When former athletic director Lew Perkins hired Randy Edsall in 1999 to finish the task of upgrading the Huskies' football program to Division I-A, Edsall could sell the philosophy of building a program from the ground up. He could sell being a part of something special.
The recruits bought into the dream. In 2002, they laid down the first bricks of that new foundation, going 6-6. In 2003, playing in a brand-new 40,000-seat facility, Rentschler Field in East Hartford, UConn went 9-3, beating both Indiana of the Big Ten and Wake Forest of the ACC.
In 2004, the Huskies, joined the Big East Conference, went 8-4 and defeated Toledo in the Motor City Bowl.
The program was off and running. Although it's struggling a bit now, it doesn't have to look too far back to see its recent success.
"Without a doubt, I've been surprised, pleasantly surprised, at how quickly they got competitive," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said about the UConn football program. "I remember we did a feature on UConn football probably about 10 or 11 years ago, about what they were trying to accomplish and what they were trying to do. At that time, you didn't see it as often, schools going and making the jump and having some success.
"To be able to see them get their facilities up to a certain level, get their recruiting up to a certain level and try to maintain a level of consistency, even though they haven't enjoyed it as much this year, I think it's really been a tribute to the commitment from the athletic department and the university to make them a legitimate Division I-A program."
The move to make UConn stronger in football came from the success of the men's and women's basketball teams, led by coaches Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma, respectively. In 1995, the women won the NCAA title, and in 1999, the men followed with a national championship of their own. Suddenly, UConn wasn't just some cow college located in the tiny town of Storrs.
Suddenly, UConn was a major player.
So, Perkins and his assistant AD at the time, Jeff Hathaway, made their play, selling an upgrade of the football program to the university's board of trustees and the state legislature.
"We knew that I-AA football was not going to break even here," said Hathaway, who was the Huskies' athletic director from 2003-2011, in an earlier interview. "Another reason we pushed it so hard was there was a lot of discussion on how the NCAA was going to be governed in the early '90s, and it became very apparent that Division I-A, with the big schools and the big conferences, were going to have a stronger say in the governance of the NCAA. So, between losing money on I-AA football and wanting to be a part of the NCAA governance, that's how we persuaded the board of trustees that we should move forward."
The legislature allocated $91.2 million in funds to build Rentschler Field, while two former UConn alumni, Robert Burton and Mark Shenkman, each donated a $2.5 million gift to help construct the Burton Family Football Complex and the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center as part of a $51 million project to give the Huskies a state-of-the-art football facility. Ground was broken for Rentschler in October of 2000. Work began on the campus football facilities in the fall of 2004 and opened in 2006.
Since that Motor City Bowl win in 2004, UConn has also played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (2007), the International Bowl (2008), the PapaJohns.com Bowl (2009) and the Fiesta Bowl (2010). They have an FBS overall record of 75-60 (.555) and have shared two Big East regular-season titles. There are not many other Division I-A teams that can claim that kind of success that quickly. It came from hard work across the board.
"The football program is an amazing story in itself in what they've been able to do there," Perkins said in an earlier interview. "It was hard to tell because you never know what might happen. The interesting thing is, and I'll answer it this way -- it did happen and we took advantage of it and we built on it."