Yesterday in response to the comments in the Insanity piece, I wrote the following:
The Curry hire really only makes sense when you view it from the perspective of a focus on academics and institutional change. His on-field football record was terrible, but the powers that be at the time could not have cared less about that. Our players were academically terrible at the time...
Academically terrible is probably a bit of an understatement, if anything. You go back to that era with more of a modern frame of mind, and the whole academic environment in college football is hard to believe.
Back in the late 1970's and into the early 1980's, there was really no such thing as academic eligibility requirements from the NCAA. At the time all that was required for a prep prospect to become eligible was to have a 2.0 GPA, but the NCAA placed no control over what courses were included in that calculation. In effect, kids who were straight D students in high school had little trouble qualifying because all of those A's they accumulated taking their PE class every semester was factored into their GPA. There were no core class requirements, nor were there minimum standards for the ACT or the SAT. All you needed was a 2.0 high school GPA, and if you did that in a failing system filled with rampant grade inflation and did so by taking PE, Driver's Ed, and Home Ec, that was fine, you were qualified academically.
Once enrolled in your college of choice, the ride was probably even easier. The NCAA allowed student-athletes to remain eligible so long as they maintained a career GPA of over 2.0, and there were no specific course requirements or anything of the sort. Invariably, the stereotypical jocks racked up on a countless menu of laughable courses like, "The Psychology of Football," "History of Sports," and "Coaching Football." You almost had to try to become academically ineligible.
In 1983, however, the NCAA decided to crack down on academics and did so by installing some minimum standards. By passing Proposition 48, the NCAA required prep athletes to have a 2.0 GPA in a series of core courses and at least score a 15 on the ACT or a 700 on the SAT. And believe it or not, the move was actually very controversial at the time and it had a significant racial element. Prop 48 was drafted by an all-white committee of university presidents, and black educators vehemently objected to the move, claiming that the new academic standards would discriminate against minorities due to a disparate impact.
Of course, though, while those standards were something, even so they set the bar about as low as possible. To begin with, even though Prop 48 was passed in January of 1983, it did not actually go into effect until 1988, a good five years down the road. Furthermore, a 2.0 core GPA requirement was far from demanding, especially considering that many public school systems were rife with grade inflation. And finally, a 15 on the ACT and a 700 on the SAT put the test-taker in roughly the tenth percentile. "Crack down" or not, the point remained that the academic standards that were put in place were about as lax as humanly possible and even so they practically ensured that even most bad students would still be academically eligible to compete at the next level.
Not surprisingly given that background, effectively every major program had academic scandals of some variety, and nearly every school in the country sported poor academic performance within the athletic department. Auburn, of course, had James Brooks, the star tailback who graduated from the university before later admitting to being illiterate and graduating "by never having to go to class." UCLA had a similar story in Billy Don Jackson. USC was put on probation after an investigation into academic credentials (shocking, right?). Michigan was sued by a former basketball player for 15 million in another academic scandal. The horror stories could keep going forever. On the whole, in the early 1980's the twenty major Division-1 conferences reported an average graduation rate of below 50%, and within big-time college football and basketball programs, there was little doubt that the average was much, much lower.
Alabama, unfortunately, was no exception. In the three-year stretch from 1982-1984, the Alabama football program had a graduation rate of 31%, a number that UA Faculty Senate president Wythe Holt publicly called "appalling." The hope was that bringing in a man like Curry could foster institutional change and improve the academic standing of the athletic department, but despite renewed efforts on the part of Curry nothing of the sort ever materialized. In January of 1989, a full two years after Curry's arrival, it was revealed that almost two-thirds of Alabama football players on scholarship were on academic probation. Making matters worse, it became apparent that an academic advisor was misrepresenting to Curry the academic progress and classroom attendance of football players.
Another year passed, and by early 1990 the situation was just as bad, perhaps even worse. The UA Faculty Senate became upset that they were given no voice in the search for Curry's replacement and that academic considerations apparently were a complete non-factor in the hiring of Gene Stallings. Interim UA president Roger Sayers appeared before the Faculty Senate and reluctantly admitted that academic performance had not improved in the athletic department in the previous five years. When pressed on what the football team's GPA was, Sayers refused to say, but anonymous sources within the athletic department told a variety of media outlets that the team GPA was approximately 1.7 (on a 4.0 scale) but had dropped to 1.6 the previous semester.