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UConn needs to make it a little easier for its football fans

We begin here: Any media person in Connecticut who doesn't root in some form for UConn sports doesn't get it.

Of course we root. Mostly for ourselves. We root for the byline — what makes the best story that day — and also for our media outlet's bottom line: What's going to generate the most readers/clicks/attention?

It doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't be critical of State U if the situation arises. But the bigger picture suggests UConn's success is better for all of us.

It is for the aforementioned reasons that empty seats — commonplace for UConn football games at Rentschler Field and emblematic of the program’s prolonged bout with losing — should concern all of us. Declining interest isn’t good for business. Theirs and ours.

So here is a modest proposal for the football program and athletic department in general: Could you, you know, help us out a little here? We’d really like to see the stadium full. Yet some of your institutional practices thus far are making it harder, not easier, for fans to get behind a program that’s barely a step above witness protection to the average state sports fan.

It began last week with a rather brusque email from athletic director David Benedict to UConn students, outlining new rules for student tailgating. It ended with the following:

“Law enforcement will have a greater presence than in past years to ensure that the tailgating policies are followed and that unacceptable behavior is wiped out. The student lot was created three years ago with the hope that providing an exclusive lot for students would create more enthusiasm and camaraderie among the student body and I still think that can be realized.

“However, if the student culture cannot adhere to the appropriate guidelines, the student tailgate lot privilege will be eliminated.”

Mr. Benedict might stop by the library on campus and fetch a copy of “How To Win Friends And Influence People.” Rather than meeting the students halfway — addressing them as young adults — he chose to be punitive. Enforcing policy can be executed without contempt. Benedict’s email sounded more like a missive from the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Worse, some UConn kids I’ve talked to in recent days say Benedict’s email was a total turnoff to much of the student body.

Perhaps that’s why the sprinkling of students who did show up left in the third quarter of the Wagner game last week.

Sad. Because the UConn athletic department’s recent decision to let students into games for free this year could have been a springboard into something great. It still could be. And while I do believe the students get a little whiny at times, they didn’t deserve the condescending tone.

Then comes UConn coach Randy Edsall’s decision not to release pregame depth charts (starters and top reserves) to the media — and by extension the fans — this season. We get a “participation squad” which last week featured 67 names. It’s confusing and cryptic to the people entrusted with conveying information to the public about the players.

“I'm just expecting all those guys have an opportunity to play, so let's go play,” Edsall said. “Who cares if you're first or second. ... We've got guys that are on the field playing but they're not listed as starters on the two deep.

“I know this: It might not make sense to anybody else, but it makes sense to me. Bottom line, that's what I care about, that it makes sense to me and makes sense to my players.”

Except that Edsall needs to care about more than what makes sense to him and his players. Not enough people care about his program right now. And making it more difficult to identify his players and their specific positions makes selling UConn football harder than it needs to be.

Think about it: Go ask your favorite sports fan to name five UConn football players right now. (Or perhaps one). They probably can’t. The people coming to Rentschler and watching at home need to be reintroduced.

Edsall’s bizarre and unilateral decision here to do away with the traditional depth chart — like his boss’s poor choice of words — just made selling a dying program harder than it needs to be.

I suspect the crowd Saturday for Illinois will be better than the gathering of friends and relatives for Wagner. Better time slot (3:30 p.m.) and better opponent. But I can’t say the behavior of athletic department officials has given them much incentive to show up. This is a fan base that needs to be cultivated all over again.

And UConn needs to do better.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro





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