East Hartford - It was during a recent conversation that a member of the UConn athletic staff admitted, albeit grudgingly, that there's relatively tepid interest in UConn football at the moment.
(Now just remember, all you keepers of the gate, that's a UConn guy's sentiment, not the musings of some terminal cynic/conspiracy theorist in the media).
"But," the UConn guy said, "it's nothing winning won't cure."
Perhaps he's right.
But we'd be naïve not to wonder, given how UConn football has more of a niche following than a statewide appeal, if Paul Pasqualoni is the right man for this job.
I know. Tough sentence, that last one. Especially on the night of the season opener.
It has nothing to do with Pasqualoni's resume. Or work ethic. He is, by all accounts, a man of principle. In another time, he might be a perfect guy here. But now?
UConn football needs a face. Someone around whom the fandom can rally and immediately identify with the program. Think what Kemba or Diana did for basketball or the constancy of Jim and Geno.
That face isn't a player at the moment. Whose current jersey would any of the fans wear? How many players can the fans name? Is there honestly one marquee player? Not to anybody outside of the diehards.
It's surely not "starting" quarterback Chandler Whitmer. How can you sell a fan base on the kid when he's part of a carousel with Scott McCummings?
The face of the program must be the coach. UConn needs a salesman as much as a tactician. Pasqualoni is not a salesman. It's just not part of his personality. That's not a character flaw. Just a fact. Randy Edsall wasn't exactly glib either.
And this is a disagreement Edsall and I had many times. I'd tell him he needed to interact with fans more. That he needed to be more like Jim and Geno, conduct more one-on-one interviews after practices and games. It's those sound bites, stories and pithy quotes that resonate with fans and media. Edsall always said that wasn't part of his personality.
Edsall, at least, had the novelty of the program. He was part of many firsts. The first home game, the first national television game, the first Big East game, the first bowl game, the first BCS berth.
Lots of fun days and nights.
But this has evolved, like it or not, into a nameless, faceless program. A program that can't sell anything but potential. And even if it does win, the winning is relative.
Football, fair or not, is going to be judged within the context of UConn's basketball's success. In basketball, "winning" means winning the Big East on Broadway, going to the Final Four or winning the national championship. In football, "winning" might be 7-5 or 8-4. With a couple of wins against UMass, Buffalo, Western Michigan or other programs with no sex appeal.
Can UConn football sell that to a fan base not versed in the college football culture of other parts of the country?
If you are a football fan, you have been awash in the excitement of the week. Football is back. On such an anticipated night across the country, UConn couldn't sell out its home opener. The crowd was announced at 35,270. There were rows of empty seats. Few rows in the stadium were completely rear-end-to-rear-end.
According to the State Office of Policy and Management, about 36,300 seats, not 40,000, compose the outdoor seats of Rentschler Field. Most of that is bench seating rather than individual chairs, usually eliminating the appearance of empty seats. No such luck Thursday night.
If 36,300 is the actual space we see, there couldn't have been 30,000 watching.
That speaks to a program that needs to be sold. Because the passions of the Connecticut fandom aren't walking through that turnstile.
I hope I'm wrong about this. I hope Pasqualoni wins here. But if interest in the program remains lukewarm, athletic director Warde Manuel must ask himself if there's a better way to sell this. And it might be with a new coach.
This is premature for now, sure. There's a season to play. But it bears watching.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.