STORRS, Conn. – It’s an easy time to pick on University of Connecticut football. The Huskies are 0-7, jettisoned coach Randy Edsall in early September and got thumped, 27-13, by their struggling neighbor, the University of Massachusetts, on Saturday.
But any notion of UConn punting on football, de-emphasizing football or angling for football to drop down a division is strongly disputed. That includes a chorus of leadership ranging from athletic director David Benedict to the head of the school’s board to Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. They all view top-flight football as an integral part of UConn being a first-class public school.
“I’m all in,” Lamont told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “Look, we have a national university. People identify universities with the academics, the beauty of the campus and the high quality of sports you put on a national platform. People pay attention. They know our basketball far and wide. Football is the national sport, in many ways. We’ve got to compete.”
Officials at the highest levels with the state and school push back hard at any notion UConn is backing away from the sport at the FBS level. They point to a first-class football facility that school officials say cost $57.9 million to build and the school’s tradition of winning in other sports.
“It’d be foolish of us to decide that level of engagement isn’t important for us,” Dan Toscano, the chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, said of FBS football. “We’ve invested heavily in the program. The cost is in. The reward is there to be had.”
Those rewards haven’t been as apparent in recent seasons for UConn football, which has an 11-game losing streak that’s the second longest in the country. UConn also lacks a conference affiliation after the school pulled out of the American Athletic Conference in order accommodate its basketball programs and other sports in the more geographically sensible Big East. After skipping last season because of the pandemic, this is UConn’s first football season as an independent.
Benedict knows questions about commitment will come up as he conducts a national search for his new coach. Benedict’s answer will be metaphorically summed up by the rows of national championship trophies in a poster over his desk, as UConn has won 22 NCAA team national titles.
“All they have to do is come on our campus,” Benedict said recently in his office. “If you come on our campus, the question is going to be, ‘Why aren’t they winning?’ Not, ‘Can I win here?’”
What can UConn become in football? UConn proved soon after jumping up to FCS in 2000 that it could compete at that level, as it reached bowls five of seven years from 2004 to 2010 and were ranked in the Associated Press' Top 25 in three different seasons. Following the 2010 season, the school reached the Fiesta Bowl. (It went 8-5 that year). UConn officials feel that it shouldn’t be outlandishly difficult to get back consistent winning seasons.
“I’m not going to compare ourselves to the likes of Notre Dame,” Benedict said. “But BYU is not necessarily so far out of the realm of comparison that we can’t establish ourselves like BYU as an independent.”
He’s confident that the financial commitment will remain. UConn paid Edsall nearly $1.2 million and paid the previous coach, Bob Diaco, $1.7 million. When asked if paying a coach $2 million was in reach, Benedict said: “Yes, because in the end, it’s a relatively small increase overall in the total pool and investment and the return is significant. If we hire the right person and we start winning, we’re going to start selling a lot more season tickets and that will pay for itself many times over.”
There’s already a solid financial commitment, which is in line with the lower end of the AAC. UConn is spending $2 million on its on-field assistant coaching staff, and $1.2 million on its off-field staff. That’s not exactly Clemson commitment, but it's a total staff commitment of $4.4 million accounting for the head coach salary. There’s an openness to that number increasing.
“We’ve got to go out and hire the right football coach,” Benedict said. “I believe that we’ll have the support. If it requires a little bit more to do that, we’ll have the support to do that. Money doesn’t necessarily automatically translate to wins. It’s more of identifying the right person.”
The roots for UConn football to grow back to competitiveness start with strong facilities and a schedule that will allow it to be a vibrant presence in the East through the end of this decade. UConn’s football facility is among the nicest outside the Power 5, as the Burton Family Football Complex Burton Family Football Complex and the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center would fit in at a Big Ten or ACC school, as it includes a spacious indoor field and modern locker room.
UConn’s schedule, in many ways, makes more sense to its fan base than playing in the American Athletic Conference. The Huskies have six home games scheduled through the 2027 season, with the 2022 schedule showing the tenets of what it will look like going forward with games against Syracuse (home), Boston College (home), Army (road) and N.C. State (road). There’s a game UConn purchased against Central Connecticut and a $1.8 million check coming from Michigan for a trip to Ann Arbor.
Other home-and-homes in upcoming seasons include Maryland, Pittsburgh, Duke, Wake Forest, Buffalo, Temple, Ole Miss, Syracuse (again), Army (again) and North Carolina. UConn’s home games will be shown on CBS Sports Network through 2024, giving the program national exposure.
Former ESPN executive and noted scheduling consultant Dave Brown summed up UConn’s scheduling success by saying that the Huskies essentially scheduled everyone they’d want to in the Northeast and Eastern seaboard. “It came out better than I ever would have imagined,” Brown said. “People want to play up there.”
What kind of coaching pool can UConn get? When former AD Warde Manuel hired Diaco in 2013, he was one of the country’s top coordinators at Notre Dame. He beat out a pool that included Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
Benedict is optimistic that a pool of strong candidates will emerge again, as he said the school and state’s commitment to the sport is entrenched. “There’s nothing about this university that speaks to me that says, we want to do things at a lower level,” Benedict said. “We want to compete. We have competed and we’ve competed successfully in football.”