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Creighton University's basketball players probably won't hoist the trophy at the end of the NCAA tournament, but they'll most likely hold college degrees by the time they leave campus.
Creighton's basketball program — its entire athletic enterprise, for that matter — compares favorably, as in Final Four favorably, in a national look at athletes' graduation rates among colleges in the NCAA tournament. Creighton begins play today against Alabama in Greensboro, N.C.
"I first will tell you, we recruit good kids," said Steve Brace, Creighton's assistant athletic director for internal operations. "It's not so much what we do, it's the kids we're working with."
The national examination of graduation rates, done by the University of Central Florida, looked at 2004-05 freshmen on men's basketball teams and the percentage that graduated within six years. It also examined graduation rates of athletes in all sports.
The Washington Post used those numbers to hold a mock NCAA basketball tourney. If the bracket sheet were the same as that for the basketball tourney, the Bluejays would make it to the Final Four, where it would lose to Harvard. Notre Dame would beat Harvard for the title, the Post said.
Pierce Hibma, a Creighton basketball player who graduated four years ago, will be matched about noon today with a residency program in emergency medicine.
Basketball is so far in his rearview mirror that the Creighton med student wasn't even sure when today's tipoff was, other than to know that it was somewhere around the time his match will occur.
Hibma, who grew up in Pella, Iowa, said he wasn't surprised that Creighton matches up well against other schools in athletes' graduation rates.
"I know the types of student athletes that Creighton likes to recruit," said Hibma, 27. "And the academic support that's given to the athletes is superb."
Still, whenever Creighton has national success in men's basketball, the Kevin Ross debacle comes up in conversations. Creighton recruited Ross out of Kansas City in the late 1970s as a comparatively low-achieving "special permission" student. He saw minimal playing time, finally dropped out, then sued Creighton for educational malpractice, saying he could barely read despite having been at the university close to four years.
Creighton admitted no liability and settled the suit in 1992 for $30,000. "It was an anomaly, even back then," Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen said of the Ross situation. Rasmussen said Ross was bright but had a reading disability.
Rasmussen said small class sizes, the fact that classes are taught by full-time professors, strong assistance provided by Brace's academic support team and other factors lead to high graduation rates for Creighton athletes.
Brace said that after last fall semester, 79 percent of Creighton's 258 male and female athletes had grade point averages of 3.0 or better, and 42 percent had GPAs of 3.5 percent or better.
He said Creighton has won the Missouri Valley Conference's all-academic award for athletes each of the past five years and seven of the past nine years. The conference's academic competition generally compares average GPAs among athletes in conference-sponsored sports.
"And we don't like losin' that," Brace said.
Creighton pursued Chris Rodgers out of tough East St. Louis in the late 1980s. He remembered his mother asking recruiters about the Kevin Ross affair. Rodgers himself said he wanted assurances that he wouldn't drop out of school and return to East St. Louis as long as he worked hard.
Rodgers earned a bachelor's degree, then a master's degree from Creighton and then a master's degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Rodgers now is a Douglas County Board member.
He said of his Creighton days: "They stayed true to their end, and I stayed true to mine."
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