Last week's report that Cal ranks last in the nation graduating football players shines an embarrassing light on an academic free-fall that was ignored for years.

For all the claims that the team was putting players' schooling first, data shows that its academic scores have been in decline since 2006, two years after Athletic Director Sandy Barbour was hired.

She must have known. She certainly should have known. Yet, it wasn't until 2012 that Barbour finally fired Coach Jeff Tedford. It wasn't until the team was consistently losing. Data suggest that she overlooked drooping academics as long as Cal came out on top on game day.

Director of Athletics at Cal Sandy Barbour addresses the media to formally announce that Jeff Tedford had been relieved of his duties as Cal football coach
Director of Athletics at Cal Sandy Barbour addresses the media to formally announce that Jeff Tedford had been relieved of his duties as Cal football coach during a press conference held at the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. (Dan Honda/Staff archives)

That might be fine for a school with a culture that places sports, especially football, above all else. But it's not acceptable for the nation's leading public university, which has produced 22 Nobel Prize laureates.

Sports can provide an important sense of community pride for any university. But it must be tied to respect for the school's academic heritage. It's untenable for UC Berkeley to rank last graduating players among 72 teams in the major college football conferences. Not near the bottom. Dead last.

If we have to choose between winning on the field and succeeding in the classroom, we'll choose the latter in a heartbeat. However, that's a false choice, as Stanford has shown by producing strong football teams with players who also complete their studies.

Indeed, data show that during the past decade Cal's best teams have also won in the classroom. As their records on the field declined, so did their academic and graduation numbers.

Unfortunately, Barbour has been a reactive leader rather than a proactive one. And her responses have often been years late. We saw that in 2010 when her poor financial planning temporarily endangered men's baseball, men's gymnastics, women's gymnastics, women's lacrosse and men's rugby.

We saw that with her price-is-no-object approach to the $474 million seismic retrofit and training center at Memorial Stadium, the most expensive facility upgrade in college sports history.

Barbour and other Cal officials ignored warnings about the risky financing scheme, and misled the public and regents about lagging seat sales, on which the repayment hinges.

Barbour has consistently failed to lead with financial acumen and a priority on education. She says the football team's next round of academic numbers will show marked improvement. If they don't, she should start looking for another job.