Posted: 5:00 am Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
By Ken Sugiura
Hopefully you read the myajc story based on a lengthy interview with Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson in which he addressed a number of topics, including admissions exceptions, last season’s experiment with the diamond formation and the offensive line. I think it’s worth the 99-cent day pass for myajc.
I will, though, spend a few words on the most interesting item he discussed, about the exception limitation being removed last year. Some background: Since Johnson’s hire after the 2007 season, 20 percent of his signing classes could be filled by “exceptions” – players who did not meet Tech’s admissions standards for athletes but still met the NCAA’s standards for grades, classes and test scores.
Johnson inherited a team with a mediocre academic record. In the four years prior to his arrival – the 2003-04 through 2006-07 academic years – the football team had an Academic Progress Rate score of 951, which was tied for sixth in the ACC. According to the most recent NCAA report on graduation rate at the time of his hire, the football team’s NCAA-measured graduation rate was 51 percent, which was a representation of players brought in under former coach George O’Leary and coached both by O’Leary and successor Chan Gailey.
“If you go back two or three coaches, they got JUCO guys, they took whoever they wanted,” Johnson said last Friday. “Well, it led to the graduation rate. Now, it was before APR, so they didn’t have to worry about it. (But) it led to problems, so it got locked down.”
It is hard to question the academic results that Johnson has spurred since his hire. Of the 15 players who were part of Johnson’s first signing class in 2008 and stayed four or more years, 14 earned their degrees. Of the 16 players in the 2009 class who stayed four or more years, 15 have graduated and the 16th, Izaan Cross, is back at school completing his degree work. Last summer, Tech was commended for having a multi-year APR score (983) in the top 10 percent of all FBS teams. The team had a near-perfect score for the 2011-12 academic year.
In a meeting last spring, Johnson asked school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson for help. Peterson, Johnson said, gave him considerable leeway and removed the 20 percent cap. So long as a prospect meets NCAA qualifications and has Johnson’s imprimatur, he can be admitted, Johnson said.
“For right now, if we can recruit a guy that we deem can make it, then we can bring him in,” Johnson said. “Now, I would imagine if we have several guys flunk out, that’ll stop, because that’s how it got stopped before.”
It is an achievement for Johnson, his coaches, associate athletic director Phyllis LaBaw, Chris Breen, who leads the football academic advising staff, and, most certainly, the Tech players. Johnson also gave credit to Peterson for granting him the leeway.
Having earned the privilege, though, Johnson does not plan to start filling his classes solely with players below Tech’s standards or offering scholarships to any suitable player so long as he has NCAA-qualifying scores and grades.
“Guys who don’t want to go to class and do those things aren’t going to make it (at Tech),” he said. “So you’re wasting your time and their time if you bring them in here, because there’s nowhere to hide.”
Johnson and his staff, though, have developed a sense of which players can handle the academic load at Tech, both those who meet the school’s admissions standards and those who don’t. He said he can talk to a prospect with a 3.5 GPA and get the feeling he will struggle, while he might meet with a prospect at another school with worse grades and “you say, ‘You know, I think this kid can make it.’ ”
The change doesn’t necessarily deepen the pool of available prospects, as Tech was selectively recruiting exceptions previously.
“You can’t bring in guys here who aren’t going to make it,” Johnson said.
Other factors, such as the limited offerings of majors and the school’s academic rigor, still exist. Prospects who weren’t interested in playing at Tech prior to the removal of the exceptions cap won’t be any more interested now. But it does eliminate the juggling act Johnson and his staff had to do as they targeted their recruiting efforts.
“Because if you were going to take five (exceptions), well, as soon as you hit the five, (you couldn’t offer scholarships to any more),” he said. “And now we don’t have to do that.”
Any prospect who is interested in Tech and whom Johnson believes can handle the classwork is available.
As Johnson put it, “You can recruit more guys.”
Last year brought considerable change for Tech’s recruiting. On top of Peterson’s blessing, athletic director Mike Bobinski authorized the hire of additional recruiting staff. Coaches also implemented a strategy to direct more attention to private schools in the Southeast and beyond, believing that prospects at such schools would be less swayed by the influence of the SEC and more interested in and prepared for Tech’s academic offerings.
Tech’s 21-member 2014 signing class was the first to be assembled following the multiple changes. I asked if the removal of the restrictions was a game-changer.
“I think it will help,” he said. “We’ll see.”