Monday, November 11, 2013

What UConn Needs From Its Next Football Coach

The 2013 UConn football season ended as soon as the 2012 football season was ended.

Once athletic director Warde Manuel made the disastrous decision to bring back Coach Paul Pasqualoni, the 2013 season was over. This isn’t second guessing – I said Pasqualoni should’ve been shown the door in October 2012.

uconn big east champions
The cause for my concern went beyond the football product to the stands and the raging apathy that percolated through a quiet, depressed Rentschler Field a year ago. Today, that apathy has been replaced by absence.

Few showed up for the game against Louisville – a nationally-ranked team on a nationally-televised stage. Fewer people will show up for Rutgers. No one will show up for Memphis.

I’d like to write that UConn football has hit rock bottom, but who knows? I thought it couldn’t get any worse than Towson. Then Buffalo happened. I thought they couldn’t be any more embarrassed than they were by UCF. Then Louisville happened.

It annoys me to no end when announcers, as they did on Friday night and have for years, talked about how difficult it is to recruit to UConn, how hard it is to win there and how, in essence, it’s not a good job. Jim Calhoun won 3 national championships. Geno Auriemma has won, by my count, 27.

Sure, basketball is different than football. But Randy Edsall got UConn into the Fiesta Bowl. And tied for another Big East crown.

On Sunday, Donald Brown, Jordan Todman and Ryan Griffin – all UConn alums – scored touchdowns in the NFL.

During last year’s NFL draft, five UConn players were selected – yep, UConn went 5-7 last year. Nick Williams went undrafted yet caught on with Washington’s practice squad. And if that doesn’t sum up the Pasqualoni error – the coaching staff couldn’t figure out how to get a future professional football player the ball.

The Tim Boyle situation proves further how badly Pasqualoni ruined the program. The hotshot freshman QB from Xavier High School was the team’s best quarterback – despite the results, that much is painfully evident. Why wasn’t he starting from day 1? Why is he starting now and burning his redshirt in a nothing year?

But mostly, why is UConn so bad?

Make all the snide remarks about the 2010 team you want, but they won the Big East and played in the Fiesta Bowl. The year before they beat Notre Dame on the road and pounded South Carolina in a bowl game.

They should not be this bad. But they are.

And now Warde Manuel has to make the most important hire of his entire life. If UConn fails again, any hope of joining the ACC or Big Ten or any real football conference goes up in smoke. If UConn fails again, the school retreats back into its “basketball school” days and football will fade further into irrelevance.

In short, Manuel cannot do what his predecessor Jeff Hathaway did. He can’t hire a loser. He can’t hire another Coach Gramps.

The names have been bandied about – Joe Moorhead, Rob Ambrose, Pete Lembo, Houston Nutt, etc. – so let’s get down to it. No, not the specifics. But the particulars. What does UConn need from its next coach?

Energy and Excitement

It is impossible to overstate how little people care about the UConn football team right now. There isn’t even anger, like there was at Auburn last year when the team cratered under Gene Chizik. It is crippling indifference. UConn has Kevin Ollie, Geno Auriemma, a hockey team moving up to Hockey East and a wide range of successful teams.

We don’t really “get” football in Connecticut. We don’t realize that it’s driving the bus in college athletics. We haven’t fully grasped why the ACC picked Louisville over us. We couldn’t figure out that playing Notre Dame in New Jersey is worth more than playing Buffalo anywhere.

More specifically, we don’t care for teams that don’t win. UConn fans are horribly spoiled by success. That’s what happens when national championships become the norm.

The next coach needs to invigorate the fan base. The season ticket base has been dropping precipitously since Coach Edsall left and only held on this year thanks to Michigan showing up. Without the right coach, the results could be disastrous.

Developer of Talent

What Edsall excelled at, largely owing to his NFL days, was the ability to mold and develop talent. UConn developed far more NFL talent than you could’ve guessed by looking the recruiting rankings and stars attached to high schooler’s names. Edsall was a master of turning players into professionals – and that is a powerful tool to sell future recruits.

Edsall was never a top recruiter but it never felt like UConn was lacking for talent, especially on defense. On offense, Edsall was roundly criticized for his bland game plans, poor passing schemes and a lack of playmaker receivers. Yet, he produced a string of successful running backs and fullbacks, guys like Brown, Todman and Anthony Sherman that start on Sundays.

There will be too much emphasis placed on the next UConn coach to be a master recruiter. If coaching was all about recruiting, Lane Kiffin wouldn’t have been fired as Arizona State torched his USC team for 62 points. Ron Zook wouldn’t be an analyst on CBS Sports Network. Is Alabama Alabama because Nick Saban can recruit…or because Nick Saban can coach?

No More Retreads

The worst part about Pasqualoni is that we knew what we were getting. He wasn’t that good of a coach. He had a good period at Syracuse because he was blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback in Donovan McNabb. No McNabb, no success for Pasqualoni.

The notion of Houston Nutt coaching UConn next year makes me want to take this keyboard that I’m typing on and smash it over my head repeatedly until the thought vanishes. Or I pass out. I pray to all that is Holy that Warde Manuel is smarter than that. UConn doesn’t need an old coach – see the point above about energy.

Look at what Louisville did with Charlie Strong – and yes, race had to be a reason no SEC school hired him because it’s unfathomable otherwise. They reached out to a rising assistant, who invigorated the fanbase and gave him a chance. In return, Strong delivered a winner. As thanks, Louisville gave him the salary necessary. Louisville plays in the ACC next year, UConn plays in the American and Strong isn’t leaving unless a school like Texas comes along.

Connecticut High Schools Mean Nothing

The prevailing wisdom behind Hathaway’s misguided hiring of Pasqualoni was the pressure from Connecticut high school coaches. You see, they didn’t like Coach Edsall because Coach Edsall didn’t give them the time of day.

Connecticut high schools produce about as much FBS-level talent as Delaware. Whether Connecticut talent stays in-state or not has little to no bearing on whether UConn will be good at football moving forward.

If the coach has good relationships with local high school programs, that’s great. If he doesn’t, who cares? Coach Edsall proved for a decade that Connecticut high schools mean nothing.

Connecticut’s Sports Media Means Nothing

The Connecticut media HATED Randy Edsall. I put that in all-caps because they HATED him. They loved getting on Randy after every losing because Randy was confrontational with the media. He didn’t always give answers. He outright lied at times, like when Tyler Lorenzen magically appeared at quarterback after Edsall said all week he couldn’t go. 

On the flip side, the Connecticut media loved Paul Pasqualoni because he gave them insight, he gave them access and he gave them answers.

The media’s relationship with the coach is pointless and meaningless. Manuel needs to avoid the temptation of making a hire that will be endorsed by the press. Frankly, I have no fear here since the press wanted to give Kevin Ollie a full contract right after the opener in 2012 and Manuel resisted until the time was right.

Also, fuck the Connecticut sports media – they didn’t like Jim Calhoun either.

touchdown jordan todman
The Sky Must Be The Limit

When Pasqualoni was hired, the message that most UConn fans received was, “We’re not going to be great at football.”

Last year, when I watched Towson play LSU on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Towson thought they could win that game. They didn’t. They couldn’t. But they believed. That’s when I was introduced fully to former UConn assistant Rob Ambrose. That’s why as the season opener rolled around; I knew UConn was in a lot of trouble.

If Towson believed they could beat LSU, they most certainly believed they could beat UConn. And they did, like a drum.

I’m not advocating for Rob Ambrose specifically – though I wouldn’t mind – but that is the type of coach UConn needs.

The state of the UConn football program is pretty bad. Okay, it’s pathetic. But where was the men’s program before Jim Calhoun? Where was the women’s program before Geno Auriemma?

Are two of the greatest college coaches, regardless of sport, a fair barometer for success?

At UConn, that’s all we know. So yes, yes it is. The next UConn football coach needs to accept that greatness is expected here.

We never thought the men could win 3 national titles in a just over a decade. We never thought the women’s team would come to define an entire sport.

The next coach needs to embrace that. Whether it’s Moorhead, Lembo, Ambrose or someone else, all I want to hear from minute 1 of hour 1 of day 1 is that anything less than winning every game isn’t acceptable.

Most importantly, I want to believe that. UConn can play in another Fiesta Bowl. And maybe next time, we’ll win it.

*Or we can just re-hire Randy Edsall and pretend the last 3 years didn’t happen.

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