UMass Banking on Basketball

As Bay State squeezes University of Mass., school seeks salvation in basketball program

THE University of Massachusetts at Amherst has seen the future, and it is high-tops.

Despite Saturday's loss to seventh-ranked Kansas, the school's basketball team has emerged as a top-10 powerhouse, bringing a blitz of publicity to this snow-crusted campus 100 miles west of Boston. For a public school long overshadowed by the likes of Harvard, Tufts, and MIT, the spotlight casts a welcome glow.

Yet basketball means far more to UMass than statewide bragging rights. As lawmakers in Boston squeeze its budget, this school of 24,000 students is counting on big-time athletics to fill the gaps, and raise its profile.

Even as it does, however, the school faces other pressures - including how to keep the performance of its athletes in the classroom as good as on the gym floor. It offers a case study of what athletics can mean to an institution, with all the promise and perils that implies.

``I'm not trying to build a jock school,'' says Michael Hooker, president of the five-college University of Massachusetts system. ``I want to create a high-quality academic institution, and athletics is one way to do that.''

The theory, explained by UMass alumni association president Mike Morris, is that basketball is a way to get prospective students and alums onto the school's front porch. Once there, he says, ``maybe they'll look in the windows and see something they like.''

So far, it seems to be working. Out-of-state applications have risen by 2,000 in the last two years, and the school's information lines have been ringing madly, especially after big basketball wins. ``The increased name-recognition is crucial,'' says UMass admissions director Arlene Cash. ``It has had a definite effect on the number of people who request applications.''

The sound of swishing nets is also luring more alumni out to Amherst, says Ronald Story, vice provost for external affairs. ``Most of them would rather be proud of the academics alone,'' he says, ``but they still see [basketball] as a windfall for us.''

The basketball team's ascent has been meteoric. When coach John Calipari took over in 1988, UMass had posted the worst winning percentage of any Division 1 school during the 1980s.

Since then, Mr. Calipari has guided the team to three straight NCAA tournament berths and three consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference titles. Last season, UMass finished No. 8 in the Associated Press coaches poll, and forward Lou Roe was named All-American, an honor unmatched by any player in UMass history.

Yet success has brought scrutiny. Last month, the Boston Globe published the grade-point averages (GPA) of five UMass basketball players that had fallen below the 2.0 minimum mandated by the NCAA.

Although NCAA and UMass policies permit the players to continue competing, the report has raised questions about how well UMass educates its players.

``You can be No. 1 in the country, but when your GPA is 1.0 or something, what are you really in school for?'' asks Chris Martin, a junior at UMass majoring in legal studies. ``It's easy to dribble a ball around the court, but if you're not getting an education, you're basically a slave.''

In the program's defense, coach Calipari has argued that the teams' 75 percent graduation rate is as good or better than most top programs.

Admitting that some players had a lousy spring term academically last year, President Hooker notes that UMass has since bolstered its tutoring program. Coach Calipari, who told reporters that he might have been a little too easy on some players last year, suspended junior Guard Mike Williams from the team's opener against Arkansas because of poor grades.

Hooker criticizes the Boston Globe for ``accentuating the negative'' rather than noting that the graduation rate has improved since Calipari took over.

``A team that gets ranked No. 1 gets a tremendous amount of national attention,'' says Robert McCabe of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. ``You can't expect all that attention to be positive.''

According to Mr. McCabe, UMass has brought attention to itself by making a high-profile effort to improve athletics. The school has built a new 9,000-seat arena, he notes, and has bolstered the athletic department's budget.

The school's decisive trip to the top has ``put them under a microscope,'' McCabe says, a fact that revealed that the school may be ``a little behind the curve'' on academic support.

Despite the hubbub about grades, UMass remains committed to boosting athletics. Last week, Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, offered UMass the use of Foxboro Stadium for its football program.

Speculation has abounded recently that the school will institute a Division 1A football program. With rumblings of massive realignment in the NCAA, it might be now or never.

Yet the jury is still out on whether big-time sports will be a boon for UMass.

Advocates point to fundraising. Private gifts to the UMass athletic program jumped 60 percent this year to more than $631,000. Ticket sales and television contracts netted another $444,000, and licensing and merchandising efforts have netted more than $600,000 in the last 18 months, school officials say.

But don't look for more endowed professorships and classroom buildings popping up anytime soon. All but the merchandising revenue has gone to the athletic department to support other teams.

In fact, athletics might actually be diverting funds from the academic side. While donations to athletics climbed, gifts to the schools' general fund fell by 3 percent this year to $12.1 million, marking the first dip in more than six years.

But the deepest concern of many here is that if academic troubles worsen, the basketball experiment could do the school more harm than good.

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