“You know what? I am nervous,” said Mandeldove, 30, who is a couple of weeks away from earning his degree in general education. “I’m nervous when it comes to finishing up and saying, ‘What’s next?’ I laid the groundwork, did all the dirty work, making sure my foundation was strong, and now it’s time for me to build a house.”
Mandeldove, after playing 46 games in three seasons, left UConn in 2009, three courses shy of graduation. His grades had plummeted. His departure helped sink the men’s basketball program academic progress rate (APR) scores, which eventually led to a postseason ban in 2013 because scores were so low. Mandeldove was held up as an example of the program’s academic woes on a CNN report in 2012.
But Mandelove is about to join Gavin Edwards, who earned his degree in 2015, Monquencio Hardnett, who got his in 2016, and Hilton Armstrong, an NBA veteran who earned his last August, in setting an example that is changing those perceptions.
The evidence came on Wednesday when the UConn men's basketball program received a Graduation Success Rate score of 67 percent, according to the NCAA. That is up from 22 percent in 2015 and a lowly 8 percent in 2014. The jump can be attributed to the players who entered the program in 2010 being counted.
Victoria Simonoff, the academic counselor for the team, said she hears from a few former players each semester, usually referred by former coach Jim Calhoun. She then lays out the academic road map for them.
“For some guys, they want to finish something they started,” Simonoff said. “For some, they want to keep a promise to a family member. Some, now they are having children and they want to show their child, ‘I did it.’ And there are some where, it’s the next phase of their life, so they need to get that degree so they can get that next job. Each story is a little bit different.”
Mandeldove, Edwards, Hardnett and Armstrong all graduated more than six years after entering the program, so their degrees don’t count in the graduation rates, but in cases where players hurt the APR score when they left, earning a degree restores the lost points to the program. With those points, UConn reached a perfect 1,000 four-year average last spring.
“It means so much to me to do this for them,” Mandeldove said, “because, and it’s sad to say this, what we also took away from the university. We were part of the one year where we didn’t meet the APR standards, so it’s gratifying, almost like winning a national champ to me, personally. It makes me smile inside and out to be part of something like this.”
Edwards, 29, has played professionally, mostly overseas, since leaving UConn — where he played in 123 games across four seasons — in 2010, and is currently with the Chiba Jets in Japan. He began taking classes, mostly online, at UConn in 2012 after contacting the program’s academic advisers and telling them he wanted to finish. He earned his degree in general studies.
“I felt that it would be a waste to have been given such an opportunity to receive a full scholarship and not complete the education to get a degree,” Edwards said. “I know that post high school education is always a major decision for people, because you take on a huge financial burden and I was given this gift, so I felt it was only right to complete it. I also felt bad for the guys that came in after me because I felt I had contributed to the low [APR] rating that got the program in trouble, so I wanted to correct that, although I know the damage was already done.”
Armstrong, 33, played 131 games at UConn from 2002-06, including the ’04 NCAA championship game, and was the 12th overall pick in the NBA Draft, He has played 292 games with seven NBA teams between 2006 and ’14, and is now playing in Japan with the Ryuku Golden Kings.
“I originally wanted to finish up my degree within two years of leaving UConn,” Armstrong said. “I was planning to take courses over the summer, since I only needed a few to graduate. But when the summers came, my schedule was more demanding than I expected. I wouldn't have been able to manage schoolwork and off-season training for basketball at the same time. After a while, I gave up on getting the degree because I was set financially and didn't think I needed it. But my mother would always tell me, ‘Boy go ahead and finish up, it's only a couple of classes.’”
So Armstrong, too, went back to school — with a push, not only from his mother, but from his sisters and his fiancee. With online classes over summers, he got his degree, like Hardnett and Edwards, in general studies.
“The summer classes were a whole semester packed in eight weeks,” Armstrong said. “I didn't have a day off. I had to manage the schoolwork, basketball training and try to keep my two kids entertained. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the help and support of my fiancee Annie Kolar. I honestly don't think I would have been able to do it without her. My mother would often call and check in on me. I would sometimes call her and complain about wanting to drop out because it was too much. But she wouldn't let me. She knew I could finish with an extra push.
“I have three older sisters that supported me also,” Armstrong said. “My sister closest to me in age just got her doctorate's a couple of weeks ago. We were both taking classes at the same time, and she would often check up on me, asking if I needed help. My middle sister had a huge impact on helping me organize everything and communicating with my academic adviser. She made the whole process run so smooth for me. My oldest sister, has been pushing me to go back to school and finish for years, so once she knew I went back, she was ecstatic. My dad is a funny guy. He would always make jokes about me going back to school and being so old, and I would make jokes about him just being old. But he was so proud of me for being strong enough to go back and not give up. Both of my parents are proud of all their children for getting their degrees. I was the only one that didn't have one, but now I do.”
Hardnett played 70 games at UConn between 1996 and ’98, and a few years ago contacted Calhoun and former teammates Richard “Rip” Hamilton and Kevin Freeman, now the Huskies’ director of basketball operations, who encouraged him to pursue it. Freeman put Hardnett in touch with Simonoff and Patricia Harkins, and the process began. Hardnett had tried on and off to complete studies close to his home in Macon, Ga., but returning to Storrs to arrange a game plan of online courses got it done.
“It was on top of my bucket list, man,” Hardnett said. “It was always a dream if mine. Once my playing days are over, I always wanted to go back. With the goals that I want, I needed that degree and the UConn family was always there for me.”
Now Hardnett, 40, who once looked enviously at the graduation photos he saw on the wall at UConn, has a degree to show his three children, and the teenagers he helps through the website, hypesouth.com, he started up with partner Kowacie Reeves.
“I want them to know it’s never too late,” Hardnett said. “It wasn’t easy, I had a couple of classes that seemed impossible, with the time frame I had, but having UConn, it already grabs people’s attention.”
Financial assistance from the athletic department is considered on a case-by-case basis. Mandeldove, after consulting with Calhoun, made the decision last summer to move from Syracuse, where he was the boys basketball coach and athletic director at Syracuse Academy of Science, back to Connecticut, and pay out of his own pocket to take the last course he needed, a four-credit urban sociology writing course. Hardnett reached out to tell him, “It’ll be an uphill battle, but a battle well worth fighting.” Mandeldove is working at Farmington Valley Transitional Academy and is interested in special education as well as basketball coaching.
“Now that he gets to write the next chapter in his book,” Simonoff said, “and change the storyline and the tone, I don’t think there’s a better person who can say, ‘I lived my example, don’t do what I did.’ … Just seeing them all come full circle, seeing how they’ve matured. When they talk to the current guys who have aspirations of leaving early — myself and the coaches, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about how it’s very important to stay in good standing so they can come back and finish — but seeing guys who have gone through it, who were in their position a few years ago, it’s eye-opening for them.”
All the recent graduates have a message for current players — pay attention to academics now, and never take your eyes off the academic prize.
“Sacrifice,” Mandeldove said. “Sacrifice the stuff that makes you happy now so that later on in life, the sacrifices will make you more happy, and the people around you happier. It will put you in situations where you have control of your life.”
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