INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA just gave the football programs at Miami and Ohio State a big morale boost.
Both teams outperformed many of their rivals in the classroom and joined 11 other Football Bowl Subdivision teams on this year's list of academic overachievers.
The timing is impeccable for two of college football's most prominent programs, both trying to repair damaged reputations after facing embarrassing NCAA investigations over the last 18 months.
"That's the purpose of it really, public relations," said David Ridpath, an assistant professor in sports administration at Ohio University and past president of the NCAA-watchdog, The Drake Group. "They may be doing everything right, but I doubt it."
Ohio State and Miami can certainly use the help after their run-ins with the NCAA.
Jim Tressel resigned as the Buckeyes' coach in May 2011 after admitting he knew players had likely accepted improper benefits. Some Ohio State players also were suspended, and the Buckeyes have been banned from the postseason this fall.
An investigation into a series of tawdry allegations made last summer by former Miami booster and convicted Ponzi scheme architect Nevin Shapiro is ongoing. Shapiro claimed he provided improper benefits to 72 Miami football players and recruits from 2002-10.
Now, the NCAA – which plans to vote in August on punishing the most egregious rule-breakers more harshly – has rewarded Miami and Ohio State for success in the classroom.
"These teams prove that it is possible to not only balance academic and athletic commitment, as most student-athletes do; but to exceed standards and post outstanding academic scores," NCAA President Mark Emmert said. "The drive and determination shown in the classroom and on the field by these men and women represent what it means to be an NCAA student-athlete."
The Academic Progress Rate measures classroom performance of student-athletes on every Division I team. The so-called cutline, recently raised to 930 and being phased in, is better known because of the sanctions that can come from failing to reach it.
But the NCAA also annually recognizes teams with perfect scores of 1,000 and those that finish among the top 10 percent in their sport's APR. This year's data covers the four-year period from 2007-08 through 2010-11.
This year, 954 teams made the list – an increase of 55 over last year, up 123 from two years ago and an increase of nearly 200 teams from three years ago. The lowest score to make the list was 978.
While NCAA officials see the rising scores as an indication that coaches and athletes have gotten the message to focus on their studies, critics such as Ridpath question whether the numbers demonstrate anything more than the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots of college sports.
"It's chasing the lowest common denominator, something I like to call eligibility maintenance," Ridpath said, explaining scores can be swayed if many athletes pursue the same major and take the same professors. "I think it says you better get an education center like Tennessee's or 20 academic advisers like Nebraska."
Five other football teams that competed in BCS conferences last fall made the list – Northwestern (Big Ten), Duke and Clemson (ACC), Rutgers (Big East) and Vanderbilt (SEC).
Thirteen teams from last season's NCAA men's basketball tournament, including national runner-up Kansas, perennial powerhouse Duke and tourney darling Lehigh, made the list. So did Butler and Memphis, two other recent national runner-ups. Forty-one women's basketball teams were honored, including Tennessee.
But Ohio State and Miami stood out after troubling run-ins with the NCAA.
"We join our coaches and academic support staff in celebrating the academic achievement of these Miami Hurricanes, who have established a new high of five APR Public Recognition Awards," Hurricanes athletic director Shawn Eichorst said. "This success starts with dedication and perseverance by our student-athletes, who are able to balance the many pressures of college and still achieve academic success at a higher rate than the majority of their peers."
Of the 347 schools that have Division I teams, 263 were recognized with Ivy League schools Dartmouth, Brown (20) and Harvard (18) having the most teams on the list.
Five national champions from 2010-11 were recognized: Notre Dame's women's soccer team, UCLA's women's golf team, Brown's women's rowing team, Arizona State's softball team and Ohio State's men's volleyball team.
The NCAA plans to release all APR scores Wednesday.