Larson carries plenty of Edsall with him on the NL sideline
East Hartford - In the next month, you will read in national publications and on bigger websites about the implausible, improbable rise of UConn football. You will read all the stories about how Randy Edsall's office was once a trailer, how the weight room was barely bigger than a bread box. How various outposts of state intelligentsia doubted the move to big-time football with declarations and proclamations. The stories will get bigger, grander and even apocryphal for effect, all to underscore the achievement.
But there is a man among us, coaching a pretty big upcoming game himself, who doesn't need hyperbole to tell the story. Jeff Larson was there. Every day. He was there in 1999, a freshman when Randy Edsall was a first-year coach, when UConn vs. Oklahoma was a basketball game, only a basketball game. This was back when "BCS" meant "Boston College sucks" and nothing more in Storrs, Conn.
Jeff Larson, the football coach at New London High, has the Whalers in their 11th state championship game Saturday against Hillhouse. And there was some symmetry in Larson's locale on Monday, the luxury suite at Rentschler Field, the stadium that houses the brand new Big East champs. Larson, there for a media function in accordance with the high school championship games, was talking about the old days here in these new days not everyone saw coming.
"You know what I remember?" Larson was saying. "The day we were at Kentucky."
This was 1999. UConn opened the season with a loss to Hofstra. And the next week came a trip to Kentucky, which trumpeted the "air raid" offense. UConn had a 14-7 lead early in the game.
"Then they started scoring," Larson said. "Every time they scored, a siren went off because of 'air raid.'"
By the end, it was 45-14. Kentucky kept scoring late, much to Edsall's chagrin, prompting Kentucky coach Hal Mumme to say, "If Connecticut thinks it's too tough, they ought to not take the check."
Larson, though, remembered something else.
"Coach Edsall told us after the game to remember this," Larson said, "because there would come a day when we'd come down here and beat them."
The rest, as they say, is current events.
Larson remembers the little weight room and the trailers that doubled for offices and meeting rooms. But it's the speeches like that day in Lexington that resonated.
Larson went to the Army after high school, spending time in Fort Sill, Okla., and with the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Ky. He arrived at UConn at 20. He wanted to play football.
So he wore a suit and tie and marched into Edsall's office.
He was in military shape, sure. But his stature looked better suited for the band than the team.
"He gave me a shot," Larson said. "I could never repay him for that. I was some kid off the street."
Larson didn't play much. He appeared in four games at quarterback his senior year. But he made his way to the travel squad. More important, into the Edsall Hall of Fame.
"I can still remember the days in Memorial Stadium when the last game those kids painted 'Larson' across their chest and the chant for him to go in the game … and we put him in the game," Edsall said. "Just to see his enthusiasm and his passion … that's what's really unique."
It's the way Larson has coached the Whalers.
"He's instilled a lot of things in me, like the need for discipline and structure," said Larson, who was a graduate assistant coach under Edsall in 2004. "But mostly, it's the importance of giving every kid a shot. I wouldn't be standing here today if he didn't take a chance on me. Plus, he allowed me the chance to coach with him. I owe a lot to that man."
Plenty of Randy Edsall - and what he stands for - will be on the New London sideline on Saturday. The Whalers will stand on the same side of the field as UConn usually does, the protégé coaching the biggest game of his life in the same place the mentor has spun a college football story that will be told and told and told in the coming weeks.
It fits perfectly, this bond with Larson and Edsall. They were there in 1999 together. And they're better than ever 11 years later, ready to make more history.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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