CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — University of Miami President Donna Shalala would prefer Hurricane athletes get their degrees before leaving school, taking advantage of the scholarships they’ve been afforded.
And she knows that won’t always be the case, of course.
So very quietly, and for several years now, Miami has offered the next best thing.
Lifetime scholarships, as some call it, are a hot topic around the NCAA right now, with a handful of schools and conferences in recent months saying they would encourage athletes who left early a chance to return and finish their degrees.
For many schools, it’s a new concept. At Miami, it’s been an option for nearly a decade.
“I just felt it was an issue of integrity,” Shalala said. “And really, it started with Ray Lewis.”
Shalala heard the story a few years ago, about how Lewis — the former Baltimore Ravens star — went back to school to finish his degree while he was starring in the NFL. Lewis played his college football at Miami. But his degree is from Maryland University College, which he obtained in 2004.
“We’d obviously like the athletes to stay and finish their degrees here,” Shalala said. “Coming back, they often can’t afford to pay the tuition unless they’ve made the pros. And they can’t get coaching jobs or teaching jobs unless they have their degrees. So they would have to commit themselves to finishing their degree.”
At least 16 former Hurricanes have taken advantage of the chance to return to complete their degrees, many of them baseball players, former Major League catcher Charles Johnson among them. Former NFL player Lamar Thomas utilized the opportunity as well, along with former women’s tennis star Audra Cohen, among others.
Given that Miami costs about $60,000 annually to attend, it’s no small commitment.
“It’s a continued financial investment by the institution,” athletic director Blake James said. “We get great support from campus on this, so it’s not a strain on my budget because it’s a decision the president made that she would support these sort of initiatives.”
The majority of players who have been involved so far have come from baseball, which routinely has players leave after three years — so about a year shy of a degree in most cases — to pursue pro opportunities when they become draft-eligible.
Some have come from other sports, women’s basketball included. And without that program, Hurricanes coach Katie Meier might never have connected with Octavia Blue, one of her assistant coaches.
Blue’s standout playing career at Miami ended in 1998, the year she joined the WNBA. After playing pro ball for about a decade, she returned to Miami, hoping to coach.
Small problem: She didn’t have her degree.
“Octavia had written to some people in the athletic department and said she had left because she got drafted and didn’t finish her last semester,” Meier said. “So I got asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘If there’s a girl from Miami who wants to come back to get her degree, we’ve got to do whatever we can.'”
Blue got welcomed back, worked at the school — “this great player, she was stuffing envelopes for us,” Meier said — while finishing her classes, and eventually got into coaching.
Meier ended up hiring her in 2012.
“It’s one of my favorite stories,” Meier said. “Without it, I would probably have never met her.”
Coaches and athletes have been aware for years that Miami offers the opportunity, and it’s made clear that the degrees won’t be handed out easily. If someone wants to come back, they’re going to do classwork, plain and simple.
Some athletes have had a full year of work left. Some needed only one class.
Either way, Shalala said Miami will remain committed to the idea, and some athletes have e-mailed her personally to ask if they could come back.
“We don’t have as many people leaving early as we used to and almost all our athletes now are in summer school, so we actually get them pretty close to graduation if they leave early,” Shalala said. “Some just can’t finish. So I just decided that we would do this.”