At some point, this has to change. Because it's one thing if you are a university in a big city where the sporting menu offers professional options. But this is Connecticut. This is UConn basketball. This is our primary - and only - connection to the national stage.
And yet there was Jim Calhoun the other day "campaigning for more fan support" as The Day's Gavin Keefe wrote in his advance of Tuesday's game against Rutgers. Fancy that. The linchpin for Huskymania as we know it is suddenly left to solicit fan support.
It's not that UConn's attendance in men's and women's basketball is poor. Relatively speaking, it's to be envied at many other outposts. But it's not close to where it used to be, should be, could be.
Theories abound. It's the economy. It's donor-based seating, where some fans perceive the more they give the worse their seats get. It's technology: Why would I schlep through snow and cold on a winter's night when I can watch every game in HD? It's a spoiled fan base.
To a degree, they're all true.
But there's one other factor.
The dirty little secret in the athletic department that some of its employees aren't keeping a secret any longer is that the donor list - including some erstwhile heavy hitters - is shrinking. It's not just Joe Average who feels a little unappreciated and isn't showing up anymore. It's the suits, too. And while the suits often tick off the real fans for a lack of passion and penchant for not showing up, their checks keep athletic departments self-sufficient.
Why does it feel like the donors are in witness protection?
Start with the absence of Paul Pendergast.
Many of you probably have no idea who he is, what he did or his significance to the university. But Pendergast did his job the way Calhoun and Geno Auriemma do theirs.
Pendergast was the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Development. That's an ornate way of saying he knew the guys with the money and the guys with the money knew him. Even better, they liked him. A people person who knew what he was doing. By the time he left in 2006 to be the Chief Development Officer for Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, donorship was percolating.
Neither Pendergast nor his position was replaced.
This needs to be explained.
The Big Three coaches, Calhoun, Auriemma and the departed Edsall have wondered aloud why this is the case. The money guy, the connected guy, the guy who got things done or knew people who could … and you don't replace him?
It's another example of a fractured leadership structure that survives because it has Calhoun and Auriemma running two of the top programs in the country.
One person familiar with the department's inner workings said, "Lew (former athletic director Lew Perkins) used to do a slow burn when the two rows at the top of the (XL) Center were empty. He'd never stand for what we're seeing now."
We can debate subtle changes in the way the teams are marketed or perhaps changes in ticket pricing, ticket packages or incentives to get people to come to games again and not just events. But the No. 1 priority is to fill Pendergast's job, preferably with someone who has the same people skills and connections.
It's unclear where a careful examination of athletics will fall on incoming UConn president Susan Herbst's list of priorities. Like it or not, though, sports are one of the primary frames of reference most state residents have toward UConn. She needs to ask the question: Is the university doing what it can - or should be doing - to serve its fan base?
This is a difficult subject to keep on point. Opinions vary about why there are more empty seats than there should be, given that we do not live in a pro sports market. Soon, the discussion is more all over the place than fertilizer in the spring.
You start with Pendergast's unfulfilled job for five years. In those five years, attendance has plummeted while the men have been to the Final Four and the women have won 90 straight. It makes no sense for heavy hitters not to be involved in some capacity. Maybe not to the degree they were when the economy was better. But why would corporate Connecticut not want to associate itself with Final Fours and 90 straight?
The answer: Corporate Connecticut lost its link to the university.
The result: Empty seats for TV cameras.
President Herbst should wonder why.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.