Change in culture aids Gophers’ academic turnaround

Minnesota posted one of the best Academic Progress Rate scores in NCAA history for the 2011-12 season.

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS AUG. 20 - 21 ** Southern Illinois University-Carbondale head football coach Jerry Kill talks with his players following practice on the campus, Carbondale, Ill., Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. Kill has lead his football team to back-to-back 10-2 seasons and the Salukis were ranked atop the Division 1-AA for several weeks last year and are again favored to win the conference and vie for their first national title in 22 years. (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS AUG. 20 - 21 ** Southern Illinois University-Carbondale head football coach Jerry Kill talks with his players following practice on the campus, Carbondale, Ill., Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. Kill has lead his football team to back-to-back 10-2 seasons and the Salukis were ranked atop the Division 1-AA for several weeks last year and are again favored to win the conference and vie for their first national title in 22 years. (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

Dane Mizutani

Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill was not shy about his program’s state of academics when he first arrived on campus.

A change in culture was imperative for the program, Kill said, and with the recent release of the annual Academic Progress Rate report, he appears on track with that goal.

APR is a team-based metric that accounts for the academic eligibility and retention of each student-athlete, according to the NCAA.

A perfect APR score is 1000, and any team that scores below 925 is subject to sanctions, which can include a loss of scholarships or postseason bans. The score is a four-year rolling average.

In last week’s APR report, the Gophers football team earned a score of 994 for the 2011-12 season. Those marks brought the team’s four-year rolling average to 955 — a significant increase from last year’s score of 932.

Kill said there hasn’t been a magical formula to the first-year success. He said he and his staff placed an emphasis on players’ actions in the classroom and the overall culture of academics.

“We’ve just made them go to classes,” Kill said. “It’s amazing what happens when kids go to class, are on time and do what they’re supposed to.

“That’s how that turnaround came about.”

That 994 score is the highest single-season score in the history of Gophers football and is also one of the highest scores on record for any NCAA football program.

Only 10 teams have tied or beaten a score of 994 in the four seasons the NCAA has made single-season APR scores available.

Kill said that when he took the job, the football team was one player away from losing scholarships, a group of 25 players were on academic warning and three players were suspended because of academics.

“Now all of a sudden [to be] where we’re at with basically only 30 new kids in the program, I’d say give the kids the credit,” Kill said.

The Gophers posted low APR scores under Tim Brewster, who coached them from 2007-10. Nationwide, football produced low scores when APR was first implemented.

The Gophers lost three scholarships in 2007-08 because their four-year running average was below 925. The following season, their average broke 930.

“I don’t think our institution was an outlier in the beginning stages,” said JT Bruett, the Gophers’ director of compliance. “There wasn’t a lot of awareness of APR and what it was about at first, so all sports for APR scores tended to be a little lower to start.”

Bruett, who worked with Brewster, said Kill is a crucial cog in the success of the program. He said Kill has developed a culture centered on the academic success of players.

“I wouldn’t say Tim Brewster didn’t care about academics,” Bruett said. “But I think coach Kill has done a great job creating a culture in the program.

“He’s done a tremendous job creating a culture that they take pride in.”

Kill and his staff aren’t alone in the academic process that has led the increase in APR scores. Kill said the McNamara Academic Center for Student Athletes has played a major role in the success as it helps monitor and assist players.

Lynn Holleran, the Director of the McNamara Academic Center for student-athletes, said there’s been a noticeable change in the football team’s academic culture during the last couple of years.  

“It’s a good group, and that’s why there was such a significant jump,” Holleran said. “They want to play football, but they also want to get their degrees.”

Holleran said she and her staff work closely with the coaches to ensure players are accountable for their classroom actions. She said that relationship is pivotal in the success of student-athletes and added that they are on the same page.

“We have a system in place, and there is a partnership where I think the numbers will continue to improve on a multi-year scale,” Holleran said. 

Despite the Gophers’ improvements, they still sit ninth in the Big Ten in four-year rolling average.

“If I got fired today, I can say this: It’s a lot farther along than it was,” Kill said. “We’ve moved the program forward, and now we need to continue to do better.”