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NCAA is finally going back to school

Somewhere, a coach is lying to a recruit. Somewhere, a recruit is lying back. Somewhere, a booster sounds an awful lot like a car salesman.

We are not naive. We know there is a part of college sports that sticks to your shoes. We know if we dare to look too deeply, we are going to see things we do not wish to see.

Still, there is hope.

Somewhere, a president is defending the BCS. Somewhere, a black football coach's phone isn't ringing. Somewhere, a steroids scandal is brewing, and it may be followed by a recruiting scandal and a gambling scandal and a what-else-is-on-Maurice-Clarett's-mind scandal.

We know this because the world is not a perfect place. We know this because the money and pressure are bigger all the time, and human nature is to paint outside the lines. We know this because no one has done away with the temptation to take a short cut.

Still, things are a little better today.

Today, there are signs the word "college" might again be as important as the word "sports."

It didn't make a lot of front pages, but the best, boldest story of the week was that the NCAA is rolling forward with an academic reform initiative. Finally, someone gets it. Finally, someone _ namely the NCAA _ will draw a line between academic success and athletic success.

"By and large, my concern has been "How do we get colleges to recognize their responsibility for the academic success of their players?' " said Walter Harrison, chairman of the academic reform committee and the president of the University of Hartford.

Doesn't this sound like a no-brainer? Doesn't it figure that if a kid isn't making progress in school, he has no business on its sports teams? Shouldn't there be a reward for a coach who graduates a few more players than his opponent?

Finally, there will be.

From now on, there is a direct link to success in the classroom and success on the football field. According to new guidelines, a program that fails to graduate a sufficient number of its athletes faces a loss of scholarships _ up to nine in college football _ the following year. After three years, a team can be banned from the postseason.

You think that won't make a coach pay a little more attention to his team's academic progress? The more he graduates, the more he can sign, the more he can win. Wait until he has to explain to boosters that, this year, the old alma mater will only get to sign 18 football players while everyone else is signing 25.

It is common sense, really. Colleges shouldn't be in the business of fielding semipro teams in which the athletes study the time-honored major of Staying Eligible. Universities are not minor leagues. How can anyone oppose high, fair academic standards?

A couple of years ago, former University of Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus talked of an idea _ passed to him from ex-Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps _ that was simple in its beauty. If a college graduated four kids, it could sign four new ones. If it only graduated one, it only signed one.

By comparison, the NCAA's new plan will be lenient. It will monitor players year-by-year to see how many stay eligible. Also, it asks that colleges graduate 50 percent of its athletes over five years. Otherwise, scholarships will be taken.

That isn't too much to ask. The NCAA will redefine how it measures graduation rates. In the future, a player who transfers to another institution _ as long as he is in good academic standing at the time _ won't hurt a college's graduation rates.

Harrison said he would like to see graduation scores tied to a coach. Nothing can stop a school from hiring a coach with bad graduation scores, but at least the new school will know what it is getting.

Doug Woolard, athletic director at USF, would like to see another change. Instead of simply applying penalties, he would like to see rewards for colleges who have exceptional graduation rates. Say, for instance, the women's basketball program at Florida State graduates all of its athletes for three straight years. Perhaps the coach should be rewarded with an additional scholarship.

Regardless, this is a significant first stride. As Phyllis LeBaw, associate athletic director for academic services at USF, said, "It's the most complete academic reform we've seen."

Oh, there are details to work out over time. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, for instance, would prefer a waiver for the athlete who is making academic progress but opts to come out for the NFL draft. Still, Foley has been assured those numbers will be small enough not to knock the rates off-kilter.

"If so, we will have an appeal process," Harrison said.

Nevertheless, the reform should be enough to grab some coaches by the lapels. Harrison says that under current rates, three of 10 colleges could lose football scholarships. One in four schools would face penalties in baseball, one in five in basketball.

Who knows? Maybe coaches will pay closer attention to transcripts. Maybe coaches will pay closer attention to progress toward graduation. Touchdowns count; shouldn't tassels?

Sometimes, it is easy to be a cynic. Too many coaches consider running stadium steps as tough punishment. Too many phony summer jobs. Too many coaches playing job hopscotch after promising kids they aren't going anywhere.

Despite it all, every now and then, the NCAA gets it right. For instance, the new recruiting guidelines make a lot of sense. If a player was picking a college because of how many lobster tails he could force down his neck, or because his name was in big lights on the gym scoreboard, he probably didn't have the proper perspective, anyway.

Somewhere, there are problems. College athletics are a big deal, and with them, there are going to be those who take shortcuts. This time, however, someone got it right.

Way to go, NCAA.

This time, you get an A.