It’s impossible to read Wednesday’s Star Tribune story about the abysmal ACT scores recorded by incoming Gophers football players without coming to this conclusion:

The University of Minnesota is taking a win-at-all costs approach to rebuilding its gridiron program. Here’s a question for U president Robert Bruininks, Athletic Director Joel Maturi and head coach Tim Brewster: Can’t a great university do better than this?

The story by Dennis Brackin had been in the works long before prize quarterback recruit MarQueis Gray was recently dropped from the program while officials review his academic record. Unfortunately, Gray’s case is not an isolated problem; it’s a high-profile symptom of a sports program taking a huge risk by relying far too much on players who don’t appear ready for college.

Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Brackin made a records request for the entrance exam scores for incoming freshman football players at Big Ten schools. Eight schools complied (the exceptions: Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State). The data was disturbing. The Gophers incoming freshmen had the lowest composite ACT score among the eight schools: an embarrassing 17.2 on national signing day. The score for all incoming recruits may even be lower, because the figure did not include the academic records of Minnesota’s unusually large class of junior college signees, who often are even more academically challenged. Typically, those scoring less than 18 on the well-known ACT are not considered ready for college-level study.

Amazingly, U officials seemed to downplay Brackin’s findings. Maturi, who was interviewed in late July, acknowledged that the incoming recruits included a number who had academic issues. But he said the U was confident that it had the resources to "allow them to be successful.’’ Besides, both Maturi and a U provost said, graduation rates — not incoming test scores — are the key stat to consider for at-risk students.

Unfortunately, those reassurances don’t inspire confidence that the U can do right by the latest batch of recruits. For a decade or more, the U’s football graduation rates have been either the Big Ten’s worst or close to it. According to the latest NCAA stats tracking six-year-graduation rates, Minnesota and Michigan State were the Big Ten’s basement dwellers; less than 50 percent of their players failed to get a degree. That’s not in the players’ best interest, since most of them will not play in the NFL and will need a degree. Nor is it in the U’s best interest.

Undoubtedly, there is intense pressure on the Gophers to field a winning team. No one wants a repeat of last year’s 1-11 record. And those who pushed for the new on-campus stadium understandably hope the team’s talent justifies the new digs and excites a new generation of fans and ticket buyers. But betting the team’s future on so many at-risk players is unwise, especially at a university where high-profile academic fraud in the basketball program is still a painful memory.

In its quest to become a world-class university, the U is demanding ever-higher entrance requirements from regular students, and the ACT for all incoming freshman this year is expected to be above 26.Desperation for gridiron victories and bowl games does not justify relaxing its standards for those who will take the field in maroon and gold.