No matter who wins tonight's NCAA semifinal basketball game or Monday night's championship, the Kansas University Jayhawks are winners in every respect.
They are winners on and off the court, as basketball players and as student athletes.
Going into tonight's game, Kansas (33-3) has won more games this season than any other team in the NCAA Final Four.
Perhaps just as important and in the long run, far more important the KU basketball team's graduation rate is the highest among the Final Four teams. According to NCAA records, the graduation rate for students entering the KU men's basketball program from 1991 to 1994 was 64 percent. Comparable percentages for the other Final Four universities were: Indiana, 43 percent; Maryland, 19 percent; and Oklahoma, 0 percent. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Missouri's graduation rate was 13 percent.)
The late KU basketball coaching great Phog Allen was asked how he would rank a particular team. His answer, time and again, was: "Ask me in 10 years and I'll tell you." Allen's point was that he wasn't going to judge the excellence of a team until he could see how the players did in their private lives after leaving KU.
What does it say about a team or basketball program when it has a graduation rate of zero or even slightly higher? No matter how such a team or program might try to justify such a statistic, it is a disgrace and an embarrassment.
Likewise, what does it say about a school when it offers special courses to make it easier for a player to complete academic requirements? Commenting on the current lofty graduation rate of KU teams, Chancellor Robert Hemenway said, "Everybody knows that if you go to KU, you're not going to be put in a jock degree track. You'll have to go to class and study to be a basketball player at KU."
There are other basketball programs at other major universities with high graduation rates, and KU officials make it clear they intend to keep focusing on even higher graduation rates for KU's student athletes.
Parents of talented high school athletes who also excel in the classroom give special attention to the recruiting efforts of those coaches representing schools with top academic reputations and expectations. KU basketball coach Roy Williams has commented in past years about failing to sign a gifted high school player because the player's parents favored a school known for its academic reputation.
This is terribly important for many mothers and fathers, and KU's graduation rate is bound to be noticed by parents throughout the country. They not only want their sons to play for a decent, honest coach with a winning program; they also want their sons to receive a good education and a degree.
Much credit for this academic excellence goes to former KU Chancellor Gene Budig, who made a determined effort to improve the graduation rate of KU athletes. He and former KU Athletics Director Bob Frederick made a commitment to overhaul the academic counseling program and their efforts are reflected in KU's current excellent graduation record. This was not achieved by accident.
Unfortunately, it appears there is not a level playing field in big-time college athletics.
Recent news stories report hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to former University of Michigan players a few years ago. These players captured league titles and challenged for the national title, but it now comes to light that players were engaged in a huge rules violation.
In other cases, there are questionable admissions policies for gifted athletes with different schools operating on different academic tracks, including offering special courses to keep their top athletes academically eligible.
The use of junior college students is another method whereby a coach is able to finesse the admission of a player who perhaps was unable to meet minimal academic requirements for entering freshmen. For example, the Oklahoma basketball team in Atlanta this weekend has six junior college transfers.
KU alumni and friends have every right to be proud of the school's basketball team and basketball program under the direction of coach Williams. As noted above, they are winners on and off the court.
A senior employee of the Madison, Wis., hotel where the KU team stayed last weekend told this writer the KU team was the most well-mannered, and well-behaved team to stay at the hotel for many years.
This is due to several factors: the type of young men Williams recruits; the standard of behavior he sets for his players in the classroom, on the basketball court and off campus; the constant, genuine interest he has in the players; and the emphasis on academic achievement.
KU alumni and friends want winning athletic programs, but not at the expense of honesty, academic integrity and personal behavior.
This year's team reflects credit on the university and offers excellent evidence that a school that demands academic performance as well as athletic ability, with superior coaching, can compete for the national title.