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July 27, 2012CHICAGO--New NCAA eligibility standards are coming that may not only level the playing field for Northwestern -- they could tilt it in the school's favor.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about the new standards, which will be enacted in 2016, at length on Day 2 of Big Ten Media Days. But perhaps no one summed it up better than a rival coach who said the following to Fitzgerald at a recent coaches' meeting:
"I wish you the best of luck in the national championship in a few years."
Fitzgerald relayed that message to draw a laugh, but the implication is clear: while elite academic colleges such as Northwestern, Stanford and Duke will not be affected by the rules changes, others will take a hit as hard as one delivered by a blitzing linebacker.
A recent NCAA survey found that 40 percent of all freshmen football players that enrolled at Division I schools last fall would have failed to meet the 2016 requirements. In other words, that quipping coach -- who Fitzgerald declined to name -- knew what he was talking about.
The new standards will require incoming freshmen to graduate from high school with 16 core classes passed, 10 of which must be completed by the start of their senior year. They must pass those core classes within four years and their minimum GPA must by 2.3.
Currently, incoming freshmen have to pass the 16 core classes, but they don't have to be completed within four years and 10 don't have to be completed before their senior year. They also need just a 2.0 GPA, coupled with an ACT or SAT score on a sliding scale.
And the new provisions will have some teeth. Those 40 percent who currently will not meet the new standards? Those players will be called "academic redshirts." They will be able to receive a scholarship and practice with the team, but they won't be able to play on Saturdays.
Fitzgerald said that the new requirements will cause major upheavals throughout college sports. One example that will have large ramifications at schools across the country is requiring those 16 core classes within four years. That means that colleges will no longer be able to satisfy an incoming freshman's requirements by enrolling him in summer school at the college.
"There are a lot of coaches out there, this will have major systemic changes to the way they go about recruiting," he said. "Academic redshirts are a big thing."
For Northwestern, though, it will be business as usual, according to Fitzgerald.
"It will have literally no impact because we've been at 16 core courses for a long time," he said.
Plus, Fitzgerald believes that the increased emphasis on academics will help his program, even if the competition for those qualifying student athletes increases. He's already seen more and more prospects realize the benefits of a Northwestern education.
"Kids want to get a good degree," he said. "They see the economy today and ask, 'Which piece of paper can help me get a job first?'"
So Fitzgerald's concern with the new rules doesn't lie within his own team. He is more worried about getting the word out so that the rising high school freshmen today will know what they need to do by the time they graduate to be able to play college football.
He thinks that it is the responsibility of the NCAA, the Big Ten and every other college sports entity to educate high school coaches and athletic directors, so that they, in turn, can inform their players.
"They have to hit the ground running right away," he said of the student athletes. "The bar has been raised. The good news is that the first wave is in eighth grade, so they have four years."
By that time, if that anonymous coach is correct, Northwestern could be playing in the new NCAA playoffs.