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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Here is UConn football’s path to salvation

    The tribalistic waves dividing our country — you’re either with us or against us — tug at a tenet of critical thinking: that two concepts, while perhaps conflicting, can be true at the same time.

    This applied to the recent comments of UConn football coach Jim Mora, who has been criticized for speaking his mind about the importance of more cash infusion into the program.

    Two things are true at the same time: Yes, Mora should understand that taking on a dying program was Herculean, despite last season’s mirage, and should be careful with woe-is-us narratives. And, yes, Mora was (and is) thoroughly correct about the necessity of a deeper dive into Name-Image-Likeness, an increasingly vital initiative across the country, whereby college athletes are allowed to receive financial compensation.

    “If you want to attract players that can beat the teams on our schedule, you’re going to have to pay them, and you’re going to have to pay them NIL money, and you have to increase their cost of attendance, and you have to give them better housing and give them better opportunities to earn money, and unfortunately right now we don’t have much of that,” Mora said recently on his radio show.

    “And I’m fearful for this program if that doesn’t happen, because the teams we’re tasked with trying to beat have those things and they can go attract players with money. We have great facilities, we have a lot of people around here that care, but without the money, I look at those schedules in the future and I realize if we don’t get some money pouring into this program, some dark days are ahead.”

    NIL’s concepts and applications are often misunderstood — or not understood at all — thus encouraging public opinion to condemn its significance. And while perhaps paying players is odious to many of us who still value the concept of higher education, NIL is the newest illustration of athletic Darwinism. Our individual opinions are irrelevant. Adapt and adjust to the new reality or get left woefully behind.

    The words of Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy, responding to a question as to where and how athletic departments should spend their money:

    “Don’t build it, put the money in the bank,” Gundy said at a recent media session. “Put the money in the bank and spend it on NIL. That’s just the future. I’m not saying I agree with it. I only know the signs of the times.

    “Players used to want to go somewhere for shiny new facilities and new uniforms and things like that. They still want to go somewhere where they win, but they also want the other stuff. I’m going to hypothetically build a situation: If you brought in 50 of our players and said ‘We’ll NIL you $50-60,000 a year in cash or we can build you a new weight room and meeting room, which one do you want?’ They’re gonna take (the money), right? That’s what kids do nowadays.”

    This is by no means a criticism of UConn’s current NIL structure. UConn has a dedicated initiative on campus and two independent collectives. But it needs to keep pounding the drum to educate its fans and graduates. Football has the most players and requires the most cash. Lest you wonder about other NIL forays, try this one: A published report says per a new collective, every player on the Utah football team gets a Dodge Ram pickup truck. And it is perfectly within today’s rules.

    UConn fans need to know how and where they can contribute. And why. Some (and not just at UConn) have been reluctant to give for ideological reasons. And while it is noble to maintain a value system, there is a practical side: If you don’t contribute to future successes, don’t complain about current failures.

    “We’ve heard it all, right? Our fan base is no different than any other fan base. Our coaches are no different than any other coaches in college sports,” Oklahoma State athletic director Chad Weiberg said during a recent media opportunity. “This is not the way college athletics has worked all these years and decades. There are a fair amount of people that don’t like it.

    “It is now part of college athletics. It is not going away. And for us to remain competitive, it’s one of the areas that we are going to have to compete in. We have to continue to do a good job in the area of educating and telling our fans how they can get involved. There are a lot of ways that they can get involved and I think that is part of the confusion.”

    And here’s the “believe it or not” of the century: NIL can be UConn football’s path to salvation. There is nothing stopping UConn from organizing and running a lucrative, football-centric NIL initiative that would allow Mora more means to compete for better players. Remember Gundy’s words: “They’re gonna take the money, right?”

    Suddenly, playing an independent schedule 20 miles off campus in an empty stadium doesn’t seem so bad if one has cash in one’s pocket and a new Dodge Ram truck.

    UConn has decades and decades and decades worth of successful graduates and a state full of fans who have some money to spend (to varying degrees). They need to start spending it on an NIL initiative that would benefit football. It’s been established that football — and only football — will pave the way for UConn’s entry into a bigger conference and more money.

    And for football to awaken, Mora needs more. UConn needs to educate all of us on how such mechanisms work. There’s really nothing else more important in the entire athletic department.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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