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SEC ranks behind other conferences

From day one, it was a year of fanfare for the Southeastern Conference. Alabama was crowned national champion in football on New Year's Day, and afterward the accolades rolled in steadily. The SEC won nine NCAA championships in the academic year and finished in the final four in eight other sports.

But away from the loud proclamations and Rose Garden ceremonies came word that the conference struggled in a less-publicized NCAA field:

Graduation rates.

According to the 1992-93 NCAA Division I Graduation-Rates Report, which studies the graduating classes from 1989 to 1991 for all sports, both men and women:

The 12 SEC institutions combined to graduate approximately 47 percent of their athletes. The NCAA average was 51 percent. The difference equated to about 100 athletes.

Stacked up against other major athletic conferences in the nation, the SEC's 47 percent figure pales further. The Big East graduated 68 percent, the Big Ten 64 percent and the Atlantic Coast 62 percent.

Only one of the SEC's schools (Vanderbilt) was among the nation's top 100 in graduation rates. The Big Ten had 10 schools in the top 100.

While the athletes in the report would have exhausted their eligibility by 1990, the juxtaposition of the academic reports and the SEC's most recent glories raises a question:

Is this the price for on-field success?

"You can say that if you want," SEC commissioner Roy Kramer said. "But if you go back and look at the sports we've had success in nationally, our graduation rates are very positive. Sports like swimming and track and field and baseball are among those where we've had our best graduation rates."

League officials offer no defense to the SEC rates. The figures, they agree, are unacceptable. What must be taken into consideration, they say, is the time frame.

While the NCAA report is only two months old, SEC officials contend the material is dated and does not reflect the league's recent emphasis on academics.

Because it allows six years for students to graduate and takes approximately a year to compile, the NCAA report focuses on athletes who entered institutions seven or more years earlier.

"I do believe that these rates more likely reflect what was happening in the past years than in the present," said Dr. Charles Wethington, president of the University of Kentucky and the SEC executive committee.

"I hope that there is attention focused on what we're doing today. The SEC as a conference has been in the forefront in a lot of good areas in recent years. We have shown, as presidents, that we are serious and concerned."

The SEC is banking on the effects of Proposition 48 to bring the conference into line with other NCAA members. Prop 48, introduced in 1986, required incoming athletes to attain a minimum grade-point average (2.0) in high school as well as a minimum score on standardized tests (700 on SAT, 15 on ACT) or lose a year of eligibility. The SEC, a leading proponent of Prop 48, then sponsored legislation in 1989, which the NCAA passed, that made non-qualifiers ineligible for scholarships.

While Kramer concedes the SEC's graduation rates prior to Prop 48 were not strong, he contends that the figures will increase dramatically in future NCAA reports. Other SEC officials concur.

"I'm not sure you're being fair to the SEC," said Larry Templeton, athletic director at Mississippi State and an SEC executive committee member.

"There may have been a problem there, but we recognized it and we took action to improve it. I don't think there's any correlation (between on-field success and graduation rates). I'm more interested in what's going to happen when all of our Proposition 48 measures have a chance to be in full effect."

As proof of improvement, the league can point out that its graduation rate for the incoming year 1985-86, the most recent year covered in the NCAA report, was 51 percent. The national average for that year was 52 percent.

"We've got some low spots, some individual situations with certain sports or institutions we need to look at," Kramer said. "We're taking care of it. We're making progress."