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That Guy's Wearing Red, Too!

Exploring the State of Nebraska and its unique football tradition

A-Bowlin' We Will Go!

Nebraska has never played in a bowl game after winning only 5 games during the regular season, but according to my research the Huskers once went to a bowl game after winning 6 games. This took place in 1954, during which the Huskers’ regular season record was 6-5. On January 1, 1955 the Huskers lost to Duke in the Orange Bowl by a score of 34-7 in front of 68,750 spectators, having trailed only 14-7 early in the 3rd quarter.

Big Red fans in 2015 are all too well aware of the fact that the team is bringing a 5-7 record to the battle against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl on December 26th of this year. However there were a total of 40 bowl games to be filled for 2015, and since there were three too few teams with at least 6 wins on their resumé at the end of the regular season to fill the 80 available spaces, some creative thinking was called for on the part of the NCAA.

There were many football-related criteria that could have been used to select three teams to fill the empty spots in the lineup from among those who had only won 5 games, such as the lowest average losing margin or the most points scored, but to their credit the organizers chose to use a measurement unrelated to athletic activities. In a refreshing return to the raison d’être of universities everywhere, the Academic Progress Rating (APR) was used to determine which of the 5-7 teams around the country would be offered a bowl invitation.

The APR is a term-by-term measure of eligibility and retention for Division I student-athletes that was developed as an early indicator of eventual graduation rates. It was introduced as a result of concerns that the majority of student-athletes were not graduating with qualifications to prepare them for life beyond college.

While having letters after his name may not be a concern for the rare football player who goes on to a long-lived and successful career in the NFL, only a very small proportion of each year’s senior class (less than 3%) ever make it to the ranks of the professionals. And then according to the NFL Players Association, the average career length of the talented few who make the cut is about 3.3 years. Having a meaningful college degree under their belt is therefore important to all but the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world, and even then a debilitating injury early in their NFL careers would have quickly returned them to the ranks of the merely mortal.Athletes at Graduation - Peyton Manning | Sports Illustrated Kids

The most recent APR rates available for breaking the tie among the 5-7 teams were those from the 2013-14 academic year. Nebraska was top of the list with an APR of 985, followed by Missouri at 976, and Minnesota and San Jose State tied at 975. However for reasons of its own Athletes In Their High <b>School</b> Yearbook - <b>Tom</b> <b>Brady</b>, Class of &#39;95 ...Missouri declined the bowl invitation, leaving the tied pair of schools to round out the remaining vacancies.

While I’m sure all Big Red fans are pleased that we will get to see the Huskers in action once more before the season closes, I am personally pleased that the whole APR-based decision process has provided football fans across the country with a reminder of the prime reason that colleges even exist. Although football and other athletic programs were originally created to provide opportunities for students to gain exercise and a temporary diversion from the rigor of their studies, in many colleges across the country the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Having worked at a private university myself, I know full well how difficult it can be to obtain funding for a school’s academic facilities and staff. I’ve seen the same problems at state schools as they compete for precious government funds and so I can certainly understand the temptation to develop a successful football program that brings in significant revenue from fans, boosters and television rights. Another substantial benefit I have witnessed from successful football programs is that they lead to the establishment of a large and loyal alumni base that remains connected to the school, providing yet another source of fundraising.

Like so many things in life, a balanced approach is the key to avoiding the three-part Catch-22 that comes with a successful football program:

  1. “We can’t attract quality students because we don’t have enough money to build strong academic programs.”

  2. “We can’t use our football program to raise money for the academic programs until we have enough students to raise money to build the football program.”

  3. “If we create a successful football program, we won’t attract quality students because they will regard us as a football school and not an academic school.”

To put it in other words, if all of the money raised through the football program is used to improve and build the football program, the academic side suffers and eventually causes a shift in the school’s focus to football. This in turn reduces the perceived value of degrees earned at the school and encourages serious academic students to choose other locations for their studies. It seems to me that the two most balanced schools I have seen during my travels this season with the Huskers are Nebraska which leads the nation with 320 Academic All-Americans within the athletic department, and Rutgers with its strong academic reputation.

But speaking of balance (and stepping off my soapbox), the challenge for Husker fans will be to pace themselves through their Christmas celebrations and visits with distant relatives so that their calendars and minds are clear on December 26th to cheer their Huskers to a sound and redemptive 6th victory of the year. Go Big Red!

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