When he took over as men’s basketball coach at the University of Central Arkansas, it was obvious that in order to raise the bar, Russ Pennell was going to pretty much have to raze the team.
It was no secret that the Bears, 8-21 last season and 34-83 since 2010, were short on NCAA Division I talent and motivation, both on the court and in the classroom.
For several months, it has been no secret that the UCA basketball program, the least effective of all the university’s sports programs (both on the court and in the classroom) was headed for sanctions because of its four-year Academic Progress Rate. That’s a benchmark formula based graduation rates, retention and progress toward a degree.
Dr. Brad Teague, UCA’s athletic director, has confirmed that a postseason ban next season for the UCA men is imminent, barring a successful appeal for a waiver, because it has dropped below minimum NCAA standards for APR for a multi-year period.
Those NCAA minimum standards have been raised this year and the UCA men’s program has never reached those standards, either for single year or multi-year, since it has been a Division I member. That includes a multi-year low of 840 (compared to the new minimum multi-year score of 930) when it began the NCAA DI transtion in 2008.
College officials everywhere like to regularly throw out the term "student-athlete," which is a feel-good and meaningless term that often is like putting lipstick on a pig. To be eligible for athletics in the first place, an athlete must qualify as a student. It’s a requirement, not a reward. Just saying student-athlete doesn’t make it so.
To refer to many past UCA basketball teams as student-athletes is a major overstatement.
When he took over as men’s basketball coach in March, Russ Pennell was well aware of the academic issues and possible consequences and let it be known from the outset that he was going to recruit good basketball players who were also committed to academics and getting a degree.
That’s clear from how he is restructuring his program and from his first recruiting class.
He’s pretty much cleaning house to build a more solid foundation, athletically and academically.
He’s retaining only one player from the previous team — Ethan Lee (the only one who met his academic standards).
Pennell is starting from scratch and has time to tweak and build a team and find players who fit his template. He already has signed 10. He’s putting teeth to his initial commitment. The 10 he has signed both have basketball skill and are reportedly interested in doing reading, writing and arithmetic.
Such addition by subtraction is not uncommon in UCA basketball. Matt Daniel, when he took over a floundering Sugar Bear program, pretty much gutted the existing team and brought in his players. That group, led by Megan Herbert, produced one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in NCAA women’s basketball history and went on to establish themselves as a Southland Conference power. The major difference is Daniel’s restructuring related more to on-court rather than classroom performance.
Starting completely over has its initial hurdles but is often the best way to reach long-term goals.
I suspect we’ll see a completely different UCA men’s basketball team beginning next year, both in basketball savvy and academic motivation.
Here’s what is clear right now and young Arkansas basketball players need to take note.
In the future, Pennell is going to anchor his recruiting in-state. But if he cannot find Arkansas players who are interested in getting a degree, he has the connections and the ability to find good athletes and good students elsewhere — those who want to be at UCA and play for him.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)