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Senior College Football Columnist

For juco coaching legend Rush, fight against NCAA is all about playing fair

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Rush has won big at City College of San Francisco, but that's secondary now. (San Francisco Chronicle)  
Rush has won big at City College of San Francisco, but that's secondary now. (San Francisco Chronicle)    

SAN FRANCISCO -- The head coach of the defending national champs doesn't have one of those offices bigger than the local Kinko's. His office doesn't have a wide picture window that looks out over his 100,000-seat stadium or a handy remote control for the double doors to enter the place. Heck, there aren't double doors.

The place is the size of most college head coach's office bathrooms. Aside from its cramped dimensions, the thing you immediately notice are all of the photos of his former players framed on the walls. George Rush is proud of his guys, not just what they did for him at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), but what they became.

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In less than a month, Rush's team will begin fall training camp. It's his 37th season as the Rams' head coach. They are a powerhouse in the junior college ranks as much as any program is at the Division I level. Rush annually sends more than a dozen of his starters into major college football, meaning he has to reload every season, yet he almost always does.

Over the past 13 seasons, Rush has led the Rams to seven national titles. This fall, the Rams are looking to repeat as national champs for the first time since they wrapped up a three-peat in 2001.

Rush arrived at CCSF 46 seasons ago. Like many of his players, Rush was a "bounce-back." His college career began someplace else. Rush admits he had a little too much fun in his freshman year at Santa Clara University, so he ended up enrolling at CCSF where he played at the school in the mid 1960s and was a teammate of O.J. Simpson.

The 64-year-old has seen more than his share of heart-breaking stories. He's also seen a lot of change, not just in the lives of the guys he coaches and hopes to develop, but also in the world in which they live.

What frustrates and angers Rush more than anything these days is the changes in the system that he says is squeezing his players in a way he says is appalling and unfair.

"Whenever I see those NCAA commercials when I watch March Madness, where they say 'these are our athletes, these are the leaders of America,' I wanna throw up," Rush says. He calls the NCAA "a monstrous monopoly," run by a bunch of "hypocrites."

In April, 2011, seven of Rush's CCSF players sued the NCAA and all of California's Division I public universities for unconstitutional discrimination regarding NCAA rules controlling junior college transfers. The case was prompted by the NCAA adding a requirement for junior college non-qualifiers to have passed two college English courses and one math course, something that didn't apply to any other student-athletes.

"We tried to point out that this is irrational discrimination," says attorney Steve Walters. "The NCAA is singling out non-qualifiers that go to junior colleges that is different than any other student-athletes whether they are qualifiers or non-qualifiers."

Rush has seen clearly what he's fighting for. (San Francisco Chronicle)  
Rush has seen clearly what he's fighting for. (San Francisco Chronicle)    
The court threw out the case, granting the NCAA's motion to dismiss, saying it couldn't find that the discrimination was irrational under the constitution. In Judge William Alsup's statement he referenced "part-time" students, which actually wouldn't be relevant to the case since it ignores the requirement that JC transfers have to be full-time and obtain a specified number of credits that are transferrable toward a degree offered by the D-I school. "The judge in our case said community colleges are akin to vocational schools," said Rush. "That is the furthest thing from the truth.

"The NCAA portrays themselves as this benevolent, non-profit collection of colleges that are doing good deeds, but all they're doing is destroying dreams and opportunities for young kids based on no facts at all. There is no empirical evidence that shows if you have math in your first two years that you are a better student for it or that if you have two English classes in your first two years that you're a better student for it. My question then is: If that in fact were to be true, then why don't you make everybody do that? If you hold us to the same standard as everyone else, I'll buy that, but they don't. It's a double-standard. And if these kids who have already been identified once as having certain issues for whatever reason, are now going to be hit coming out the other side with double jeopardy, it's wrong. It's immoral. It's unethical.

"They (the NCAA) stand up on their high, white pedestal and spew out all of their stuff. I see these kids and get so upset. I know how hard many of them are trying, and that math barrier is hard for a lot of kids, and knowing that they could go to college and never have to take it at all, it's so frustrating for me."

In data the NCAA sent to Rush and his attorneys to explain its stance, he said it claimed there was a 12 percent difference in the academic success rate between JC transfers and other student-athletes. (An NCAA spokesperson responded to a request from CBSSports.com and included a 2010 story from NCAA.org that cited data from a study that said junior college transfers entering college in 2002 were 15 percent less likely to graduate within six years than those who started at a four-year school.)

"The NCAA is making the claim for academic integrity that we have to make up that achievement gap between the 12 percent to make sure they have a better background to do the quality of work, but I ask, what is 12 percent in terms of a real number?" Rush says. He argues, for practical purposes, to use the baseline that there are an average of five juco transfers on every FBS football team, which would mean there are roughly 600 such student-athletes in the country. "So of that group, we're going to keep all of the juco kids that did graduate from entering college because of these 70 or so kids that didn't?"

Rush and Walters also take issue with how the NCAA framed its statistics.

"We think that their conclusions from that data are wrong," said Walters. "They are really manipulating their data and not comparing apples to apples. They were looking at transfer data. Kids with 4.0s and 800 SATS that transferred from one four-year school to another, not kids from comparable academic settings."

Last fall, the NCAA passed further legislation, raising the minimum GPA for all junior college student-athletes who begin their freshman year this fall to get eligible at a four-year school from 2.0 to 2.5 in their transferrable credits.

Rush estimated that in the last decade around 50 percent of his players who ended up at Division I programs had GPAs somewhere between a 2.01 and a 2.49, and thus would not have been eligible to get those scholarships.

An NCAA spokesperson told CBSSports.com in a statement Monday that "these changes were made through a cooperative process, and after gathering significant feedback from the two-year college communities, which generally supported the changes."

Rush and several other junior college coaches contacted for this story clearly do not support them. One juco coach in California, College of San Mateo's Tim Tulloch, an academic advisor for his school's student-athletes, wondered how many people at the junior college level the NCAA actually consulted with to find out what their needs and changes are.

"This is going to eliminate opportunities for some kids who really have busted their butts to get in a position where they've earned an AA degree coming from a very tough background or places that academically don't have much support and they did work hard to get a 2.2 (GPA), and now they won't be eligible for a scholarship."

Rush struggles to contain himself talking about this stuff. He pops up out of his chair and points to photos of the past players on his wall who never would've earned a college degree or even gotten to their four-year colleges if these NCAA rules were in place a decade ago.

"They (the NCAA) are making them have the standard coming in that the institution itself doesn't even require of its own students," Rush says. "It's so convoluted. The NCAA doesn't have a clinical study that shows that this is even true. They said 'We feel this is wrong.' Well, I don't care what you feel. It's a double-standard not giving a kid access to college. This is a big deal, man.

"The more you get into this and the more you see how grievous an organization it is. I understand that if somebody doesn't have the academic wherewithal to be at admitted to Cal or Fresno State or Stanford then the institution shouldn't admit them. This isn't a baby-sitting service. But if you're admissible to that university, who are they to say no?

"I'd ask this of college presidents, are these kids better off at Cal or San Diego State or San Jose State and having a two or three-year college experience coming out of junior college working with someone and getting a shot to having a better life than not graduating or never having that experience at all? It's a pretty self-evident answer. They obviously have a better chance in that college environment than in some gang-filled area where they don't know if they're going to wake up the next day. Just that experience can change not only what I want for my life, and for what I want from my children."

Rush knows this issue gets to a larger point, one that can be very polarizing, about who deserves to go to college and who doesn't based on qualifications and preparedness. People can say, 'Well, life isn't fair,' but he asks, isn't the NCAA, this non-profit entity that governs college athletics supposed to be?

"Look at their rulebook," he says. "It's about having a level playing field, but then they take this group of students and give them an unleveled playing field. This is about bias." Rush has more than a wall of success stories that he'd love to remind the NCAA about. The one that resonates the most is about Alfonzo Browning, the former Ram whose picture is the biggest on these walls inside Rush's office -- even bigger than players who have gone on to distinguished NFL careers.

A lanky wideout at CCSF in the early 1990s, Browning, who'd been leading the state in receiving, showed up in Rush's office, sobbing. According to the coach, Browning explained how he had come home to find that his mom, who had been battling drug addiction, had sold all of his stuff, including his clothes.

"I have nothing left," Browning told the coach through tears.

"He was bawling his eyes out," recalled Rush. "I'm thinking, 'How am I gonna fix this?'"

Not long after that day, the Rams were set to play for the conference championship -- only they would be without Browning. He had gotten arrested for possession of crack cocaine and an illegal weapon. It was his first offense. He got six months in jail. Rush and his staff stuck by Browning, who begged them for a second chance, saying he would clean up.

He did. Browning also crafted a spectacular second season for the Rams and landed a scholarship to Kentucky and eventually played pro football for almost a decade. Rush is proud to say Browning is married with two daughters and is coaching in Kentucky. "He came back, got his mom off drugs, got out of the projects. He did all the stuff himself, and that guy, there's no way he would've made it out with this (new NCAA legislation).

"What a life-changing thing though, but it's all about opportunities. And they're trying now to deny those opportunities. Why? For what? So you can beat your chest and quote your statistics?"


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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