For UConn, Lessons From a Year of Tournament Exile

Last summer the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team became the first program in a major conference to face a ban on play in the NCAA tournament for poor academic performance.

Since the problems surfaced, university officials say they have made significant changes in their athletics culture, removing the director of academic services for athletes and replacing the top academic adviser for men’s basketball.

A new athletic director brought a different perspective as well. Warde J. Manuel, who took over the Huskies’ program in February 2012, is a former academic adviser who helped the University at Buffalo (part of the State University of New York) improve its academic standing.

At Connecticut, Mr. Manuel meets personally with athletes who do not attain certain academic benchmarks. Colleagues say the former University of Michigan football player, who is a past member of the NCAA’s Academic Cabinet, can make quite an impression.

He also helped move the academic-support program for athletics under his purview (in the past, it reported to the provost). That gives him day-to-day contact with academic issues.

Susan Herbst, the university’s president, was disappointed that the men’s team had to sit out this year’s NCAA tournament in what she felt was a retroactive punishment for the shortcomings of previous players. The program took another hit when Jim Calhoun, the beloved coach who had led the Huskies to three national championships, retired in September.

But things turned out for the best, Ms. Herbst said in an interview on Wednesday. “Instead of a team and community falling into a depression because of how important this is to us, this team worked hard in the classroom and played inspired all season.

“By not playing for the tournament, we were just playing for ourselves and playing for the game,” she continued. “This team had a purity of spirit—not like so many teams that had to grind through the season just to get 20 wins and then see what happened.”

The team’s academic fortunes have also turned around. Several years ago, UConn had an Academic Progress Rate of 826 out of a possible 1,000. More recently it posted a 978, and this year’s number is expected to be in the same high range.

But Ms. Herbst knows those numbers aren’t the meaningful ones to fans, who are eager for the Huskies to get back to the postseason.

“Obviously we hope this never happens again, and we look forward to being in the tournament again next year,” she said. “But this has made us reflect on what really matters.”

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