Awarding basketball scholarships: from the court to the admissions office

American University men's basketball coach Mike Brennan and point guard Darius Gardner hold a press conference.

American University men’s basketball coach Mike Brennan and point guard Darius Gardner hold a press conference.

When American University basketball coaches hit the recruiting circuit, they keep two factors constantly in mind:  players’ basketball abilities and their academic success.

“We look for the most talented players with [the] academic standards,” said Mike Gambardella, the assistant athletic director for communications at American University.  “It’s tougher to meet [these standards] across the board.”

At institutions across the country, coaches work countless hours competing with other colleges to recruit the most skilled players to their program. On top of that, coaches at top academic institutions like AU must keep in mind that their prospects will have to meet the high academic standards set for all students.

Strict NCAA rules state that no special exception may be made by a college’s admissions board for incoming athletes. Coaches or other recruiters may not pass out scholarships to players whose grade point average does not meet the school’s requirements.  It is also against NCAA rules for professors to pass a student in order for him/her to receive a scholarship.

At AU, looking at a player’s grades is a top priority.

“Once the coaching staff has gone to some AAU tournament and gotten a chance to see and meet a player, the first thing we do is look at the [player's] transcript to make sure he meets standards.  He is then verified by admissions,” Gambardella said.

Only then does the long, complicated process of awarding a scholarship begin.

Emily Stuhan, assistant director of admissions at American University, said the admissions office is “not highly involved” in granting athletic scholarships.  The main job of admissions in the process is to ensure prospects are “capable of the work academically.”

Admissions at AU takes a “holistic review of their applicants,” she said.  There is no minimum GPA requirement held by the school, but students are required to submit SAT or ACT scores, Stuhan said.

Coaches also often rely on trusted third-party evaluations, such as NSCA.com, a site through which coaches can examine players through their profiles.  The NCAA rule is at least a 2.3 GPA, but most coaches look for a 3.0 average, an NCAA representative said.

At some schools the process of admitting athletes to school is controversial. For example, current NBA player O.J. Mayo received cash and gifts while deciding to attend and play for the University of Southern California.  As a result, the basketball team gave up all its wins for the 2007-08 season, and was excluded from post-season play in 2010, one of the harshest penalties ever given to a Division I institution.

And what about students who don’t get scholarships but still come to a school? Walk-ons, who are already enrolled in school, fight for spots on the team.

“Tryouts are usually held in September and are open to around two to three students to play rolls on the team as a walk-on,” Gambardella said. “Occasionally a walk-on may develop to fill a major role on the team.”