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More Homerism: The Last Temptation of DeAndre Brown

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In which an SEC school that is not Vanderbilt vies for academic superiority, with predictable results.
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Just to clear up some of the debate, as it were, over five-star OMG all-everything wide receiver DeAndre Brown's shocking commitment to Southern Miss over LSU and Ole Miss over the weekend. There is no precedent for my alma mater beating out any SEC school for a target of Brown's caliber, even one in its own back yard, and Monday I chronicled a small sampling of LSU fans' initial disbelief. Because it's no secret Brown is a grades risk who is not guaranteed to be eligible next fall - he's certainly not ineligible at this point, but he has to make his test scores before he can enroll in the fall semester - their dismissal predictably centered on Brown's grades. See:


In the same vein, long-running, respected LSU obsessor Dandy Don reported matter-of-factly last Saturday:
Brown has severe academic problems and there was no way that he could enroll at LSU. Les Miles was at Ocean Springs (Mississippi) High School Tuesday and took Brown out of one of his classes and met with the school's academic advisor along with Brown and the school principal. Brown was told that he would not be eligible to enroll at LSU according to a source at Ocean Springs High. Brown chose USM because they are a member of Conference USA and the conference allows each member school to sign two partial qualifiers each year.
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Emphasis added (Hat tip: Reader and frequent commenter Shawn)
Miles was indeed in Ocean Springs last week, per Brown's high school coach, Todd Mangum, who I have known since I was a kid, and who told me on the record from Brown's signing 'party' Wednesday morning:
"[Brown] chose USM because he was more comfortable. He's comfortable with the coaches, with Tony Hughes, who had been recruiting him [beginning at Ole Miss, on Ed Orgeron's staff]. He likes Coach Fedora...DeAndre is going to be eligible. He is going to qualify. That was not an issue...[Miles' visit] was nothing any different than any other staff has done."
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That doesn't sound like "severe academic problems," but from here we're going to proceed under the fact that Brown's eligibility is by many, many other accounts (including other accounts from O.S. High) pretty clearly on the ropes. Contrary to the LSU spin, though, his status is not at all dependent on his choice of school or conference.

Here are the NCAA's basic eligibility guidelines for incoming freshmen. If you go to the linked page, specific required core courses are outlined in detail, as is the sliding scale used for Division I athletes to determine the ACT or SAT score necessary to qualify with a given GPA; the lowest possible GPA is a 2.000, if the test scores are good, and a kid can basically bomb the tests if his GPA is above a 3.000.

For our purposes, though, the specifics don't matter - it's what the standards don't specify: the only distinction made between tiers of programs is between Division I and Division II. It doesn't even specify between schools classified as I-A and I-AA (FBS and FCS, in NCAA parlance), much less between schools in different conferences within those classifications.

So from the NCAA's perspective, the eligibility standards for Southern Miss and LSU are exactly the same. If there is a higher or lower academic standard at either school, it's imposed by the institution itself. Here are general freshman admissions requirements for Southern Miss; here are the requirements at LSU. The latter, despite listing "recommended" scores for the average student, does not have a minimum GPA, but the minimum ACT score for all students entering LSU is an 18. Southern Miss uses a sliding scale: for students with a 3.2 GPA or higher, pretty much any ACT score will do, as long as there is one and it's not in the single digits. For a 2.5-3.1 GPA, it takes a 16 ACT; for a 2.0-2.4 GPA, the minimum ACT is an 18. Under these guidelines, the only way Brown could be eligible at USM but not LSU is with a GPA above 2.5 and a composite ACT within a two-point window, i.e. a 16 or 17. I don't know Brown's grades or test scores, but if he is currently within this sliver of a gray area that leaves him eligible to enroll at USM but not LSU, he would still have months (probably the summer as well) to make up one or two points on the test needed to play for the Tigers. LSU (or any other school) would never pass on a kid it wanted under these circumstances, and it is foolish and deserved to lose him if it did. If Brown's GPA is between a 2.0 and 2.5, which makes him an enrollment risk at both schools (again, LSU lists no minimum GPA), the minimum ACT score (18) is the same for both.

Re: partial qualifiers, per the Southern Miss athletic department's Director of Academics, Stacy Breazelle:

"There is no such thing as a partial qualifier anymore. That terminology no longer exists. You're either a qualifier or you're not a qualifier."
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Technically, this is true: a member of Conference USA's offices (who is not in PR and didn't want to be named) also said the NCAA abolished the sliding scale defining "partial qualifiers" a few years ago, and used the same phrase, "you're a qualifier or you're not a qualifier." He added, though, that there are exceptions to every rule, and this is also true: the NCAA may grant a "partial waiver" that effectively designates a player a "partial qualifier" with the same restrictions as the old standards (he may practice but not participate in games his first year, and, unlike a redshirt, that year counts against his eligibility). In Article 14 of the SEC Bylaws, for example, it says this regarding the "partial qualifier and non-qualifier":
Men's sports are permitted to enroll an annual total of four (4) student-athletes classified as partial or non- qualifiers, with no more than two (2) permitted annually in football, and not more than one (1) permitted annually in any other sport.
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That is, an SEC team is allowed to admit two partial or non-qualifiers for football at any one time, if the total number in all men's sports doesn't exceed four. This is the exact standard Dandy Don ascribed to Conference USA.

As for C-USA, I was told flatly, "Conference USA doesn't have a specific policy as it relates to non-qualifiers. We default to institutional standards," meaning the individual schools can seek a waiver per NCAA rules. The institutional standard at Southern Miss in the past is pretty clear: USM has not allowed a "partial qualifier" or any player through any alternate admissions route since joining Conference USA. Larry Fedora might be planning to break this precedent with Brown (which is fine by me), but the same route is available to LSU - not that anyone is in any position to make that leap right now, anyway, as noted by my C-USA source:

"It's February. For someone to say he's eligible or ineligible, I don't know how they can do that...A student athlete's final official eligibility cannot be determined until he's graduated from high school and all test scores are in."
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Even as a partial qualifier, a player has to actually get into the school in the first place. If Brown's grades are so far from the mark with three months and a summer semester to go that he clearly has no chance of enrolling at LSU - that it's not even worth a flier for one of the top five receiver prospects in the country, in a conference where signees routinely come up short of eligiblity standards - he also has no chance of enrolling under near-identical standards at Southern Miss, and his recruitment is a complete waste of everyone's time.

I'd like to stress this point. Rivals.com's recruiting database goes back to 2002. The number of five-star commitments to Conference USA during that span prior to Brown: zero. The number of five-star commitments to the Mountain West during that span: three, all Mormons to BYU, and none of them since 2004 (and one of which, Ben Olson, is now at UCLA after bailing on the Cougars following his mission). The number of five-star commitments to the MAC: zero; prior to landing a couple four-star guys this year, the conference went five years without signing a single prospect rated above a three-star. The number of five-star commitments to the WAC: one, a JUCO linebacker returning home to Hawaii in 2002; the WAC, too, has now gone three full recruiting cycles without signing a single four-star prospect.

In other words, there is no precedent for major recruits signing with a mid-major conference team for academic reasons. Or for any reason at all outside of the Mormon religion or Polynesian solidarity. Literally zero precedent in the last seven years. Big-time kids fail to qualify at major progams on a regular basis, and when they do, they're shipped to junior college or a prep school, where the big boys have a chance to get them back in a year or two. None  - again, literally none - have wound up playing at non-BCS schools. The reason: they can't. Eligibility is eligibility.

All of this is external, really, to DeAndre Brown, who may or may not be eligible in the fall. The point is that the question of whether a player can get into school and play or he can't play doesn't change because he chose Southern Miss, or a Conference USA school; he's just as eligible or ineligible no matter what school he attends, in any I-A conference, and aside from a few supposed academic bastions (Notre Dame, Michigan, Northwestern, Cal, Stanford, et al), enrollment standards virtually never stand in the way of an eligibile player (people get really cranky when they do). The same alternate admission routes are open to every school. Either LSU decided against all historical precedent that he wasn't worth the risk and Southern Miss - again, against all historical precedent, and common sense, too, if there is no chance of his enrolling at LSU - decided he was worth the risk, or Brown just chose Southern Miss for the reasons he said he did: it's close to home and he likes the coaches.

It was bound to happen eventually.