UConn football is in a state of flux. The school has not won an FBS-level game since 2011, but the program hasn’t collapsed completely yet. There are still moments where this once-proud empire of gridirons can be seen on their former glory days, but currently UConn finds themselves at the bottom rung of college football’s top tier system. Expert analysis and insight into what went wrong for one of the most storied programs in America will help you understand how it happened.,
The “Connecticut Huskies” is a school that has seen its football program go from the top of the college football world to an afterthought in just 12 years. The school’s struggles are brought into light by David Halberstam’s new book, “The School That Realignment Left Behind.”
STORRS, CONNECTICUT — Bowl trophies gleam within their immaculately kept glass cases in the entrance of the UConn football complex, a constant reminder that the Huskies were previously neither the brunt of football jokes or the subject of unending debate about their FBS future.
“You had this program that was on a rocket ship,” says Dan Orlovsky, a former UConn quarterback and current ESPN commentator. Orlovsky opted to play for the Huskies because he observed the team’s upward direction and wanted to help establish the groundwork for long-term success in the FBS, particularly as a new member of the Big East football conference. Randy Edsall, then-coach, sold the concept that UConn belonged among the major schools, he recalls.
Orlovsky was convinced. Orlovsky’s former linebacker Alfred Fincher, who played alongside him from 2001 to 2004, felt the same way. Fincher said, “We were constructing something that may be extraordinary.” “And as we got out of there, we could see the advantages.”
As the school moved from FCS to FBS to the Big East, Edsall led the team to success, culminating in a Fiesta Bowl berth as Big East champions in 2010. After that season, Edsall stepped down, but the UConn football team was already in peril.
Conference realignment caused havoc on the college scene shortly after, severely damaging the Big East. One might argue that no program has suffered more as a result of the repercussions than UConn.
Since the Big East ceased to exist as a football league in 2013, UConn has gone 21-73, including 1-8 entering Saturday’s game against Clemson. Realignment isn’t the only thing at play, however. Poor coaching choices, rising financial problems, and a tug-of-war with its higher-profile basketball teams over the best way ahead have all led to UConn’s current situation.
Even still, the drop has been considerably more dramatic than anybody could have predicted.
“It was a spectacular ascent, and it was an equally precipitous collapse,” Orlovsky added. “I’m still surprised as I sit here. I’m surprised they’ve ended themselves in this predicament.”
The Huskies have suffered through ten consecutive losing seasons. Icon Sportswire/Matthew Maxey
UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT EX-COACH Paul Pasqualoni recalls the ACC’s last realignment announcement in 2012, when it was announced that Louisville would replace Maryland over UConn. The news hit him like a “huge blow in the gut,” he says.
In a recent phone chat, Pasqualoni remarked, “To say it was a challenging day would be putting it simply.” “The disappointment of missing out on the ACC and all it entailed, both in terms of football and finances, was crushing. Every day in recruitment after that was spent attempting to convey where we were heading in the future. And it became a lot more tough.”
It turns out that the ACC had already selected another Big East institution over UConn. As schools and conferences around the nation assessed themselves and their long-term prospects in 2011, conference realignment was at its peak. As a league that not only began with basketball but also included institutions that did not field FBS football teams, the Big East had its own set of conditions.
The Big East faced a critical scenario in 2011 as football increasingly drove the financial locomotive. The league had a chance to secure its existence with a hefty broadcast agreement with ESPN. Some in the meeting, though, believed the league could garner more money on the open market. As a result, the Big East declined the offer. Following that, the ACC began to express interest in a number of Big East clubs.
One of those clubs, according to one person engaged in the conversations, was UConn. Adding Syracuse-UConn to the ACC was once regarded to be tremendously advantageous on the basketball side, as it would not only increase basketball within the league but also destabilize the formidable Big East basketball brand. However, according to the source, resistance to UConn arose quickly, beginning with Boston College, which did not want to share the New England area. Then there was the NCAA scandal, which started under then-basketball coach Jim Calhoun.
“Those types of scenarios make college presidents really nervous,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The ACC presidents were a bit gun-shy about Connecticut as a group.”
Pittsburgh quickly became the favorite to join Syracuse in the ACC. Susan Herbst, then-UConn president, and Jeff Hathaway, then-athletic director, both refused to comment. Dan Toscano, the current head of the UConn board of trustees, recalls hearing the news while seated in Calhoun’s box.
“Perhaps we were a touch complacent,” Toscano said. “We could see the earth trembling, but I’m not sure we realized how violently it was trembling. I wasn’t surprised in the sense that this may have disastrous consequences for us. Because we had such a strong brand. If you had told me at the time, “This is what UConn would look like in five years,” I would have replied, “NFW.””
When Maryland moved for the Big Ten the next year, the ACC had another hole. Pasqualoni claimed he was not engaged in any of the talks with Herbst or Warde Manuel, the then-athletic director, who also refused to speak.
Pasqualoni, on the other hand, said, “We seemed to be in excellent form. I’m not sure whether we were too confident. I’m not sure whether the ACC planned on picking Louisville all along. But I’m going to be completely honest with you. That was not my impression at all.”
If the first round of debates did not go very far, the second round went all the way to the wire. However, UConn was confronted with two major obstacles once again. The previous year, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich battled valiantly for admission to the Big 12, only to lose out to West Virginia. He claimed the whole ordeal only helped to fuel his determination to ensure Louisville was not left out again.
Jurich had previously guided Louisville from Conference USA to the Big East in 2005, and he understood how to sell his program not just once, but often. Nothing else was important to him.
When UConn re-entered the Big East, many in Storrs were overjoyed. However, the football club was left without a conference as a result of the transfer. Pat Eaton-Robb/Associated Press
Second, the University of Louisville’s football team was on the rise. The Cardinals reached the Sugar Bowl in 2012, as UConn was in the midst of their second straight 5-7 season. Louisville possessed superior facilities, a larger sports budget, and a more overall commitment to the whole department. Despite the fact that UConn had the academic advantage, Louisville ticked off more boxes.
As a consequence, UConn was relegated to the second division of a newly constituted league. Because of football, UConn was required to remain in the American Athletic Conference when the basketball-playing schools broke out and preserved the Big East moniker. Because the other sports programs never intended to leave the Big East, the decision exacerbated tensions across the athletic department.
Instead, all teams had to recruit the Northeast with a schedule that included games in Texas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma rather than their regional rivals. In football, it meant competing against colleges within your area, such as Syracuse and Boston College, who were members of the league that had left you out.
The situation got so intolerable that UConn chose to declare its football program independent and rejoin the Big East in 2020 with the rest of its sports.
“There’s been a narrative that we got the worst result in whatever universe of significant athletic programs you want to define because of how league realignment panned out,” Toscano said. “That is what is being said about Kansas right now. It makes no difference. To us, it’s all about who we are and what we’re trying to do. The rest is stuff you discuss over a pint of beer.”
Randy Edsall put together the UConn squad that won a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, but he couldn’t repeat the feat. Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
When Edsall returned to UConn for a second time in 2017, ORLOVSKY attended the first spring practice. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a squad that lacked the toughness and athleticism needed to compete in big college football.
“‘What happened?’ I recall going into his office, locking the door, and asking. I had no idea the show’s talent had fallen so drastically “Orlovsky said.
If if the football troubles were only about adjusting to a new environment after realignment. Unfortunately for football, three successive head coaching choices failed, putting the football program even further into a hole — not just in terms of competition, but also in terms of finances. Pasqualoni was appointed in 2011 based on his head-coaching qualifications and links to the region, having previously served as the head coach of Syracuse and being a Connecticut native. But he never won a game and was sacked after going 0-4 in his third season in 2013.
After a bowl berth in 2015, Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco replaced him, but things went south after that, and he was sacked the next year after finishing 11-26 overall. Diaco said in a phone conversation that he thought he had adequate administrative assistance, facilities, and funds to complete the task.
“With the expectations where they were last year, I simply didn’t win enough games,” Diaco said. “It wasn’t for a lack of resources or assistance, however. To be honest, it was all my fault. It’s a production industry, and you don’t get to do it if it’s not there. I accepted full responsibility. I don’t believe they were caused by a lack of resources, a conference, or anything else.”
UConn chose to bring Edsall back in the hopes that his experience with both UConn and the recruiting process would help the Huskies get back on track. However, after his previous stint as head coach, things had changed. UConn was a member of a separate league before becoming independent, which made recruitment even more challenging. Edsall had evolved as a coach as well, having grown seven years older and no longer been on the cutting edge of anything new.
With some of his assistant coaching selections, he did himself no favors, and the problems only became worse. Because of the coronavirus epidemic, UConn decided not to play football in 2020.
Edsall resigned two games into the 2021 season after deciding he’d had enough. He did not respond to a request for comment.
“I believe he had the best of intentions,” Orlovsky added. “He had the backing of everyone at that institution when he initially arrived. We’re going to give it a go. That’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re delusory if we believe he’ll ever have that kind of dedication and support again.”
Toscano was adamantly opposed to the idea.
“We put forth a lot of effort to get here,” Toscano added. “We put a lot of money into it and made a strategic decision to compete at the top level.”
JACKSON MITCHELL WAS A TEN-YEAR-OLD WATCHING THE 2011 Fiesta Bowl from his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, about an hour and a half away from the UConn campus. Even though the Huskies fell 48-20 to Oklahoma, Mitchell felt that anything was possible at UConn after watching them on the big stage.
He made a commitment to himself when he signed as one of the best high school players in the state in 2019, that he would help bring UConn back. Mitchell has heard all the jokes and seen all the memes mocking his team’s current situation after three years.
But he refuses to be swayed by the negative.
In the aftermath of Randy Edsall’s dismissal, the UConn squad has united behind interim head coach Lou Spanos. Gregory Fisher is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
“This can’t go on forever,” said the third-year linebacker. “It’ll eventually come out. It’s possible that it won’t happen straight away. It may not happen in the next three games, but someday, people will realize, ‘Oh, maybe they have something there.’ Then it’ll just keep stacking up, and they’ll ultimately say, “That’s a good squad.” It just takes some time.”
David Benedict, who hired Edsall, is now in charge of choosing the next head coach at UConn. He stands on the sideline and listens to what opposing supporters have to say to his players, which is a much more personal experience than what they read on social media.
“You’d want to think such things create character,” Benedict added, “but winning is crucial.” “It is critical for those children to experience and attain achievement. For the time being, it is our only choice.”
Since the Fiesta Bowl participation, UConn has had ten consecutive losing seasons, prompting widespread debate about how much further the team can survive as an independent and in the FBS. UConn has a broadcast deal with CBS Sports that runs through the 2023 season, with games planned until 2028.
“How do you define long term in collegiate athletics?” Benedict remarked. “All I can say is that, based on what we have on paper right now in terms of scheduling, we have a wonderful runway to work things out.” In collegiate sports, five or six years is an eternity. That transformation, I believe, will continue. In collegiate sports, the only thing that is constant is change.
“While there has been a lot of talk about conference realignment lately, I don’t think it will end after this cycle, and conferences and institutions will continue to assess things. Moving ahead, there will be opportunities. And we’ll keep doing what we believe is in the best interests of the University of Connecticut and our football program.”
However, the financial difficulties are genuine. The school has a $43.5 million deficit in the 2019-20 fiscal year. UConn will eliminate four sports in 2020 in order to save $10 million in institutional funding for the athletic department by 2023. School authorities, on the other hand, are certain that the Huskies will not drop a level, and deny that there isn’t a full and total commitment to make football a success.
The infrastructure is in place, including a $57.9 million freestanding football complex completed in 2006, which several Power 5 institutions, such as Florida State, lack.
The new head coach has been appointed. Jim Mora, who most recently coached at UCLA in 2017 and previously served as the head coach of Atlanta and Seattle in the NFL, was hired by UConn on Thursday. Despite the fact that Mora has no links to the Northeast, Benedict described him as a “proven winner” in a statement announcing his hiring “and he has the expertise and the will to bring our football program back to prominence. Jim is enthusiastic and unafraid of this task, and we both believe that this initiative has a lot of promise.”
Everyone in the program feels that the proper coach, with the appropriate fit and temperament, can get the job done, particularly the players, who claim they have grown closer over the previous two years as a result of the hardship they have encountered. Interim coach Lou Spanos, according to the players, has helped them adjust their mindset and is someone they have rallied behind.
In 2022, UConn will have a youthful squad, featuring freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh, who showed signs of potential in three games before sustaining a knee injury. His elder brother, Taisun, is the backup quarterback at Clemson, thus he won’t be allowed to play against them. However, he, like Mitchell, feels that huge things are on the way.
Phommachanh said, “We’re going to finish this season as strong as possible.” “Definitely attempt to showcase our abilities against these three major opponents, but we’ll have something cooking in the summer. I guarantee it.”
While Benedict does not consider the new coaching hiring to be a game-changer, others do.
“We’re going to have to make some harsh choices if this doesn’t succeed,” Toscano added. “I’m optimistic that we’ll find the proper individual for the job and that we’ll be successful. If we can’t do this right the first time, I’m not sure we have the time or resources to try again. You have to question at some point whether there isn’t anything more wrong that we’ve overlooked. Running a collegiate football team, particularly at the FBS level, is costly, but it’s part of who we are, so we’re expected to make it work. And if it doesn’t, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and declare, “I accept responsibility for this.””
Benedict, for one, is focused on doing all he can to assist the incoming head coach win as quickly as possible.
“We’re going to succeed,” Benedict said. “When we win, everyone will be joyful again, and those kinds of remarks or dialogues will cease.”
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