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UConn donor earns mixed reviews over $3M demand

Employees and athletes at the University of Connecticut offered varying opinions Wednesday about Robert G. Burton, the largest donor to the UConn football program, who has asked for $3 million back from the university because of his frustration with Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway.

Former football player Rob Lunn extended stern criticism on a national website, while two veteran employees in the athletic department expressed support for Burton, acknowledging that his methods were extreme but his message was necessary.

"Burton may have gone about it the wrong way, and his language was strong," one employee said, "but the overall message needed to be said. We can't afford to lose any more donors, especially ones like Burton."

Lunn, a defensive tackle who graduated in 2009, wrote on Deadspin.com that even donors of considerable means must know their boundaries.

"Certainly, the Burton (Family) Football Complex, with its sprawling marble hallways and jacked-up sound system, is a better place to train, eat meals, practice, shower, and rehab," Lunn wrote. "But don't labor under the delusion that donating money, even $3 million, gets you into a film room or gets you any real input on game planning. No, that job is still solely the coaches' and will belong to them as long as it is their job to lose every Saturday."

Burton, who said he has given $7 million to the university, was angered over being ignored during the hiring process of new football coach Paul Pasqualoni. Burton sent a critical six-page letter to Hathaway last week that was obtained by The Day.

Burton wrote that he asked to kept "in the loop" of the hiring process, after a phone call on Jan. 3. The next time he heard from Hathaway, he wrote, was Jan. 13, after Pasqualoni had been hired. In the letter Burton challenged Hathaway's competence as an athletic director.

"It's symbolic of the greater issue," a departmental employee said. "Jeff is very good at reporting up (to superiors) but not good at communicating with people who work with him and for him. It's a huge problem."

The sources asked not to be identified for fear of creating an uncomfortable working environment for themselves.

Burton was involved in phone conversations Wednesday with UConn Interim President Philip Austin and Larry McHugh, chairman of the Board of Trustees. McHugh said the conversations were productive but wouldn't reveal details.

It is unclear if Burton's position about wanting his donation back has changed.

A printing industry executive who has lived in Greenwich for 30 years, Burton is chairman, chief executive officer and managing member of Greenwich-based Burton Capital Management, LLC. He provided the "lead gift" of $2.5 million for construction of the football complex.

Burton also gave additional funds to pay for an audio system and artwork around the building, which includes coaches' offices, an academic resource center, locker room and dining hall.

"After we get our money back, you can take our name off the complex," wrote Burton, who also has a luxury box at Rentschler Field and who donated more than $1 million to endow two scholarships at the school.

"Obviously donating money is a great thing for any cause, whether it be for sports or a charity," said Waterford's Zach Hurd, a two-year captain who graduated in December and is now preparing for the upcoming NFL combine at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix.

"We have one of the best facilities in the country," Hurd said, "and Mr. Burton should be proud of that, whether his name is on the building or not.

"I do know, however, that Jeff Hathaway has the best interests of the football program in mind. He talked with us captains after (former) Coach (Randy) Edsall left to get our thoughts, and if he feels he made the right decision for our football program, that's good enough for me. I just want the program to move forward and build on the success we started."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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