UConn football takes final step as Division I-A power with Big East opener
Posted: Thursday September 2, 2004 3:01PM; Updated: Thursday September 2, 2004 4:05PM
STORRS, Conn. -- Tim Tolokan, curator of the Husky Heritage Sports Museum, looks at a panoramic picture on his office wall of the first game played at Connecticut's Rentschler Field last year, and marvels at the idea of 40,000 fans attending a UConn football game.
"Prior to Aug. 30, 2003, how many of those people had ever been to a major, I-A football game?" Tolokan wonders aloud. "I'd be willing to guess that 95 percent were first-timers."
Welcome to major college football's first expansion franchise -- the Connecticut Huskies. Saturday against Murray State, UConn opens its first season as a member of the Big East, thus completing an unprecedented transition from I-AA to one of the six conferences whose champion is guaranteed a BCS berth. (The University of South Florida will complete the same move next season.)
While UConn has been playing football for more than 100 years, it wasn't exactly steeped in tradition. The program has made just one postseason appearance in its history, the 1998 I-AA playoffs, and as recently as two years ago still played in 16,000-seat Memorial Stadium.
"To be honest, it felt like high school football," senior linebacker Maurice Lloyd said of his early playing experiences.
The atmosphere that accompanied the Huskies in the move to their new $91.2 million stadium last season literally sprang up overnight. While the passion and pageantry of big-time college football may be intrinsic to the culture in places like Lincoln, Neb., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., here in the heart of the Northeast, where September is more traditionally associated with the Yankees' and Red Sox's pennant chases, it was an acquired taste.
"Our people had to learn how to tailgate," said Tolokan. "It was an all-new world."
That UConn is a newcomer to the scene is evident at a media luncheon previewing Saturday's game, when a reporter asks head coach Randy Edsall to explain the rules for bowl eligibility. With ground not yet broken on the Huskies' planned state-of-the-art football complex, Edsall's press conference is held in a dormitory lounge, while trailers parked nearby host the team's meetings.
Three years ago, the school had a season-ticket base of about 4,000. For 2004, the school has sold 27,500. Part of that, of course, is the bigger stadium, located a half-hour away in East Hartford. But the Huskies have also given them something to cheer about.
In 2002, after having gone 3-8 and 2-9 their first two seasons in I-A, the Huskies improved to 6-6 in the blink of an eye, culminating in a stunning 37-20 road win against an Iowa State team that had beaten Nebraska and Iowa. Last year, the first in the new stadium, brought wins over Indiana and Wake Forest, a near-upset of N.C. State and an improbable 9-3 record.
Largely an unknown when he arrived in Storrs in 1999, Edsall was the man charged with leading the program through its transition. He came from Georgia Tech, where he had been defensive coordinator, but he also had extensive experience both in the Northeast, having worked at Syracuse and Boston College from 1980-'93, and in building a program, having been a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars' staff from the team's inception in '94.
"Coming here, I tried to do some of the same things we did in Jacksonville," said the 46-year-old Syracuse grad. "I came in and said we're basically going to build this team from scratch."
One of the most important developments along the way came in 2001, when Edsall landed an in-state quarterback recruit named Dan Orlovsky. Now a fourth-year starter, Orlovsky has morphed into one of the nation's top passers, throwing for 3,485 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. It's more than a little fortuitous that UConn will embark on its first Big East campaign with a veteran team and a marquee player. The Huskies are already slated for four national-television appearances this season.
To Tolokan, an associate athletics director who's been affiliated with UConn athletics for nearly 35 years, the confluence of events feels familiar. In 1990, the school happened to open Gampel Arena the same year men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun brought the school its first NCAA men's tournament berth in 11 years. The Huskies, until then only a regionally successful program, have since won two national championships, while Geno Auriemma (five NCAA titles) has turned UConn's previously dormant women's team into the most dominant in its sport.
"Before 1990, you needed a 'Connecticut' sweatshirt," said Tolokan, who also handles the school's merchandising. "After Tate George hit the shot [to reach the '90 Elite Eight], you needed a 'Connecticut basketball' sweatshirt. With Rebecca Lobo and that '95 team [that went undefeated], you needed something that said 'Connecticut women's basketball.' Last year, for the first time, football-specific product became a factor."
Connecticut is a small state, but its residents' undying loyalty to the university was on the minds of then-Athletics Director Lew Perkins and his right-hand man, Jeff Hathaway, when, in 1993, they embarked on what many at the time felt was a pipe dream: Convincing state legislators to build a stadium so that UConn football could become a player. They had the foresight to see the dawning of a day when the major I-A football conferences would seize financial and governing control of college athletics.
"We felt we'd much rather be in the room where the decisions are being made than out in the hallway hearing what the decisions were," said Hathaway, who became athletics director when Perkins left for Kansas last year. "We believed a great deal in the power of the UConn brand. We really felt if we put a good product on the field and build an outstanding stadium that people would come out and would embrace the game-day experience."
It was a wise decision. In an era of college football that has come to be defined by the BCS and its accompanying financial arms race, UConn, by gaining the Big East affiliation, is suddenly in a much better position than any number of programs (BYU, Marshall, TCU, etc.) with far more tradition but far fewer revenue streams. Not that there weren't bumps in the road -- the first two stadium proposals fell through at the last minute, and, for a brief time last year following the exodus of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, the Big East's future was in jeopardy.
As it turned out, though, the 'Canes and Hokies' departure allowed the Huskies to make their move a year earlier -- in time for Orlovsky's senior season.
No player on the current roster understands better the significance of this season than the 6-foot-5, 236-pound quarterback, a native of Shelton, Conn., who many feel will be one of the top quarterbacks selected in next April's draft. "If I said I envisioned any of this as a senior in high school, I'd be lying," he said. "I didn't pay any attention to UConn football when I was as a kid; I followed Notre Dame, Michigan and all the big-time schools."
Starting Saturday, UConn will be playing for the same prize as those schools.
Around the country ...
VIRGINIA: We knew star linebacker Ahmad Brooks was an amazing athlete, but not to this extent. Cavaliers Coach Al Groh is planning to use the 6-4, 249-pound sophomore to return kickoffs. "He's got great hands, he's one of the fastest guys on the team and he's got experience in doing it," Groh told the Washington Post. "Every return that he has had in practice, there's quite a buzz on the sideline." Brooks, a freshman All-America who led UVa with 117 tackles last season, returned kicks and caught passes in high school.
NEBRASKA: When did you ever think you'd hear this? A wrestler is one injury away from lining up under center for the 'Huskers. Ryan Goodman, a freshman member of the Nebraska wrestling team who walked-on to the football team this fall, has landed the backup spot to Joe Dailey, further illustrating new coach Bill Callahan's lack of faith in the returning QBs to run his West Coast offense. In fact veteran Mike Stuntz, best known for throwing a touchdown to Eric Crouch in the 2001 Oklahoma game, has slipped to fourth string behind Goodman and fellow freshman Beau Davis.
MICHIGAN: While new starting quarterback Matt Gutierrez will face more scrutiny, Wolverines tailback David Underwood has a pretty strong legacy to uphold himself as the heir apparent to Chris Perry (and Anthony Thomas before that). A senior with 483 career yards, the 6-foot Underwood dropped 12 pounds during the offseason to weigh in at a speedier 215. "David Underwood has distanced himself," said coach Lloyd Carr. "He clearly is the No. 1 tailback, and he's done that through being in the best condition of his life." Junior Pierre Rembert will also see action.
UCLA: The Bruins, which lost their top five defensive linemen over the offseason, will now also be without their most experienced returnee, junior C.J. Niusulu, who is undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and will miss several weeks. UCLA's starting line against Oklahoma State will be sophomore Kevin Brown, who saw action last year; sophomore Justin Hickman, a juco transfer; and freshmen Kenneth Lombard and Bruce Davis.
TCU: Despite senior Brandon Hassell leading the Horned Frogs to seven wins in nine starts last season, TCU is going back to Tye Gunn, the man whose injury opened a spot for Hassell as its starting quarterback. Gunn, a junior, has gone 8-0 as a starter, but both of his first two seasons ended prematurely due to injuries. He's a career 61.1 percent passer with 1,420 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.