Monday, April 14, 2014

What is Success for UConn Football in 2014?

On Sunday, an estimated 200,000 turned out for a UConn-related event in Hartford. On Saturday, an estimated 6,500 turned out for a UConn-related event in Hartford.

The latter was more important.

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On Sunday, downtown Hartford was overrun by a sea of blue and white as the dual basketball champions were lauded during a parade under pristine conditions. The event, much like the UConn faithful taking over Madison Square Garden, felt like a revival.

UConn fans had taken their teams and their championships for granted. In 2004, I covered the dual parade as a daily newspaper reporter. That day was big. Sunday was bigger.

While the national narrative has focused on UConn basketball returning to the elite of the game, the reports of its demise had been vastly exaggerated. The UConn women won the national title last year. The UConn men, despite being banned, would have made the tournament in 2013. UConn fans – and the administration – knew the Calhoun transition would be okay before the 2014 NCAA Tournament tipped off.

But while the UConn community and fans bask in the glow of the sun reflecting off of the mountaintop, there are still the same questions facing its future. While the Big Ten choosing Rutgers has been mocked by many – even the New York Times piled on – it doesn’t change what happened.

Think back to a mere three years ago. The UConn men won the national title. The UConn women made another Final Four, but its quest for a three-peat ended in the semifinals. The UConn football team played in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, that Fiesta Bowl happened just three years ago. It might as well have happened three decades ago.

The UConn basketball brands – regardless of who is coaching – will always resonate nationally. Indiana hasn’t won a title in two decades but Indiana is still Indiana. Ditto for UCLA. Basketball was never the problem.

No, UConn football has held the program back. It is why the ACC chose Louisville. It is why the Big Ten chose Rutgers.

You could make a legitimate case that former UConn AD Jeff Hathaway’s hiring of Paul Pasqualoni was the worst football hire in the history of college football. It was more than the losses – it was the timing and it was the apathy. As the realignment wheel spun, the UConn fans that filled the Rent consistently for Randy Edsall found something else to do.

In October 2011, as Robert Griffin III was embarking on his Heisman campaign, he was asked, "Where was the toughest place to play?" He said UConn!

How did UConn football go from an atmosphere that RG3 put above Texas and Oklahoma to a half-filled, quiet, depressing place?

All of this is why Saturday’s Spring Game for UConn football was the most important event of the weekend. UConn needs to be good again at football. They don’t have a choice. It’s about keeping the school relevant.

Football is getting bigger and bigger and the upcoming four-team college football playoff will only make it bigger. Once the money starts flowing, it will keep getting better – regardless of what is said, it will become an 8-team, then a 16-team playoff, because the money will be too great.

For now, though, what is success for UConn football? How good can they be?

To his credit, new coach Bob Diaco has not shied away from the comparisons to the basketball teams. He has said all the right things about positive energy and how “hot” the UConn brand is for recruiting. He’s made the team part of the campus, whether that was hosting an open practice for students or having his players in pads greet the returning UConn women.

There was the feeling, as Warde Manuel was searching for the next UConn coach, that the whole thing had to be burned down. That is how toxic the Coach Pasqualoni era was. The grumblings from Storrs before last season even started was how the team had turned against him. I witnessed QB Chandler Whitmer and WR Geremy Davis yelling at each other on the sidelines during the Michigan game meltdown. This was a team in disarray.

As Diaco comes in, the UConn team is extremely young – the roster will be littered with sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen because too many players recruited by Pasqualoni either left or weren’t good enough.

The 2014 football season is a long five months away, but defining success is here now. For better or worse, the bar is set extremely high for Diaco because of how bad the program had become and how vitally important success is.

1) Increasing the Season Ticket base
In a perfect world, the head football coach would not have to be a salesman. UConn football does not exist in a perfect world right now. Diaco has made great strides already in promoting the program – now, the university needs to ensure this translates to season tickets.

From the moment Edsall left, the season ticket base eroded. It would have been even worse last year had Michigan not been on the schedule to artificially prop it up as there were more than a few Michigan fans that bought season tickets to ensure they had a seat for that game.

2) Sellouts for BYU and Boise State
It’s either a really good thing or a really bad thing that UConn hosts two name-brand programs in September during the nonconference. The BYU opener is a big one, a Friday night primetime game on ESPN proper. There is no reason why they can’t sell 40,000 tickets for that one.

The Boise State game, well, that will be an indication of where the fanbase is because Boise State, post-Chris Petersen, is not the draw they were four years ago. If UConn loses to BYU by 50, do the fans show up? But a good performance against BYU, and a nice Saturday kickoff against a team even my Mom has heard of, should lead to a good crowd. Diaco seems to understand that they need to engage the fans, and they need to get the fans back to the stadium. They have two nice opportunities to kick off the season.

3) Playing in a Bowl Game
The 2014 UConn schedule was made for a first-year coach. Four of the first five games at home. Only four true road games, as the Army game is being played at Yankee Stadium. Four of the five toughest teams on the schedule – on paper, in April – come to Rentschler Field, with only a road trip to East Carolina looming. The other road trips are to Memphis, Tulane and USF. They miss one of the preseason favorites in Houston.

Simply put, UConn should make a bowl game. Anything less, even a 5-7 season, will be disappointing. The bottom of the American Athletic Conference appears to still be weak enough for UConn to pile up wins – should Memphis, Temple, USF and Tulane be considered unwinnable? Throw in Army and the FCS Stony Brook, and there are six games UConn could be favored in.

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4) A big win at the Rent, or two
It is very likely that UConn will play its four toughest opponents – BYU, Boise State, UCF and Cincinnati – at home. UConn needs to win one of those games. It would be ideal if they won two of them.

UConn did not have a signature victory in the past three years – the closest being a 2011 dismantling of Rutgers that kept bowl hopes alive and ended Rutgers’ BCS hopes. Of course, UConn followed that up with an embarrassing loss on ESPN to Cincinnati and that was that.

The team needs something to point to when the season is over. If they go 7-5 or 6-6, it would mean even more to point out – yeah, and we had that big win over Boise State or the nice upset over Cincinnati. Basically, UConn hasn’t beaten anyone better than them since 2010 – the only exception being wins over Rutgers in 2011 and 2013.

5) No blowouts
This may be the biggest – UConn cannot get destroyed and demoralized. If they go 6-6, beat the teams they should beat and lose to better teams, I won’t be thrilled. But if those losses are close games, I’ll be encouraged. It is absurd to expect UConn to compete for a Cotton Bowl berth.

But I don’t want to repeat games when I had to turn the TV off or left the Rent before the final whistle. When Maryland, at full strength, could have scored 50 if not for turnovers. When UCF could have hit 70 if they felt like it. When Louisville could win a game they clearly did not care about or show up for.

The culture for UConn football is changing and that’s a good first step.

For 2014 to be successful, the Rent needs to be filled again, the games need to be close again and UConn needs to send the fans home happy again.

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2 comments:

  1. I would love to see them in a bowl this year but Diaco has so much work to do. Coach P ruined everything.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Football Games are such adventure which incorporates to be progressively well known as the years progressed.

    ReplyDelete