional League. This is usually a six week period in late September-October, right in the middle of the fall semester. Guess what? No school that year.

The next year, the Florida State League season doesn't end until mid-September. Guess what? School started in August, and three weeks of missed classes is unacceptable to most professors. This player has now missed two off-season opportunities to return to school and meet the six year NCAA requirement to be a counter. That leaves him one fall to get it done. Not a very realistic measurement of an individual's ability or desire to graduate is it?

Yet, as we approach Friday's graduation ceremonies at Florida Atlantic University, three former FAU baseball players will walk across the stage, shake President Frank Brogan's hand and proudly wave to Mom and Pop.

Evan Brannon finished playing last June by helping FAU win a conference tournament championship after winning a regular-season title the preceding year. He is currently in the Orioles' farm system. Evan had a couple of cooperative profs who let him in late this fall.

Tim Burton transferred to Florida Atlantic after playing his freshman year at Miami in 1996. He was one of our main bullpen guys on the '99 team that won 54 games and tied Texas with 34-straight wins. He played five years in the minor leagues before retiring and helping as our manager last year and this fall. He might not count in the eyes of the NCAA, but he does to Ken and Margaret Burton.

The last guy also signed professionally and encountered the same difficulties in graduating outlined above. Or perhaps it was a genetic flaw.

Jim Cooney was a freshman pitcher on that '99 team, but his time really came in 2002. It was then that his coach kept putting him in in clutch situations at the end of the year. Jim responded by not surrendering a hit or a run over his last nine innings pitched in an FAU uniform. Those innings included a conference tournament, an NCAA Regional Championship, and a Super Regional.

It seems like a long time since I sat in Jim's house and attempted to acquaint his Mom with the quality of an FAU education. Having been her husband in a previous life, I thought I knew how she felt. It was a Florida school and she was from New Jersey. I figured Bernadette Cooney didn't think Florida Atlantic would measure up to northern schools. (Of course, the Princeton coach wasn't knocking down the door.) She assured me that since I was his father she trusted that I wouldn't send our son to a bad school.

So much of my life has been here at FAU. Friday will be a special day for a lot of us parents in the FAU gymnasium, but I had a unique perspective of the college life of one of the graduates. Those years gave me more than most parents have gotten from their children's college experience. Six years or four, I'm glad it was six.

I never attended my own graduation. What was the point?

Once I became a parent and a coach, I realized the mistake I had made in not allowing my parents the satisfaction and the pride that comes in seeing your grown child walk across that stage and be handed the fruits of so many years of hard work.

I have made it a point to pop into the gym over the years and see some of my special players on that special day. The pride and joy of the kids and their parents reflects the dreams of long ago as parents rocked crying babies to sleep. It's a great day.

So to all of you who are graduating, and to those of you with miles yet to go, remember that you are not making this journey alone. Keep plugging along. It's worth the wait. KC



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