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Viewpoint Future of UConn football isn’t clear

August 31, 2018

EAST HARTFORD — We know what the present of UConn football is. The present is great slabs of gray concrete at Rentschler Field. The present is talk of progress, progress and more empty seats than filled ones.

Wait a second. We can write a better lead paragraph than that one. Hmm. Here it is:

Do you give a damn? Especially you folks down in Fairfield County? Really, do you give a damn?

Maybe I need a new pair of rose-colored prescription glasses, but I see the present and on the 15th anniversary of the opening of Rentschler Field, I see a great State U. football experiment approaching life support. I do not claim to see the future.

UConn is lucky that the Yale-Harvard game isn’t in New Haven this year, because if it was chances are excellent Yale would have better average attendance than State U. Think about it. A school that had played in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma in this decade would have been outdrawn by an Ivy League school.

When a UConn athletic department representative said Monday that allocated season tickets had dropped from 16,000 to 9,000, the news was startling. Sure, we can talk about how the Huskies had 32,500 season ticket holders in 2005 and five years later still had 27,500. We can talk about how the team filled or nearly filled the Rent in those days and how losses upon losses the past seven years have led to erosion, disgust, more erosion, and apathy.

Yet season tickets reportedly had held at about 16,000 for three years and, after only one year of Randy Edsall II, erosion became, boom, a sinkhole? A drop became a free-fall of nearly 50 percent? It seemed hard to believe.

Turns out, for good reason. On Thursday, UConn clarified that 16,000 included corporate and staff tickets, visiting team comps, band, recruiting and high school coaches. UConn is at 13,000 for 2018.

The paid figure includes public season-ticket sales, as well as full and five-game student season-ticket plans. That number is about 9,500 this year and 11,200 last year. Look, from the start in 2003, those season-ticket figures included lots of comps, etc. Nevertheless, with seven successive losing seasons, the erosion is steady. Anger has become apathy.

So here we were for the 2018 opener with Central Florida, the explanations almost as numerous as the empty seats. It’s the dissolution of Big East football and the loss of the automatic BCS bid. It’s the failure to get into a Power Five conference. It’s the ticket prices and donor plans. It’s that the stadium is not on campus. It’s Diaco’s di-wackiness. It’s Paul Pasqualoni’s failure to sustain Edsall’s momentum. It’s kids sitting home with superior Wi-Fi and fiddling with their iPhones. It’s easier to sit home and watch five games at once on high-def TV. And don’t you know that college football attendance is down across the nation? The Wall Street Journal even reported that only 71 percent of reported attendance are fans actually passing into gates and having their tickets scanned.

Not to mention, UConn went 17-44 over the previous five years.

It’s all of it or part of it. Take your pick.

Do you even give a damn?

Look there is enough blame to go around from Stonington to Greenwich and back to East Hartford. I pushed hard for entry into major college football in the 1990s. The Big East had entry into a BCS Bowl and Mike Tranghese had everybody from Miami to Boston College to Virginia Tech to West Virginia lined up. Who knew then it would all fall apart in a decade? Not me.

It’s Edsall’s fault, too. He built a winner in five years, consistently got teams into bowls games and ultimately got the Huskies into a BCS bowl before he bolted in the dark of the Arizona night for Maryland. If he’d never left, UConn football wouldn’t suck so bad. And now he’s trying to save it and you ask: Can he do it? Do you care?

I asked Edsall the other day to define success for UConn football in 2018.

“I’ll tell you that at the end of the year,” he answered.

The rest of his answer was about getting better day by day, improving and the wins will take care of themselves. I like the first part of his answer. I can’t wait for the end of the season.

The most fascinating thing Edsall said during August camp was calling his freshman class the “best group top to bottom since I’ve been here at Connecticut.” Do I buy it? Maybe not. But it’s so difficult to quantify. Through his first tenure Edsall produced a big number of NFL players. He usually got them unheralded and coached them up over four or five years. What is true is that in only his second season, half of his two-deep chart are players he has recruited since January 2017. Those freshmen are going to play mucho snaps that freshmen a decade ago never did.

He is buying himself time, and frankly it’s the only way Edsall can go. People forget he was 9-24 his first three years. Not many people paid attention as he built his franchise at Memorial Stadium, and by the time Rentschler opened in 2003 his team was ready for a 9-3 season.

It was all new. It was all glorious. And now it’s not. Now he plays in a big empty place without the novelty and romance it once had. UConn does not have a great depth of big-time football tradition to fall back on, and in the meantime, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Patriots, the Giants, the prospect of UConn basketball eats into our interests.

How many lost fans will come back if Edsall starts winning? Don’t know. I do know it’s the not AAC’s fault. There are good teams and — here’s a scoop — some of those Big East teams weren’t as good as you remember. It’s our state’s perception of the AAC that’s a problem, and I’m not even being critical. Just factual.

CollegeFootballNews.com charted the average attendance of every FBS school over the past five years. UConn, which went from 30,932 in 2013 to 20,335 last year, was 80th of 131 schools at 26,749. With URI and UMass on the schedule and two November games potentially in cold weather, could UConn tumble under 20,000 and join the likes of Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Liberty?

As it stood last year, UConn outdrew Yale (18,940) by under 2,000 fans. Sure, 51,426 showed up for Harvard and that tilts matters, but ask yourself this: What makes you think anybody short of Alabama or Notre Dame would fill the Rent these days?

And what happens after UConn goes 2-5 or 1-6? There are W’s among the last five games. And if there is progress, as Edsall wants, it is possible to win, oh, five games. Would you show up down the stretch or buy season tickets next year?

Do you even give a damn?

jeff.jacobs

@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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