BERKELEY -- Cal's emphasis on repairing the academic reputation of its football program became painfully real to Chris McCain one day last spring. That is when he had to phone his parents with some bad news.

"They took me off scholarship," he told them.

McCain, a junior defensive end from North Carolina, is back on the team. He gained reinstatement by meeting coach Sonny Dykes' requirement of a B-plus average in summer school. McCain didn't just meet that goal, he beat it.

"I got an A-minus," he said.

Dykes was hired in December to resurrect Cal's football fortunes, which had spiraled the past few years under coach Jeff Tedford. Besides finishing with a 3-9 record on the field last season, Tedford's program had the league's worst marks in the classroom.

Cal defensive end Chris McCain, left, goes over school work with learning specialist Kasra Sotudeh at the Academic Resource Center in the Simpson Center
Cal defensive end Chris McCain, left, goes over school work with learning specialist Kasra Sotudeh at the Academic Resource Center in the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance. McCain performed well enough in summer school to have his scholarship reinstated after briefly losing it last spring. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )

Cal's score in the Academic Progress Rate, an NCAA statistic that predicts graduation rates, was 935 over a four-year span ending with the 2011-12 school year. Only four programs in the major conferences -- Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC -- had a worse score than Cal. A score under 930 can result in sanctions including a reduction in practice time and postseason eligibility.

For a school just named the top public university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for a 16th consecutive year, the APR news was hugely embarrassing to officials at Berkeley.

"For us not to perform academically, it's something quite frankly that's not acceptable to me, to this university or to those in this community," Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour said.


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The poor APR rating was only one measure of the football program's failing in the classroom. The team had a grade-point average of 2.44 in the spring of 2012 -- barely a C -- and quarterback Zach Maynard didn't start the season opener last fall because of academic shortcomings.

Along with the program's sagging fortunes on the field, it snowballed into the firing of Tedford, whose early teams excelled in those respects.

Junior defensive end Chris McCain had to phone his parents in North Carolina last spring to tell them he’d be taken off scholarship because he
Junior defensive end Chris McCain had to phone his parents in North Carolina last spring to tell them he'd be taken off scholarship because he wasn't performing adequately in the classroom. He earned his scholarship back by getting an A-minus during a summer school class. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )

Dykes, whose team is 1-2 and has a bye this week, understands his mandate. Succeeding in the classroom, he said, is "the most important thing" for a Cal student-athlete.

"They're here to get a degree," he said. "It's something I take seriously."

Dykes said players must be accountable, and his leverage, as McCain learned, is their scholarship.

"Miss a football practice or miss a tutoring assignment, it's no different," he said. "They understand there's 100,000 guys who want their scholarship."

McCain got the message.

"They mean what they say," said McCain, an All-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2012.

As last season unraveled for the Bears and McCain's grades slipped, he said he lost the sense that football and academics were given equal importance.

"It was on me," he said of his failings, "but with Tedford we didn't have any structure. I just felt like it was all about football."

Tedford disputed that claim.

"We spent a lot of time on academics and structure," he said Tuesday. "Most people adhere to structure, and some take more work than others to adhere to the structure."

For all of his emphasis on academics, Dykes said he wasn't the greatest example of a student-athlete, though he did earn a degree in history at Texas Tech.

"Sonny the coach probably would have hated Sonny the student," Dykes said. "I was lazy at times. I probably would have liked somebody to motivate me a little more."

That is now part of Dykes' job description, and a big reason why Barbour hired him away from Louisiana Tech.

"He had inherited a less-than-ideal academic situation and started to turn it around," Barbour said of Dykes' time at Louisiana Tech. "Sonny was remarkably consistent in every response about academics, and everybody I talked to said he's a perfect fit for Berkeley."

Already there is measurable change since Dykes' arrival in December. Cal's team GPA in the spring was 2.74 -- the highest in five years and above the program's historical average. The number for the first session of summer school improved to 2.85 -- the highest in 10 years.

Besides demanding accountability from the players, the athletic department has made structural changes to the academic support system.

Cal junior Chris McCain, an honorable mention all-Pac-12 selection last season, has worked hard to improve his academics. New Cal coach Sonny Dykes’
Cal junior Chris McCain, an honorable mention all-Pac-12 selection last season, has worked hard to improve his academics. New Cal coach Sonny Dykes' mandate is to repair the football program's recent shortcomings in the classroom. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) ( Laura A. Oda )

Tedford last year was allowed to bring in two learning specialists to provide support to athletes beyond what undergraduate tutors offer. Dykes has been given 31/2.

One of them, Christine Ho, describes her duties as "academic skills boot camp."

Ho, who focuses on time management and organization, especially with freshmen and athletes who are struggling in the classroom, said the learning specialists have become part of the team.

"Coach Dykes tells the players, 'If you have a problem with the learning specialist, you have a problem with me,' " she said. "It's almost like raising a kid together."

GRADES SLIDE

Here are Cal's annual Academic Progress Rating scores for football and where the Bears ranked within the Pac-10/Pac-12:
2011-12: 935, 12th in Pac-12
2010-11: 936, ninth in Pac-10
2009-10: 949, sixth in Pac-10
2008-09: 969, second in Pac-10
2007-08: 970, second in Pac-10
2006-07: 967, second in Pac-10
2005-06: 965, second in Pac-10
2004-05: 945, x-second in Pac-10

x -- No numbers were available for Arizona or Arizona State on NCAA database for 2004-05.

Note: All figures are based on a four-year average. Figures released in June and are through summer of 2012.

BEST, WORST AMONG
top NCAA CONFERENCES

Here are the best and the worst APR football scores based on the most recent statistics among the 62 schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC:

THE BOTTOM 5
1. Tennessee 924
2. Oklahoma State 926
3. Iowa State 928
4. North Carolina 934
5.

Cal 935


The Top 5
1. Northwestern 996
2. Duke 989
3 tie. Clemson 985
3 tie. Wisconsin 985
5. Georgia Tech 983


Note: All figures are based on a four-year average. Figures released in June and are through summer of 2012.

Sept. 28 game

Cal (1-2) at Oregon (3-0),
7:30 p.m. Pac-12 Networks