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SDSU: No. 1 in your heart, No. 64 in the classroom

If you're like me, you filled out an NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket last week. March Madness is about dreams and escape. For competition, drama and pageantry, no sports tournament in America beats the Big Dance. I'll be watching.

The part that won't be televised, or accompanied by live bands, is a lot less fun to think about — the Academic Progress Rate (APR) of the student-athletes representing their schools. APR measures the academic success or failure of these players and their schools.

The APR metric puts San Diego State (No. 8 seed in the South region) and some other schools in this year's tournament into sharp contrast.

APR is a points-based, four-year average of academic performance that rewards players for remaining eligible and continuing their education at the same school. It provides a real-time snapshot of each team's academic performance. A minimum APR of .930 is needed to qualify for the NCAA tournament — equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate.

How do SDSU and USD stack up?

This year, Steve Fisher's Aztecs went 26-8, split a regular-season league championship and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.

The University of San Diego Toreros didn't fare so well. They finished with a losing record and earned no tournament bid. USD fired its head coach, Bill Grier, last week. You could say the two programs are poles apart on the court. They are in the classroom, too.

SDSU's APR comes in at a lowly.939. That's fifth-worst out of the entire field of 68 teams, or 64th out of 68. And there's this: a shocking disparity between the graduation rate of SDSU’s white players and African-Americans (100 percent vs. 50 percent).

Who does SDSU have for company in the cellar of the APR rankings? Coastal Carolina (.910). North Carolina, which is in the throes of a disgraceful academic cheating scandal (.938). Robert Morris (.938). And Arkansas (.937) — the same Arkansas that graduated zero percent of its African-American players while Nolan Richardson was head coach. Zero. Point. Zero.

USD fared better, with an APR of .966. "But they're a losing team," you say. OK. Let's go back to 2008, when USD won 22 games, played in the NCAA tournament and knocked off No. 4-seeded Connecticut. APR: .981.

Am I killing your March Madness buzz? I'm sorry. Here's some good news.

Coaches can't ignore APR anymore. This is because, in 2012, the NCAA began imposing penalties — such as bans on postseason play — for schools whose APR falls below .930. Last year, eight tournament teams fell below .930. This year, only one did. That sounds like progress.

And yet the NCAA shouldn't be the only place to look for solutions. Head coaches need to be part of the solution too.

Head coaches shouldn’t get a pass

When I was thinking about this piece, I thought I ought to talk to an actual head coach. But I couldn’t get hold of Steve Fisher, because SDSU’s media relations guy, Mike May, didn’t return my call. Bill Grier, formerly of USD, was unavailable too.

So I called Digger Phelps. With 21 years of coaching at Fordham and Notre Dame, almost 400 career wins, and no scandals, I figured Digger, who’s now retired, might know something about the role coaches play in making sure their athletes get an education. I also figured he might have some free time on his hands. He did.

I asked Digger what the key to a scandal-free, winning, academically successful program had been for him. He said it was the values on which his University president insisted as a condition of his employment: not breaking NCAA rules, graduating all his players, and competing at a high level – in that order.

I asked him what the role of the head coach was in making sure athletes made academic progress. "Reinforcing those values," he replied.

Few knew it at the time, but Phelps enlisted student managers to tail his players clandestinely on school days, and then report to him on whether they had gone to class. "If I found out you cut class, I sat you down," he said. Phelps' players had good class attendance. I asked him how many of his players graduated. "56 out of 56," he said. "And 26 of them played in the NBA or in Europe." I checked. He was right.

I asked Phelps about his peers. Who among them had similar standards? "Bob Knight," he said. Then a long pause. He couldn't think of any others. He might have added Pat Summitt, the recently retired women's coach at Tennessee. She won more than 1,000 games, with never a whiff of scandal. She also had a 100 percent graduation rate over a 40-year span.

Pat Summitt, Bob Knight and Digger Phelps. Among them, they won more than 2,300 games and led their teams to 74 NCAA tournaments. Nearly all of their players graduated and succeeded outside basketball after basketball. Of course, not everybody can be them. Still, the Roy Williamses (UNC) of the world could learn from their example. Maybe Steve Fisher could too.

Want to see the APR of your favorite team in the tournament? Visit www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/academic-progress-rate-search.

Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in downtown San Diego.

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