McNeal deserved a chance

Even the esteemed academics among us would admit, albeit grudgingly, that no monuments of scholarly aptitude at State U in the last 20 years are as responsible as athletics for UConn's ascent to a more national profile.

And it's why athletes deserve preferential treatment. Sorry. But they provide universities with windows to the world, not to mention donors' pockets, that regular students cannot.

Keep this in mind as you read along about the curious case of Bryce McNeal, a promising wide receiver.

A week has passed since we learned that McNeal, a transfer from Clemson who was to play two seasons at UConn, was not admitted into school.

The particulars:

McNeal decided to transfer from Clemson last year. He committed to UConn in February and was planning to enroll in a graduate program.

Meantime, he remained at Clemson to finish his degree in three years. Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret said Monday that McNeal is set to graduate from Clemson this Friday. Bourret was not at liberty to reveal other details about McNeal's transcript, other than to say McNeal's name is on the list of upcoming graduates.

Other sources at Clemson and UConn, however, confirmed that McNeal will graduate with somewhere around a 2.4 grade point average.

UConn sources said that coach Paul Pasqualoni was told McNeal would need at least a 2.7 to enroll at Connecticut. UConn's graduate school web site lists several requirements for admission, most notably at 3.0 grade point average in most cases.

McNeal is all but signed and sealed to play at Louisville, several news outlets have reported.

Some of you will applaud UConn by perhaps lapsing into self-congratulatory despair over losing a promising player in the name of academic standards. Bully for State U, amid the bloody hemorrhage of cheating in college sports today.

That's a perfectly reasonable stance.

But I disagree.

UConn's adherence to its admission standards is laudable. But would allowing Bryce McNeal into graduate school have been such a perilous leap of faith?

McNeal, unlike most other athletes who transfer, stayed in school to finish his degree. In three years. He was not using graduate school as an excuse to play at UConn. He is not one of those classic "fifth-year seniors" who are around for one semester. McNeal committed here for two years. That means he'd have spent two years in graduate school.

Does that not illustrate a decent commitment to the classroom?

I understand that his grade point average is not what UConn wants. But McNeal offers something else - the ability to be a difference-maker in the football program - that might help fill Rentschler Field, win more games and make the program more attractive.

I'm not trying to make McNeal into Hakeem Nicks. I understand the gamble involved. But he was a four-star receiver in high school. Good enough to attend Clemson. He'd come to UConn with something to prove.

What, that's not a compelling case?

Frankly, that's just what it is: One compelling case. One. So save all the "slippery slope" yelping. I've grown weary of all the alarmists who think bending the rules leads to inevitable anarchy, as if there's no middle ground, no room for debate. This is about a talented kid who is about to graduate college in three years and could make a difference in the football program. Not about some criminal who last saw the inside of a classroom in the third grade.

Pasqualoni said all the right things last week to the media, indicating there was "communication" among all the interested parties on campus about this. But if UConn really wants to compete in football - really, really wants to compete - Bryce McNeal would be on the field.

Now he's headed to Louisville. You want to trash Louisville for taking McNeal? Free country. Not me. Because the reward is greater than the risk.

Former coach Randy Edsall raised similar issues before he left for Maryland. Edsall grew tired of watching talented players go elsewhere while admissions mulled transcripts. He said the kids he could get admitted in his early years at UConn were not being admitted at the end.

The UConn football program has been celebrated - repeatedly - for its academic achievement. It has been recognized by the American Football Coaches Association for its high Graduation Success Rates. In 2008, UConn had the highest GSR for African-American student-athletes among all state universities that participated in bowl games.

The program deserves the benefit of the doubt from admissions. Football players go to class. They achieve. Pasqualoni isn't going to insult admissions by recruiting someone who clearly can't succeed here.

I believe McNeal would have succeeded here.

On and off the field.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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