BERKELEY -- Confronted with mounting evidence that its football players were failing academically, Cal has raised the academic bar significantly, a new analysis of data requested by this newspaper shows.
Eighty percent of this year's new recruits met UC's statewide admission requirements compared with 39 percent in 2011, suggesting a major shift as pressure grew for the prestigious university to require that its football players' brains match their brawn.
"We realized we had a potential problem ... and so we upped the floor," said Richard Rhodes, a linguistics professor who heads the Berkeley Academic Senate's admissions and enrollment committee.
The recruiting overhaul came even though athletic director Sandy Barbour has denied that low admission standards for football players had dragged Cal's official NCAA graduation rate to 44 percent -- the worst in the country.
"Admissions is not the issue," Barbour said in an interview last month.
But the campus' own numbers show that student athletes who fell short of the UC system's minimum admissions standards were more than three times as likely to be on academic probation last spring as athletes who had met those standards. The small group of athletes considered most at risk were seven times as likely to end up in academic trouble.
The admissions changes and other fixes came too late to avoid a scandal years in the making. But beneath the bad press and soul-searching, an encouraging sign has come to light: Cal's football team is getting brainier.
This fall, just 7 percent of the new football players were in an admissions category considered most academically at-risk, which could include applicants with C-minus grades in high school. Between 2009 and 2011, by contrast, between 23 and 39 percent of the new players were seriously underprepared, and more than half fell short of UC's basic statewide admissions standards.
The average freshman admitted to UC Berkeley -- one of the most academically competitive schools in the country -- had an A-plus average in high school and scored higher than 2000 on the SAT.
The UC system has a much lower eligibility standard -- a B average in 15 required high school courses. But Cal was routinely admitting players who fell far below those standards.
Behind the dramatic shift in the players' college readiness were policy changes approved by faculty in 2011. One provision forced the athletics department to ask the admissions committee's approval before recruiting a talented high school student with bad grades.
The committee imposed the recruitment rule after having felt "blackmailed by an unnamed coach" a few years ago to admit one heavily recruited prospect over its objections, Rhodes said.
This year, the committee raised the floor again, barring admission to student-athletes who scored below a 400 on any section of the SAT.
Before those changes, too many "academically vulnerable" recruits were joining the football team, year after year, without enough academic support and encouragement, said the director of Cal's Athletic Study Center, professor Derek Van Rheenen.
The problem was highlighted in a recent report on the management of intercollegiate athletics at Cal, co-authored by a former chancellor's chief of staff who once worked closely with the department.
"You can imagine if you come in as a freshman and you are significantly underprepared compared to the regular student body, and you have a full-time job with football, it's exceedingly difficult," said John Cummins, a retired UC Berkeley administrator who recently co-wrote a report on the management of intercollegiate athletics.
Barbour has said that the team's culture -- now shifting -- was the culprit, not its players' academic background. Coaches' expectations, course advisers, team leadership, campus involvement and tutoring matter a great deal, as do student-athletes' motivations, character and professional aspirations, she and others have said.
Still, it's hard to strike admissions from the equation, especially since the choice of players can signal a program's priorities and helps form the team's culture.
"If you seek a culture that balances academics and athletics, then you need to make certain that the members of the team embody that balance," Van Rheenen said.
He and Rhodes are quick to note that countless student-athletes with lackluster high school transcripts have succeeded at Berkeley. But often they needed extra help, which has not always been readily available. Until recently, the Athletic Study Center had just two staff members to help the whole football team; it now has six positions devoted to it.
As players manage their hectic lives, they need a clear message about the value of their degree -- their "B plan," said Russell White, a running back who had a short stint in the NFL after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1993. He is in the University of California Hall of Fame.
His high school grades were so low that he spent his Cal freshman year on the sidelines, focusing on his studies -- but he was so determined to earn a degree that he graduated in four years.
"My mother was a wise woman, and she often said, 'Don't let them use you. You get something out of it,'" said White, now the commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League.
Current players say the team's academic focus has sharpened under new football coach Sonny Dykes. He replaced Jeff Tedford, who was fired last December. The ex-coach later said he believed his firing was, in part, because of his team's academic record.
"In the spring, when all these new coaches came in, they were finding ways to fit themselves into our lives," said Mark Brazinski, a senior center already working on his master's degree. "I feel like they're more proactive and on top of what we're doing outside the stadium than before."
The changes are paying off. Cal estimates its latest graduation rate -- for players who started in 2007 -- is 65 percent, and that 85 percent of its players are on track to graduate. Still, it could be years before its official NCAA graduation rate, a four-year average, reflects those improvements.
Until then, Cummins said, the team's last-place standing in the national rankings will remind alumni, coaches and everyone else in the department what can happen when academics take a back seat.
"We were dead last," he said. "It just doesn't equate with Cal."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.