BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Southwestern Athletic Conference symbolically turned the page to a new athletic year Friday with SWAC Media Day.
The event almost took on the feel of a rolling out of SWAC Version 2.0.
The league had a new bowl game to tout with the creation this offseason of the Celebration Bowl, a descendant of the old Heritage Bowl, pitting the SWAC and MEAC champions Dec. 19 in Atlanta. And there were the traditional playful jabs between the SWAC’s coaches up on the dais, a group that no matter who the players are always seem more like fraternity brothers than fierce rivals.
While up there with the other nine, touting the prowess and promise of their teams going into the new season, Jackson State coach Harold Jackson proudly brought up his program’s APR score, a strong 977.
For a long time, a lot of SWAC schools and teams didn’t bring up their Academic Progress Rate number with anything approaching pride. But after a long, often painful adjustment to the new NCAA rules, it looks like the SWAC is finally turning the page to respectability on the subject.
Southern, Grambling, Texas Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Prairie View, Alabama State and Mississippi Valley State all had programs or entire athletic departments that fell short of 930. It led to teams being banned from postseason competition or, in the case of Southern football, having to forego its entire spring practice schedule earlier this year.
SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp remembers the NCAA announcing its APR standards several years ago and prophetically fearing that meeting the numbers would be a painful process for his league.
“You kind of knew that, if we didn’t get a jump on it, it was going to hurt us pretty bad,” Sharp said. “But for some reason, we didn’t. We took a wait-and-see approach instead of being proactive. Looking back on it, it’s something we wish we hadn’t done.”
A patient but firm directive from the NCAA and arduous work with the SWAC office and within each school’s athletic department has brought the conference almost completely up to code. Only one school is now facing significant APR issues.
“It’s marked improvement,” Sharp said. “I think the athletic directors and senior women’s administrators have done a remarkable job, but I also think our schools have done a much better job of understanding APR. (NCAA President Mark) Emmert and the folks at the NCAA have walked us through the process.
“We have an APR task force and a new group of athletic directors and senior women’s administrators who are really focused on bettering the APR. When you look at the SWAC championship and the Celebration Bowl, you don’t want to sit around and say, ‘We’re on a postseason ban, so we can’t participate in those events.’ ”
Though Southern’s football program hasn’t been as deeply affected as its basketball programs, which have been allowed to participate in the SWAC tournaments the past two years but would have been barred from NCAA play had they won the league’s automatic bid, APR has hung over its goalposts like a ghost.
Southern coach Dawson Odums, all business when it comes to coaching his sport, has managed to get his team to the SWAC Championship Game the past two years despite the APR spectre, winning the title in 2013. But he figures it will be easier to continue to recruit at a championship level without having to answer APR-related questions.
“We had a good recruiting class (even) with it,” he said. “It relieved some of the tension recruits might have with you that you’re off postseason bans, you’re graduating players, you’re improving APR. All those things help. Recruits look at you and say, ‘I can consider going there; they’re doing things the right way.’ ”
Perhaps, finally, everyone can say that about the SWAC when it comes to APR.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.