UConn football program, fighting recent losing trend, sets sights on higher level
Published 1:00 am, Sunday, December 9, 2012
STORRS -- When the sales pitch comes, it's all about academics, getting a solid education and enjoying a great college atmosphere. Those are the primary topics when Connecticut head coach Paul Pasqualoni sits down in a living room to deliver his speech to a potential recruit and his parents. Other things, like football tradition and history, aren't really discussed.
Why? Because UConn football doesn't have history or tradition.
At least not yet.
When it comes to the Football Bowl Subdivision level, Connecticut is still just a kid. The Huskies have only been playing with the big boys for just over a decade now, making the jump to what is now the FBS in 2002. They are working to create an identity, establish a measure of tradition and become a regular player for conference championships, be it in the Big East or whatever conference they might one day join.
But all those things take time.
So, while working to continue that initial upward climb -- UConn can boast of six winning seasons and five bowl appearances, including playing in the BCS Fiesta Bowl in 2010 -- that was started by Randy Edsall, when Pasqualoni hits the road, he sells the program's big picture.
More InformationChanging landscape Big East FOOTBALL MEMBERS IN 2012 Louisville: 10-2 overall Rutgers: 9-3 Syracuse: 7-5 Cincinnati: 9-3 Pittsburgh: 6-6 UConn: 5-7 Temple: 4-7 South Florida: 3-9 NOTE: UConn, Temple and South Florida are the only league members not going to a bowl. Big East FOOTBALL members IN 2013 Rutgers* Louisville** UConn Temple Cincinnati South Florida Houston SMU Central Florida Memphis Boise State San Diego State ------ *Leaving in 2014 for Big 10 **Leaving in 2014 for ACC NOTE: Tulane and ECU will join in 2014; Navy will join in 2015 -- STAFF REPORTS
Academics and atmosphere.
"What we're selling is our product, which is the education thing first. And it's an awfully good product," Pasqualoni said. "A very highly rated product, somewhere in the top 20 and very soon to be in the top 15 in the country among state universities. The education is just outstanding.
"I also like to talk about where we are here in Storrs. I think it's a tremendous atmosphere. A real college town. Kids enjoy being here, so we sell that. And we sell the football program. How they're going to be coached and what that experience is going to be. And we sell their development as players, regardless of who we play. That's important."
Under Edsall, UConn arrived on the Division I-A scene with a splash, winning its first bowl game in 2004 and later going to four consecutive bowls, following the 2007 to 2010 seasons. The program has shared two Big East regular-season titles. The Huskies, however, just finished their second consecutive losing season with Pasqualoni at the helm. Selling the football program may have become more of a challenge than it once was.
THE NEXT STEP
"They're up against so many obstacles at this point. Conference affiliation is only the beginning," said ESPN college football writer Ivan Maisel. "That's an issue, but the bigger issue is inventory, players. You're in an area where your home base does not produce a lot of FBS-quality players and the marketplace isn't getting any less crowded.
"Now, all of a sudden, you're going from competing against Syracuse and Rutgers on equal footing for the same kids in the same league ... now Rutgers can sell the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl. Syracuse can sell going to the Orange Bowl. If UConn goes in there, they can say, `You might get to go to one of those bowls, but it's going to depend on how good someone else is (because of the Big East's recently reduced BCS status).' That's a tougher sell."
Perhaps that's why UConn continues to find it difficult to land those four- and five-star high school recruits. According to scout.com, the highest UConn recruiting class since the program went to the FBS was 53rd in 2007. It was also the last time the Huskies landed a four-star recruit (Tyler Lorenzen). Since then, UConn's recruiting class standings were 70th (2008), 76th (2009), 69th (2010), 81st (2011) and 66th (2012).
And it's only going to get harder.
"Syracuse is a viable program again," Maisel said. "Maybe (UConn) can take advantage of the fact that Boston College is down, but if they hire the right guy (BC hired Steve Addazio of Cheshire away from Temple last week), then you're dealing with BC. The Big Ten is going to come into New Jersey even harder now, the ACC is going to come up and get into New England. UMass is another FBS program. Now, they're not threatening anybody, but it's another school that's now looking for 25 players.
"The same logistical problems that UConn has dealt with haven't gone away and have probably increased."
SELLING THE PRODUCT
Michigan can sell playing in the Big Ten in front of 109,901 every Saturday in the Big House. Alabama can sell playing in the Southeastern Conference in front of 101,000 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Texas can sell playing in the Big 12 in front of 100,119 at Royal Memorial Stadium, and USC can sell playing in the Pac-10 in front of 92,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
UConn, meanwhile, seems to have a different selling point.
"The philosophy here is we want to have kids that really want to get an education," Pasqualoni said. "Want to go to school, want to participate in their education. I just want guys who will go to class, do the work and get good grades.
"So many kids in this day and age have visions of having a really good college career and then having a chance to be a pro player. I want to recruit those kids. I want to recruit kids that work hard, want to be the best they can be and someday, might have a chance to be an NFL player. That's really what we talk about in recruiting. We talk about getting an education, getting the degree, where they fit, where I see them fitting, where the staff sees them fitting. So that's what we talk about."
In the UConn football weekly notes package, there is a section entitled: "UConn football a leader in academics." The note reads: "In 2012, the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR) for the UConn football team was an impressive 963 over a four-year cycle, with a one-year mark of 950 for the 2010-11 academic year. The 963 was above the national average (952) for FBS schools."
If only academics and atmosphere were keys to a majority of recruits' decisions. Sadly, they're not.
"I think unfortunately what Paul Pasqualoni is facing right now is the perception, not just of UConn but of the Big East," said Kirk Herbstreit, a college football analyst at ESPN. "If I'm a four-star recruit and I'm not from that region -- say I'm from Florida and I really like the coach and I really like the facilities and I want to go play there, but I've got other offers from the SEC or the ACC -- it would be hard for me to turn down those offers when the perception is what it is about in the Big East.
"The future of the Big East is a scary thing. Can (Pasqualoni) do it? Sure, but it's going to be challenging because of the current landscape of football. It's going to be really, really challenging."
According to scout.com, since 2002, the state of Connecticut has produced a total of two five-star recruits -- Aaron Hernandez of Bristol Central and Silas Redd of the King School in Stamford -- and nine four-star recruits: John Sullivan (Greenwich), Lamart Barrett (Avon Old Farms), J.J. Justice (Norwich Free Academy), Bruce Campbell (Hyde), Torrey Mack (Stratford), Mike Cox (Avon Old Farms), Khairi Fortt (Stamford), Bjoern Werner (Salisbury) and Graham Stewart (Xavier).
None went to UConn.
AS GOOD AS YOUR PLAYERS
Can UConn attract better talent?
"I think that's a tough task," Herbstreit said. "There's always the Syracuse blueprint that you had back in the latter part of the '80s and the early '90s; Paul Pasqualoni, when he was there (1991-2004 as head coach), did some incredible things and was able to recruit up in the Northeast, and they would go down into Florida and do well there. They had what started out as a vision and it took a recruiting class or two to be able to buy into that vision and eventually get up and get the program heading in a direction where it could be maintained.
"Greg Schiano did the same thing at Rutgers. Think about Rutgers football before Schaino got there and where it is now. If I'm a UConn fan and I see that happening to Rutgers, I have to believe that it can happen for UConn, too."
"I think you have to sell ... the coach is the key" Herbstreit said. "The coach has got to be able to overcome all the history, all the lack of whatever. It has to be the coach. I've seen programs without the history, without the tradition or the facilities, and it's the coach that makes the difference.
"I think to be able to get in there and get those top-tier players, you have to really be able to sell something. Sell how you're going to be treated, the system he's going to be a part of. Sell the caring of the player as a person. Whatever it is you're selling as your vision, that's what has to get you over the hump."
With Rentschler Field, the Burton Family Football Complex and the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center, UConn has spent close to $150 million in football infrastructure. But according to Maisel, if the Huskies want to compete with the big boys, a lot more is going to have to be done.
"They've done everything they can do in the arms race," Maisel said. "But all you've done by spending the money in the arms race is kept your place at the starting line. The starting line always changes. I'm not belittling what they've done, but that's the kind of stuff you have to do just to stay in the game. That's the ante and the ante goes up all the time in college football. They've kept their chair at the table, but there are other things that are still the problem."
MONEY DOESN'T HURT
"The tradition and the passion at UConn is at Gampel (Pavilion)," Maisel said. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's great, but football hasn't developed that yet and it's harder to develop in football than basketball. If you don't have the history and the passion, you can develop it, but it takes an enormous amount of resources."
Think about it: When NIKE founder Phil Knight started pouring money into Oregon's athletic programs -- he's donated an estimated $300 million, including $68 million for the new football facility currently under construction -- the Ducks went from a decent 70-48 record in the '90s to a sparkling 99-39 record from 2000-09. They are a stunning 55-10 in the past five years.
And at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys were a horrific 41-68-3 in the decade of the 1990s. Until 2001, they had 11 losing seasons in 12 years. But when Texas oil magnate Boone Pickens donated $70 million to refurbish the football stadium that now bears his name in 2003, and then gave an additional $165 million to the football program in 2005, Oklahoma State has gone 81-45 and will have appeared in seven straight bowl games when it faces Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1.
"You look at the schools, the non-traditional powers that have succeeded over the last decade, and what do they have in common?" Maisel said. "Oregon and Oklahoma State both have sugar daddies who have spent eight, nine figures of money on the program. I don't know that (athletic director) Warde Manuel's found that guy yet. I would think that if that kind of person was in Connecticut and loved Connecticut football, we would have heard of him by now."
Plus, it takes winning.
"There's a lot to that, there really is," Pasqualoni said. "Win. It's like Al Davis said, `Just win, baby.'"
But back-to-back 5-7 seasons doesn't exactly get the blood boiling. Neither does the fact that attendance at Rentschler Field has decreased basically every year over the past five seasons, dropping from a per-game average of 39,331 in 2008 to just 34,672 in 2012. Year 3 of the Pasqualoni era had better bring about a big change in play and the number of victories. The Huskies need to get back to challenging for the Big East title, going to bowl games and becoming a top-50 program again.
"I think top 50's absolutely within reach," Maisel said. "They've already been there but they have to get back. It's a combination of the right coach, being right for that university, because UConn does not have so much of what the top 50 have in terms of tradition and passion."
But it's trying to get there. The Huskies have Michigan (Big Ten) coming to Rentschler Field next September, have a home-and-home series with Tennessee (SEC) in 2015 and 2016 and will play Virginia (ACC) in a home-and-home series in 2016 and 2017. And of course, there's that continuing rumor of Notre Dame at Fenway Park in 2014.
"Everybody's on the table," said. "There's no conference that we wouldn't look at for the right opportunity. To have Michigan coming in, that's obviously a big game for us. Now, every year you're not going to get a Michigan into your stadium, but we have Tennessee coming in and Virginia coming in and we're working on other opponents. We have to keep thinking about that, but we also have to build your team around them and have success."
THE BIG TICKET
Of course, winning breeds success and success means selling tickets. And the more tickets you sell, the bigger the stadium you need. When Rentschler Field was constructed, it was done with expansion in mind. Don't think Manuel isn't excited about seeing those blueprints. He is.
"The more games we win, the more tickets that we can sell, the quicker I'll expand it," Manuel said. "When we're at the point where we're having consistent sellouts in the next couple of years, then it'll increase the talk of expanding because of demand. I'm not looking to wait 10 years before we do it. It's all about ... we have to improve the team, we want to find ways to encourage people to come out and watch us play, we know we have to do better on the field.
"We want people from Bridgeport, people in New Haven and Stamford to buy season tickets and to come up, support the team and see us play great competition. If we can expand the number of fans and the demand to see us play, we'll look to expand the stadium, because it'll make economic sense for us to do so."
Until then, however, Pasqualoni has to start winning and making some football tradition.
"I think Paul has a great reputation and resume and the fact that he can dangle playing on Sunday in front of those kids is critical," Maisel said. "But he's only had one full recruiting class, he's now working on his second and you have to judge accordingly. On the other hand, no one even blinks that Derek Dooley is out the door after just three seasons (at Tennessee). Paul's finishing his second mediocre season. There's a new AD and that's not always good when you're a coach. It's a critical time for him."
And for the program.
"This is a championship-level program already, having won Big East championships and going to a BCS bowl," Manuel said. "My expectations (for the program) are that we win conference championships and we put ourselves, through scheduling and playing for conference championships, to be in consideration for the (BCS) playoffs and to be looked at as that kind of caliber of team. Now, are we there right now? No.
"We have to keep working at it. I think we have to keep recruiting high-quality student athletes and really work hard at putting those athletes in the position to win and have success. We need to schedule top non-conference competition to showcase ourselves nationally. And we're going to have to win conference championships. To do that, it takes a lot of work. It's more than just talking about it."