Can UConn football be saved? Experts: 'a solid maybe'
Ah, the byproducts of losing: blame assessment, fan disenchantment, pervasive disgust. Maybe that's why winning a football game at UConn may be the only endeavor more difficult than having an earnest conversation about its travails without it going off the rails.
And so the big picture question — can UConn football be saved? — often sinks into the quagmire, the truth degenerating into this amorphous, subjective abstraction whose pursuit mirrors poor Sisyphus, rolling the mythical boulder for eternity.
Can it be saved? It's a solid maybe, according to a number of folks tethered to college sports interviewed recently. The panel consists of current and former coaches and administrators in and out of UConn and other Div. I football-playing schools. What follows is a compilation of their answers.
It begins with a fancy word, uttered by about a half dozen respondents: "programmatically." Its literal definition means "done using a computer program," but bears easier understanding for athletic purposes. UConn football must be saved "programmatically," or through every facet of the program and university, not merely by a hot, new, young head coach who won't be the singlehanded elixir.
"Blame the head coach. Blame the ADs. Blame bad presidents. Blame conference musical chairs. Blame other schools," one former Div. I administrator said. "In the end, who is rolling up their sleeves to figure this out programmatically? It is UConn's responsibility, top on down, to find a way to best position the program. What are they doing? Waiting till the next conference blowup? Are they really rowing the boat together? I don't see much of a plan there."
In no particular order, here are their observations and suggestions:
• A hands-on football administrator. It's the job, one former administrator said, "of the Board of Trustees, president and AD to figure this out and resource to it. The coach is one factor. But it starts with a hands-on football administrator." UConn doesn't have an administrator dedicated to football alone. Creation of that job would signal staff and resource commitment that a program in peril needs desperately.
• Schedule, schedule, schedule. This was, by far, the biggest criticism lobbed at UConn's current hierarchy. The schedule, as one person said, "is like manure in the garden. It's all over the place."
Primary suggestion: Leverage basketball assets. Example: UConn got a Big 10 opponent to open Rentschler Field (Indiana) because members of the Lew Perkins Administration reached out to Indiana and offered a men's basketball series: Open our football stadium and we'll play you in basketball. Indiana agreed. At least one of the basketball games (a beauty at the XL Center) was on CBS. Win-win.
Subsequent example: The University of Buffalo men, women and football teams all played at UConn on the same weekend, all part of the same schedule agreement. Granted, Buffalo rates at the bottom of the sex appeal meter, but the scheduling concept is intriguing.
Scheduling synergy was past practice at UConn. Geno Auriemma used to say, "I'll know my schedule after I've seen football's."
• Never repeat the foibles of the 2021 schedule. As the late, great Dee Rowe said, "You can tell if someone spent 20 minutes on a schedule or 20 weeks."
It's not just who the Huskies are playing this year, but when. One administrator with a deep background in scheduling called UConn's schedule "a helicopter drop." Another thinks there are certain hard, fast scheduling rules UConn must adopt.
"First, you always open with an FCS opponent. It's a better chance to win and a better chance to gain confidence and spread optimism," he said. "Second, I get that as an independent, you have to schedule the 'money' games on the road. (Games where UConn is the prohibitive underdog but brings home a seven-figure check.)
"You always schedule a bye after that game. It gives the kids a chance to heal physically after what is usually a tough time. And don't ever schedule a football game after Thanksgiving at home. It conflicts with basketball, keeps the kids here after Thanksgiving which is an added expense and the weather is no good for the fans."
UConn's 2021 schedule violates all three. It opened at Fresno State, plays at Central Florida the week after Clemson (but after an odd two-week bye before) and ends two days after Thanksgiving at home against Houston.
The Fresno State game was a disaster both competitively and logistically. Why would a program that hadn't played in two years— or at any time, really — agree to open a season 3,000 miles away at an odd start time (11 a.m.) against a superior opponent? Plus, the average high temperature in Fresno in late August is well into the 90s. It was setting the program up to fail.
In future years, UConn opens at Utah State (2022), home against Duke (2023) and at Maryland (2024). That's a recipe for 0-1, 0-1 and 0-1 — and a haven for naysayers and I-told-you-sos.
University sources say Houston officials asked UConn to schedule the game late this year so the Cougars could accommodate their American Athletic Conference schedule. It is unclear if UConn got anything in return.
"Scheduling has a strategy. Almost an art for something that's so unscientific," one administrator said. "You schedule these games four and five years in advance and sometimes, you never know. But UConn looks like they're just plugging in gaps with no strategy."
• Most interviewees agreed that UConn's first foray with Randy Edsall went better because former athletic director Lew Perkins committed to perpetual staff and resource enhancement, scheduling strategies and consistent communication with the dramatis personae. It led to competitive equity, better student athlete performance and more revenue. Heck, in just a few short years, they went from dotting Memorial Stadium to filling Rentschler Field.
It'll require more than a coach, what with insufficient talent, no recruiting base, no conference affiliation, future schedules wrought with games they can't win (Ohio State, Michigan, NC State), games nobody cares about (Utah State, Ball State and Florida International), an ambivalent fan base and an empty home stadium that's 20 miles from campus.
Hence, UConn needs a plan. Does it have one? Only members of the hierarchy know for sure. And those folks are selective when and to whom they decide to speak. Funny thing about sports, though: The facts are revealed somewhere along the line, no matter what levels of spin doctoring happen.
Bottom line: Further blame assessment here is useless. It's time to roll up the sleeves. Programmatically.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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