The University of Connecticut won its fourth national championship in men’s basketball Monday night, and the university could celebrate once more Tuesday night if the women’s team tops Notre Dame in the women’s basketball national championship game. Without a doubt, UConn is a basketball school first, second, and perhaps even third. So where does football rank and will the school ever be able to manage to feel the same sense of pride on the gridiron as it does on the hard court?
Not likely, but that does not mean raising the bar is out of reach for the Huskies.
Success in basketball did not happen overnight in Storrs, Connecticut, but the path to making the cutting down of nets a regular expectation is much farther along than it is in football. Sometimes we forget that Connecticut is still in the first generation of the program’s FBS lifespan. The Huskies made the move up form the FCS to the FBS in 2000. The move was made in 2000 but was in the works for about a decade. The school feared it would be left behind in the future changing landscape of the college sports world if it did not commit to upgrading the football program. In 1997 the Big East gave UConn and Villanova a deadline to decide if they would make the move to the FBS and join the Big East’s football conference. Villanova turned down the invite because the financial backing for big time football just was not available. It may not have been there for UConn either, but the university voted to go for it anyway, believing the move to the FBS would help protect the school’s Division 1-A status in basketball. In retrospect, that is some silly logic but hindsight is always 20/20.
So UConn made the move and would soon join the Big East in football, ultimately replacing a dismal Temple football program in the process. Making the move to the FBS meant making a commitment to improving the program, which meant building a new football stadium to meet the minimum attendance requirement. Getting a new stadium built was quite an ongoing challenge though as funding and support dropped along the way and UConn got thrown in to the mix for a potential stadium deal for the New England Patriots. Eventually the donors came through and plans for Rentschler Field were put in to motion.
UConn finally joined the Big East in football in 2004, and they marked that monumental season with the first bowl victory in program history with a win in the Motor City Bowl. Since joining the Big East the Huskies have gone to five bowl games and appeared as high as No. 16 in the AP top 25. Randy Edsall did a commendable job in making UConn a decent program while he was in charge of the program. Edsall’s 2010 Huskies finished in a tie for first place in the Big East and won an invite to the BCS bowl line-up thanks to tiebreakers in the conference. Many mocked UConn for not belonging in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, but the bottom line was they had earned their spot under the guidelines of the Big East and the BCS. They had nothing to be ashamed of and nobody to apologize to. The Fiesta Bowl may not have provided the storyboook ending against Oklahoam that Boise State once cherished, but the bar was set high for the program.
Since then, UConn has failed to clear the bar and once again it feels as though football is being left behind in the evolving college athletics landscape.
Edsall capitalized on his success in Storrs and accepted a job at Maryland, who joins the Big Ten later this year. The Huskies hired former Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni and the results were not all that great. UConn stuck to their football commitment and were abandoned by their longtime basketball rivals in the process. Pittsburgh and Syracuse left te Big East for the ACC. Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence and more ended up keeping the Big East banner for a new conference that would have been more fitting for UConn if not for the football commitment. Now the Huskies reside in the American Athletic Conference, which will soon be abandoned by Louisville and includes a Cincinnati program that would not mind switching conference allegiances either. UConn will compete with the likes of East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa, Houston, SMU and Temple in football. No offense to those schools, but that was clearly not the vision Connecticut had back in 1997 when the school voted to join the Big East in football.
The new College Football Playoff era will leave a door cracked for a potential UConn playoff run, but so many things will have to happen for that to become a possibility. The sad reality is that opportunity may be extremely difficult to grab for years to come. UConn has not finished a season in the AP top 25, but they will have to finish a regular season in the top four to likely ever be considered for a playoff shot. Even then, considering the strength of schedule argument, UConn will have plenty of cards stacked against them.
If the university still has a commitment to a long-term vision, a path to football glory can still be paved. That path would likely have to detour to a new conference home though, but the ACC may be the conference that has to make that call and right now nobody is picking up the phone in Greensboro. Could that change? Never say never, but if UConn plays this smartly they will have other plans to evaluate if they want the football program to one day be considered a threat in the College Football Playoff era.