Emphasis evolves for athletes at UF


Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 1:01 a.m.
When Red Mitchum of Ocala was playing offensive tackle for the University of Florida half a century ago, the line between student and athlete was less distinct than it is today.
"We were treated like regular students," said Mitchum, who graduated from UF with a business degree in 1952 and long has been considered the school's unofficial sports historian. "They gave us no favors when it came to academics.
"You had to maintain a 2.0 (grade-point average) to stay eligible, and if you didn't have it, you didn't play," he said.
That wasn't always the case at most other Southeastern Conference schools, Mitchum said.
"That's why it was so difficult for the University of Florida to compete in the SEC," he said. "In those days, Florida, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt were about the only schools that really emphasized academics."
Admission standards in the late 1940s, when Mitchum started at UF, also were pretty straightforward.
"If you graduated from high school and had decent grades, you were admitted," he said.
Once they got in, he said, most players weren't expecting to play sports beyond their four years at college.
"The goal of the athlete wasn't the (National Football League)," Mitchum said. "In the 1950s and 1960s, about $5,000 was what an offensive lineman in the NFL made in a year. Playing pro wasn't a very smart thing to do. If you went to the pros after college, when you came out you were five years behind what others with a degree were making. People went to college to get a degree."
He said pro football started becoming a magnet for college football players when the big money of television came into the picture in the late '60s and early '70s.
Norm Carlson, who this year marks four decades in UF's sports information office, said when he came to Gainesville in 1963 there was a strong emphasis on academics.
"Coach Ray Graves was the reason for that," said Carlson, assistant athletic director for media relations. "He came from Georgia Tech where academics was really stressed, and that was his philosophy during his whole career as head coach and athletic director at the University of Florida."
Graves was UF head football coach from 1960 to '69, and athletic director until he retired in 1981. He said recently the most important thing to him during his UF career was to have his athletes graduate.
"This is what it's all about," he said. "I told (then-UF President J. Wayne Reitz) that I wanted to put a line item in the budget that after players' eligibility expired, I wanted them to be able to be student assistants so they could stay in school and graduate."
He said Reitz told him, "I expect you to graduate your athletes and to win some football games."
Graves said Reitz once conducted a study during his tenure as football coach that found 95 percent of Graves' football players graduated, and 54 percent went on to graduate programs.
"I was very proud of that record and I still think that's the most important thing," Graves said. "I think you've got to keep the perspective that every student you give an athletic scholarship to you should expect them to comply by making passing grades and graduating."
By the time Carlson arrived at UF, he said, there were tutoring programs in place and high academic expectations of student-athletes. But he said the assistance programs weren't as formalized as they are today.
"Dr. Edmund S. Holden became the academic adviser to the sports programs in 1958, and he was the man in charge of the counseling process," he said. "He helped athletes with their course of study and helped them balance their schedules."
In the 1980s, UF's athletics program seemed to have evolved to an emphasis on "athlete" more than "student" in student-athlete, said Dr. Nick Cassisi, UF's faculty representative to the NCAA and SEC, and member of the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee. That began to change, he said, when John Lombardi took over as UF president in 1990.
"We were having some trouble with the NCAA in the late '80s, and Dr. Lombardi appointed a blue-ribbon committee to look at the program and make recommendations," said Cassisi, senior associate dean for clinical affairs and chief of staff at Shands at UF.
He referred to NCAA sanctions against UF for non-academic infractions under former football coaches Charley Pell and Galen Hall and basketball head coach Norm Sloan.
Bill Jones, retired now from UF's chemistry department, chaired the Athletic Task Force, the committee Lombardi appointed early in his presidency.
"The university was lacking institutional control of athletics," Jones said. "We tried to get control of fiscal and academic matters in athletics back to the university so the president became the final say on everything."
One of his committee's recommendations that was implemented was to separate the academic side of athletics from the business side within the University Athletic Association. That led to Lombardi creating the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee in 1991.
"We just wanted to have a group separated from the board of directors of the UAA that could oversee the academic aspects," Jones said, "and not in any way be influenced by fiscal matters."
Cassisi said that when he became associated with UAA in the late '80s, its board handled everything - financial, administrative and all academic issues.
"It seemed to me the majority of time was spent on the financial aspects of running the athletic association," he said. "There were always faculty on the board, but I don't think academic oversight was part of our job as it is today."
Under Lombardi, former Athletic Director Bill Arnsbarger and current Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, Cassisi and Jones said, new emphasis was placed on academics through the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee.
To help sharpen that focus, he said, the Office of Student Life was beefed up to enhance its tutoring, mentoring and advising functions.
Associate Athletic Director for Academic Affairs Keith Carodine said the athletic association has more than doubled the amount it spends on academic support to student-athletes in the past decade.
"It was about $800,000 per year when they brought me here," Carodine said. This year's budget is $1.92 million.
Cassisi said he helped initiate programs to honor teams for academic achievement and to reward head coaches when their teams "perform academically as well as on the field."
"Dr. Lombardi got very involved in the academic part, so it came from the very top," Cassisi said. "Because it came from the top and was supported by the athletic director, it happened.
"I got the feeling that by the late '80s, the focus was on 'athlete-student,' " he said. "Today the emphasis is reversed. It's more on 'student-athlete.' "
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb
@gvillesun.com

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