By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
October 10, 2007
In an upset bigger than Appalachian State and Stanford combined, the most likely place to find the actual players on a serious national title contender is – get this – in class. (And eventually, caps and gowns.)
Boston College has a whole bunch of numbers going for it right now. There is the record (6-0), the national ranking (No. 4) and the possible position in the Heisman race for quarterback Matt Ryan (No. 1).
Then there is the number that makes the Eagles one of the most unlikely national title contenders in years: 93.
That's the graduation rate for BC football players according to the latest NCAA figures. The Eagles finished third in the country behind Navy (95) and Northwestern (94).
But neither of those teams have an actual shot at winding up in the BCS championship game the way BC does. Assuming a win over Notre Dame on Saturday, a victory at Virginia Tech next week would give the Eagles the inside track on the ACC title and an unbeaten season.
Welcome to the anti-big time college football program, where balance, perspective and, indeed, text books still have a place in a sport where at some schools, graduation is as much accident as accomplishment.
Graduation stats can be spun in a million different ways and every school knows how to rationalize its failures. But at some point the truth is just the truth – the Eagles are one of the few programs that can be proud on and off the field.
It's not like the 93 percent was some aberration. Last year it was 96 and for nearly two decades, through various formulas, it's almost always been above 90. Four times – 1992, 1994, 1995 and 2004 – the Eagles finished No. 1 in the nation. Best of all, there is no trend of hiding athletes in basket-weaving majors, no fifth-year seniors who are still "undecided."
"The statistics show that we take the term 'student-athlete' very seriously at Boston College," athletic director Gene DeFillipo said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the national title contenders seem to prefer the term athlete-student. BC has a 40-percentage point advantage on the three teams ahead of it in the AP poll – LSU (51 percent), Cal (52) and Ohio State (53). Those three aren't even the worst offenders, either.
No matter what many of these big football factories say, no matter how many excuses they make or how well they promote select success stories, the reality is few of them put any real care or concern into the long-term educational welfare of their players.
While individual circumstances vary and some of the blame, undoubtedly, has to fall on the players who don't take advantage of the opportunity, the notion of players as actual students remains mostly a charade.
There are three common ways in which schools operate without concern for the novel idea of actually educating players:
• They recruit kids who couldn't score a 22 on their alphabet.
• They put potentially capable student-athletes on academic courses that keep them minimally eligible but unlikely to graduate.
• They make mistakes in recruiting. Then when a student fails to live up to expectations athletically, the coach, rather than taking responsibility, runs the player off in any number of ways to free up a scholarship.
As all these years and all these diplomas prove, Boston College does little to none of this.
"It's been like that for years," BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. "One of the things we have is a really fine academic support system. (And) it's very competitive to get in. We get some good students."
Certainly neither the school nor the athletic department is perfect as the occasional scandal (more than once gambling related) and off-campus flare up prove. But when trouble hits there isn't a cover up, a stonewalling or an "everyone-else-does-it" defense.
They refocus and not just with lip service.
Back in the mid-1990s, successful basketball coach Jim O'Brien got into a battle with the admissions department over whether it should relax standards for a couple of recruits. The school sided with the admissions people and told O'Brien it was their way or the highway, no matter how popular he was.
O'Brien left immediately for Ohio State where he got the Buckeyes to the Final Four, then on major probation, then into a multimillion dollar wrongful firing lawsuit. BC just shrugged and hired a new coach, Al Skinner, who could win within their standards.
That's always been BC's way. The school is bigger than the team, the coach or a single supposedly star recruit. It understand those entities all come and go, but a reputation lasts forever.
Its fans mostly want it that way. There is no billionaire booster leading the program around by the nose, no alumni demands to win at all costs. It certainly doesn't hurt that it operates in a pro sports market where the success of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots relegate BC, even here on Notre Dame week, to the inside pages of the newspapers and an afterthought on talk radio.
Even if Ryan wins the Heisman, he's never going to be as big as Tom Brady or David Ortiz. This can get only so big; perspective can only get so out of whack.
Of course, after winning 9, 9 and 10 games the past three years, the Eagles would like to test that with an unprecedented run at the BCS title. "This group of seniors," Jagodzinski said, "has been one game away from where it wanted to be."
If they get there, who knows the fallout? Will Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany write an open letter complaining that the Eagles are too smart? Will the BCS formula be tweaked to punish teams capable of doing calculus? Will the Boone Pickens of the world suddenly scrap plans for some Taj Mahal football dorm to construct "one of them thar library thingies?"
The current average graduation rate of the last five BCS champions is 54 percent.
In a corner-cutting climate like that, can Boston College actually wind up the best team in the country?
For some of us, they already have.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Thursday, Oct 11, 2007 12:07 am, EDT