The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team was a long shot to reach the FCS playoffs next season after winning just one game in 2008. Now, regardless of how many games they win, the Mocs have no chance.
The NCAA Division I Committee on Academic Performance has banned the team from the 2009 postseason for failing to meet the NCAA's multi-year Academic Progress Rate standards, athletic director Rick Hart said Wednesday. In addition to the postseason ban, the program will also lose 3.15 scholarships for next season and four hours of team time (both practice and games) per week.
"We really do remain optimistic about where the program's going and our ability to correct this, but it's certainly painful sit here and have to deal with it year after year," Hart said of the program's on-going APR problems. "It impacts our program in a very significant, very negative way."
The Mocs are expected to have 56.6 scholarships available next season and will be limited to 16 hours of time together a week. The NCAA maximums at the FCS level are 63 scholarships and 20 hours of team time.
This is the first year since APR data collection began in 2003-04 that teams are eligible for occasion three penalties, which can be administered to teams that fall short of the standards for the third year in a row. Occasion one is a public warning and occasion two is made up of scholarship and practice-time restrictions - both of which UTC has incurred in the past.
Occasion three is the postseason ban and occasion four, which will begin next year, is a restricted NCAA membership status for one year for all sports at the institution.
Low APR numbers have been a problem for the football program from the beginning and those bad early numbers are still part of the four-year cycle. The Mocs' four-year APR number is 870, well below the NCAA's multi-year benchmark of 900.
The team's single-year score for 2007-08 was 915, down slightly from last year's score of 924, but it was the scores from the previous two years - 816 in 2004-05 and 827 in 2005-06 - that dragged UTC's four-year average way down.
The academic progress and retention problems occurred during former coach Rodney Allison's six-year tenure, which ended following the 2008 season. New coach Russ Huesman, who was hired on Dec. 21, 2008, said he was informed during his interview for the job that additional penalties could be forthcoming.
Huesman said the loss of scholarships and practice time will be a factor next season, but the real blow is that his players won't have any chance at participating in the playoffs.
"We're going to find ways to win and make our kids proud of what they're doing this next year," Huesman said, pointing out that Auburn went 11-0 in 1993 when the Tigers were ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions.
Linebacker Steven Smigelsky, who will be a fifth-year senior and a team captain in the fall, said all the Mocs can do is make the most of their opportunities next season. The Mocs are still eligible to win the Southern Conference championship, they just couldn't accept the automatic bid to the playoffs.
"Obviously it's disappointing, especially if we put together a good season," Smigelsky said. "It would hurt not to go to the playoffs in that situation, but what's done is done and we just have to do the best we can."
Hart said the NCAA committee, citing the academic progress the past two years, did give UTC some good news, that it will not progress to the occasion four penalty next year based on the poor scores that led to the postseason ban. The hole the program dug with its previous low scores was so deep that UTC couldn't reach the 900 mark next year even with a perfect score of 1,000 in 2008-09.
"It's going to take us another year or two to truly get ourselves in a position where this is no longer something that's costing us scholarships and practice time," Hart said.
Hart and UTC chancellor Roger Brown attended a waiver hearing in Indianapolis in February with the hopes of avoiding the postseason ban. Despite not getting the outcome he desired, Brown said he was optimistic about the academic direction of the program.
"While I'm very disappointed in the committee's decision to go forward with penalties," Brown said, "I remain very encouraged about the positive progress of our student's academic success."
The Mocs have been to the playoffs only once in the program's history, in 1984, and have had just six winning seasons since.