I remember the game well: UConn vs. South Florida on a rainy Saturday in October 2007. Andre Dixon ran wild, the defense made a game-saving goal-line stand, and the No. 25 Huskies beat the No. 10 Bulls, 22-15, for their first victory over a ranked opponent in school history.
I attended the game with my two sons (16 and 12 at the time), one of many games we enjoyed at Rentschler Field during the early years of Division I football at the University of Connecticut.
That’s the way it was during “Randy Edsall 1.0,” the initial phase of D-I football in Storrs. The Huskies played in five bowl games between 2004 and 2011. But then Edsall left unceremoniously for Maryland immediately following the team’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma in 2011.
UConn football has never been the same – not even under “Randy Edsall 2.0.” Hired once again in 2017 to restore the program to its former success, Edsall’s return has been a disappointment. His record of 6-32 over 3+ seasons resulted in his agreeing to step down as head coach just one day after announcing he’d retire at the end of the season.
In a perfect world, the question would be who should replace Edsall. (Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos is the interim coach.) But the truly essential question involves the very future of UConn football itself. Should it remain an independent program or seek an elusive conference affiliation in major Division-I (FBS) football, an environment that strongly favors the “Power Five” conferences? Should it drop down to the lower Division-I level (FCS) and rejoin such old Yankee Conference foes as New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island, now members of the Colonial Athletic Association? Or should it drop football altogether?
Many Connecticut taxpayers prefer the final option and would pull the plug on the entire program. We still have to pay Edsall for the rest of this year, they say, and we’re still paying the $3.4 million buyout for former coach Bob Diaco. “Thus, the University is paying $4.4 million in head coach salary this season to two coaches – one employed by the university [sort of], the other not,” reports CTByTheNumbers.
What’s more, as the Hartford Courant reported in January of 2020, “Football, which suffered the biggest hit from the decline in conference revenue, was once again UConn’s most costly [athletic] program in 2019, with $16.6 million in reported expenses against $3.3 million in revenue.”
That said, UConn athletics is not alone as a money-loser. As I wrote when Edsall was rehired in 2017, “Very few athletic programs at any level make money. Only 24 of the 128 FBS schools turned a profit in 2014, according to the NCAA.” And it’s not as if Edsall, the 73rd highest-paid FBS coach among all 128, was earning a king’s ransom.
Upper-echelon D-I football, in fact, can be a net gain for entire athletic programs. As reported by the Hartford Business Journal in 2014, “… an examination of regional and national big-time college athletics programs shows their revenues and margins are driven by football. Syracuse, for example, earned $33.2 million in football revenue in fiscal ’12-13; Boston College raked in $22.9 million; Duke earned $24.1 million; and Texas made $109.4 million.”
But to be successful, big-time college football requires recruiting leverage, something UConn lacks – and, apparently, a major factor in Edsall’s bolting the program the first time.
Mike DiMauro, sports columnist for The Day of New London, explains that Edsall was a victim of his own success – with his football players’ performance in the classroom, that is:
“In 2003, UConn was the only public I-A school to graduate at least 90% of its football players. In 2005, UConn was one of only eight schools to graduate 70% and win a bowl game. In 2007, UConn’s APR, the measure of academic progress at the time, placed the Huskies among the top 20% of all football programs in the country.”
“And yet,” continues DiMauro, “as players kept graduating and the program kept winning, Edsall realized that he was losing players to Big East rivals Louisville and West Virginia, among others. They were players whose transcripts used to get them admitted to UConn. He feared a competitive imbalance was beginning.”
Indeed, the “Admissions Athletic Review Procedures for Fall 2011” outlined more rigorous grade-point averages and standardized-test scores required for admission to UConn.
So without a conference affiliation and with rising admission requirement demands, turning UConn football into a legitimate D-I program remains a Sisyphean task, regardless of who plays the part of Sisyphus.
I sincerely want the Huskies to return to the days when Rentschler Field was rocking with fans who watched UConn defeat ranked opponents. But what my heart wants and what my head tells me are two different things now.
Barth Keck is entering his 31st year as an English teacher and his 16th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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