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UCLA Can Get A Big Name Coach: Part 2 - Admissions

Shot of Royce Hall
Shot of Royce Hall

The issue of admissions and academics in college football is at one end contentious - but also very difficult to find much hard evidence to determine. On the first part, I'll admit to having had at least 1 spirited holiday dinner-table debate on the subject with Cal-alumni relatives on the subject, and anyone that frequents BRO or some of the other message boards has undoubtedly come across the argument that admissions has hindered UCLA's ability to recruit - or have seen some Cal/Oregon/ASU etc fans come over to argue against the image of heightened relative admission standards for Bruin football. On the second point, there is not much public data regarding the admission standards for college athletes. The NCAA keeps track of such data, and until schools began to complain about the impact of those numbers on their image, used to make such information public.

Last week, I started out my look at some of the issues that may impact a coach's decision to look at what should soon be a vacant head coaching position in Westwood by discussing the root of the problem of UCLA Football's decade of mediocrity - the culture of Morgan Center, led by Dan Guerrero. Aside from the issues with the athletic administration, there are a few other factors that a prospective UCLA football coach will have in mind when considering the position. Today, I am going to run through one of these factors, the admission standards for incoming football players.

There is no perfect way to look at the issue of football admissions - and as schools have worked to keep the relevant information out of the public eye, it is not an easy examination to make. With that said, I have done my best to take a little look, laying out the existing admission standards as accurately as possible given the information available, looking at how those standards compare to those of top-flight football programs, and at how the standards have impacted a UCLA coach's ability to recruit talent to Westwood.

While not a surprise to anyone that has followed college athletics to any degree, it is very true that recruited athletes are cut a major break in the admissions process; at the elite schools - a grouping including UCLA, this gap becomes rather massive. As we are told, a necessity of fielding a competitive slate of teams.

"If you’re going to mount a competitive program in Division I-A, and our institution is committed to do that, some flexibility in admissions of athletes is going to take place," said Tom Lifka, chairman of the committee that handles athlete admissions at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Every institution I know in the country operates in the same way. It may or may not be a good thing, but that’s the way it is."

The pressure to run a race to the bottom in athletic admission standards is tough to avoid, as former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The decision how far to go in lowering admissions standards for athletes varies considerably from school to school. It can be a challenge to avoid a race to the bottom.

"We go out on the field and get beaten by people we couldn’t admit," said Charles Young, former president of the University of Florida and former chancellor of UCLA. "It creates strong pressures to go [to rival schools’ admissions standards], and there have to be very strong countervailing pressures to avoid going there."

With that said, the admission standards applied to incoming athletes, including our football recruits is among the toughest of major D-1 athletic departments and football programs. Several attempts to measure the difficulty of football admissions have been made by the media over the past few years. One series, by the Orlando Sentinel, resulted in a pair of measures - a straight 1-10 ranking of the relative difficulty of football admissions, and a comparison among schools in each conference, based upon discussions with relevant people to the process such as coaches, university officials and recruiting specialists. (Note, as the Sentinel's archive isn't playing nicely, links are to outside sites that reprinted data from the stories at the time of original publication).

As a result of its investigation, the Sentinel rated only 1 D-1A (now FBS) football program as a 10 in admissions difficulty - Rice. 4 more schools rated a 9, none of whom should come as much surprise (Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and West Point). 6 more universities rated an 8 in admit difficulty, including the 2 remaining military academies, Duke, Tulane, Southern Methodist... and UCLA. 11 Football programs rated between an 8-10 in difficulty, 6 of which are members of BCS conferences, and only 4 of whom really take football seriously (maybe 5, Wake Forest has a solid coach whom they pay a truckload of money. But Duke??). The Bruins don't have much competition at the top. Here are a few other schools with well-regarded academics and football programs and where they fell:

8-10: Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest

7: Georgia Tech, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas

6: Cal, North Carolina, Virginia

3 - just for fun: Southern Cal

Interesting stuff to think about. And the conference comparison - looking at what used to be the Pac-10.

Pacific 10 -- 10 schools

Buckle down: Stanford

Semi-tough: UCLA

Semi-easy: Arizona, California, Oregon, USC, Washington

All in: Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington State

The same source also listed the (then) Big XII findings; Mizzu was the only member of that conference to fall into the Semi-tough category. Baylor, Texas A&M and the University of Texas (all quality institutions, to my knowledge) all fell into the Semi-easy category. Those colleges, along with Cal and Washington's presence in that admissions category points to the ability of a strong-to-elite college to take some liberties in admitting student-athletes, as long as they provide the resources to help them perform at their best in the classroom as well as on the playing field.

While studies like those conducted by the Sentinel are helpful and enlightening, having hard date available makes that kind of study easier. While there are precious few reliable and consistent sources for this sort of admissions data, Jon Wilner did publish the football admissions data (GPA and SAT scores for all enrolled football players) covering several years through the late 1990's and early 2000's.

GPA/SAT scores for admitted football players

Stanford: 3.63, 1176
UCLA: 3.15, 990
Oregon: 2.94, 969
Cal: 2.93, 984
Wash: 2.86, 963
Ore St: 2.84, 928
USC: 2.80, 955
Wash St: 2.80, 920
Ariz: 2.76, 948
Ariz St: 2.76, 937

While a look at the numbers also places the Bruins as being subjected to tougher admission requirements than most of the competition, anecdotal evidence shared by reporters like Jon Wilner and Brian Dohn shows that over the past few years, it appears that UCLA admissions has decided to take a harder line in admitting football recruits than its peer institutions. The root of the practice seems to go back to Bob Toledo's time in Westwood.

... I’d guess that UCLA’s average SATs scores were higher during the 2003-05 window than the 1998-00 period based on a tightening of the admissions screws in the post-Toledo era.

However, according to several former assistant coaches at Pac-10 schools, UCLA's recruiting pool is markedly smaller than anyone else's in the league except Stanford's...

UCLA's more stringent admittance standards, in part, can be traced back to former coach Bob Toledo's 1998 recruiting class, which was ranked as the best in the nation by several outlets.

``That class was filled with risks and had trouble in school,'' said one UCLA insider who requested anonymity. A source said about one-third of the class had academic problems at UCLA, although some of those individuals graduated.

So, if Wilner and Dohn were on the right track, folks in the admissions department were able to leverage this aspect of Toledo's lax oversight of the football program to raising the admit requirements for football after Toledo's departure from the university. That would also mean that when looking at the above GPA/SAT chart, part of the time covered was during Toledo's relatively lax admissions period, meaning that the averages under Dorrell and Neuheisel are likely higher that those several-year averages.

While the admission standards that UCLA Football has been subject to in recent years is among the toughest among major programs, the program has managed to bring in elite recruits and highly-ranked classes to Westwood. From 2007-10, 3 recruiting classes rated among the top-10 nationally came to Westwood, with the 4th class (2007) rating in the top-10 in terms of average quality of recruits, but with the small size of the class keeping the overall ranking down. The first two classes were recruited at the end of Karl Dorrell's tenure as head coach, but with a big assist from guys such as Eric Scott and DeWayne Walker; whatever you might otherwise think of these two, they were coaches with the confidence and recruiting chops to run with the team across town. Rick Neuheisel took over the program just before the second of those classes signed their LOI's, and later brought in two big classes of his own, before the lack of progress under his tenure became all too clear. While a prospective coach (whether justified or not) will certainly demand some changes in football admissions when negotiating with UCLA, a loosening of standards is not a necessary change to allow elite players to come to UCLA. Helpful maybe, but not a necessity.

There are a couple of lessons to draw from this: The first is that while keeping up our university's overall academic standards and reputation is of utmost importance, the enhanced standards for admissions that we are subjecting the football program has little relevance to our overall prestige. While not letting everybody with a 4.3 40-yard time accept a scholarship, peer universites such as Cal, Michigan, UNC, Texas and UVa have found their way to letting guys in with lower academic numbers than UCLA does, and it has not hurt their brand. The second is that even with the current admission standards, football coaches with the ability and the confidence to recruit aggressively have been able to succeed in bringing classes of elite recruits to UCLA. The degree of difficulty and effort needed to navigate a smaller talent pool may be higher, but it most certainly can be done.