The school that realignment left behind: Inside UConn football's collapse

STORRS, Conn. -- The lobby of the UConn football facilities is filled with bowl trophies. They shimmer in their well-maintained glass cases and are a constant reminder that the Huskies weren't the subject of endless speculation about the future of FBS.
Former UConn quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who is now an ESPN analyst, says it best: "You had this programme that was on a rocketship." Orlovsky decided to play for the Huskies as he saw the upward trajectory and wanted to contribute to the FBS level's continued success, especially for new members of the Big East. Randy Edsall, then-coach of UConn, was the one who convinced him that UConn should be among the larger programs.

Orlovsky believed. Alfred Fincher, a former linebacker who played alongside Orlovsky between 2001 and 2004, believed the same. Fincher stated, "We were building something special." "And when I left, I saw the benefits."

Edsall was the head coach of the program during its transition from FCS to FBS and to the Big East. The success continued with the Big East's Fiesta Bowl victory as Big East champions 2010. Edsall was fired after the season. However, that was just the beginning of problems for the UConn football team.

The conference realignment quickly caused havoc on the college landscape and impacted the Big East in a devastating way. One could argue that UConn has suffered the most severe consequences of the conference realignment.

UConn football has a record of 21-73 since the Big East stopped being a football-playing conference. This includes 1-8 heading into Saturday's game against Clemson. Realignment isn't the only factor. UConn's current situation is due to poor coaching hires, financial woes, and a push-pull from its higher-profile basketball programs regarding the best way forward.

Despite this, the fall was much more dramatic than anyone could have hoped.

Orlovsky stated that despite the meteoric rise, there was a quick falloff. "And I'm still here, and that shocks me. "I'm shocked they're in this position."

The Huskies have lost ten straight seasons. Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire

Paul Pasqualoni, former UCONN COACH, still recalls the day the ACC announced its final realignment in 2012. It was 2012 and Louisville would replace Maryland. The news was a "giant punch to the stomach," he said.

Pasqualoni stated that it was difficult to describe the day. It was overwhelming to lose out on the chance to attend the ACC and all that it meant, both the football and financial aspects. Every day of recruiting from that point on was about trying to explain where we were heading. It became extremely difficult.

As it turned out, this was not the first time that the ACC had chosen another Big East school to replace UConn. Conference realignment was at its peak in 2011, when schools and conferences evaluated their own long-term prospects. The Big East was unique in that it had both basketball origins and had FBS-free schools.

The Big East was in a difficult position in 2011, as football became more important to the financial train. The conference was offered a lucrative deal from ESPN to secure its future. Some in the room thought the league could make more money in the open market. The Big East declined the offer. The ACC began to show interest in several Big East teams shortly thereafter.

One source who was involved in the discussions said that UConn was one of the teams. Initially, a Syracuse-UConn addition of the ACC to the basketball side was considered to be very beneficial -- not only boosting basketball inside that conference but also destabilizing the strong Big East basketball brand. However, opposition to UConn quickly emerged from Boston College. They did not want to share the New England area. The NCAA problems that started under Jim Calhoun, the former basketball coach.

According to a source who spoke under anonymity, "College presidents are extremely wary of these kinds of situations." "As a group the ACC presidents were a bit gun-shy regarding Connecticut."

Soon, Pittsburgh was chosen to join Syracuse in ACC. Former-UConn president Susan Herbst, and former-athletic director Jeff Hathaway did not comment. Dan Toscano is currently the chairman of the UConn board trustees. He recalls sitting in Calhoun’s box when he heard this news.

Toscano stated that maybe they were a bit complacent. "We could see the ground shaking and didn't realize how much it was shaking. This could prove to be very devastating for us, and I was not surprised. We were such a success brand. If you had told me that I was a successful brand, I would have said, "Here's UConn in five years."

Maryland, who was then heading to the Big Ten, left the ACC the following year. Pasqualoni stated that he wasn't involved in the discussions with Herbst and Warde Manuel, the former athletic director. Warde Manuel also declined to comment.

Pasqualoni stated, "The feeling was that we were in good condition." It is possible that we were too confident. I don't know if Louisville was selected by the ACC. However, I will be completely honest with you. This was not my perception."

The second round of discussions was much more intense than the first. UConn was again faced with two major challenges. Tom Jurich, Louisville's athletic director, had fought hard for the Big 12 inclusion the year before. West Virginia was denied. Jurich said the entire experience was motivating him to ensure Louisville didn't get left out again.

Jurich was already the one who steered Louisville out of Conference USA to the Big East in 2005. He knew how to market his program and how to keep it going. He didn't care about anything else.

Many people in Storrs were happy to see UConn return to the Big East. The move meant that the football team was without a conference. AP Photo/Pat Eaton Robb

Second, Louisville football was growing. The 2012 Sugar Bowl was won by the Cardinals, while UConn was going through its second consecutive 5-7 season. Louisville had better facilities, a larger athletics budget and a greater commitment to its entire department. Louisville had more boxes than UConn, despite having a better academics record.

UConn was able to remain in the newly formed league. UConn had to remain in the American Athletic Conference due to football after the basketball-playing schools separated. This caused tensions in the athletic department as the Big East's other sports programs refused to leave.

All programs were required to recruit the Northeast using a schedule that did not feature their geographical rivals but instead featured games into Texas and Oklahoma. It meant that you had to recruit against other schools from your region, such as Syracuse or Boston College, who were not in the conference that left them out.

UConn decided that the situation was so dire that it would allow its football program to be autonomous and let the rest of its sports rejoin the Big East in 2020.

Toscano stated that there was a common narrative that Kansas had the worst outcome, however you define the universe of major sports programs, because of conference realignment. People are saying this about Kansas right now. It doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter what it means to us. Rest is something you can talk about over a pint of beer."

Randy Edsall assembled the UConn team which earned a Fiesta Bowl spot, but could not capture the magic the second time. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

ORLOVSKY MADE IT TO THE FIRST SPRING PRACTICE, when Edsall returned from UConn in 2017 for a second stint. He was shocked at what he saw: a team that lacked the athleticism and physicality required to play college football.

"I can remember walking into his office and closing the door, wondering, 'What's the matter?' Orlovsky stated that he did not know that the program's talent had been lost so much.

It would be nice if only football problems dealt with how to navigate a new world following realignment. Three consecutive head coaches were fired, putting the football team in a worse financial position. Pasqualoni, a former Syracuse head coach and Connecticut native, was hired in 2011 because of his head-coaching credentials. He never won and was fired in 2013 after his third season of 0-4.

Bob Diaco, Notre Dame assistant, replaced him. However, after a bowl berth, things turned sour and he was fired in 2015. He had gone 11-26 overall. Diaco stated that he believed he had the administrative support, facilities, and budget necessary to complete the job.

Diaco stated that "I didn't win enough games last year with the expectations set," It wasn't because I didn't have enough support or resources. It was all my fault. It's a production company, so if it isn't there, you don't get the chance to do it. I took complete accountability. They were not conference-related or resource-related.

UConn brought Edsall back to help them get on the right path. However, things had changed since his last stint as head coach. UConn was then in another conference and became an independent university, which made recruiting more difficult. Edsall, seven years older than the rest and not on the ground floor for something new, had also made changes as a coach.

He was not kind to his assistant coaches, and things only escalated. UConn decided to stop playing football in 2020 because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Edsall resigned after two games of the 2021 season. Edsall did not return calls seeking comment.

Orlovsky stated that he believed his intentions were good. He had the support and cooperation of everyone at that institution when he got there. It wasn't that we were going to try. We're going do it. We are naive to believe he would again show such commitment and support.

Toscano disagreed with that idea.

Toscano stated, "We worked hard for where we are." "We have made a significant investment and are committed to competing at the highest levels."

JACKSON Mitchell viewed the 2011 Fiesta Bowl when he was a 10-year old growing up in Ridgefield. It is an hour and a quarter away from UConn's campus. Mitchell felt that anything was possible at UConn, despite the fact that Oklahoma lost to the Huskies 48-20.

He signed as one the best high school players in Connecticut in 2019, and he promised to bring UConn back. Mitchell is three years old and still hears all the jokes.

He refuses to allow the negativity to get to him.

In the wake of Randy Edsall's resignation, UConn has rallied behind interim head coach Lou Spanos. Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The third-year linebacker stated, "It cannot be like this forever." "Eventually it will show. It might not happen immediately. Although it may not be in the next three games people will eventually see that they might have something. It'll just keep going up, and eventually, they'll say, "That's a great team." It's just a matter of time.

David Benedict, UConn's athletic director, was responsible for hiring Edsall. He sits on the sidelines and listens to what his opponents say to his players. This is a more direct experience than what they see on social media.

Benedict stated, "You'd love to say these things build character but winning is important." It's crucial for these kids to feel success. This is the only way to go right now.

UConn has lost 10 consecutive seasons since the Fiesta Bowl appearance. This has led to speculation about the future of the program as both an independent channel and as a FBS station. UConn currently holds a TV contract with CBS Sports for the 2023 season, and has games planned through 2028.

"What is long-term in college athletics?" Benedict stated. Benedict said. College athletics is a long time. Five to six years is a lot. Change is not going to slow down, I believe. Change is the only constant in college athletics.

"There has been a lot activity lately around conference realignment. I don't think that will stop after this round. Conferences, universities will continue to evaluate things. There will be opportunities moving forward. We'll continue to do the right thing for the University of Connecticut and our football program.

However, the financial problems are real. The school had a deficit of $43.5 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year. UConn eliminated four sports in 2020 to reduce $10 million of institutional support for the athletic department. Officials at UConn insist that the Huskies won't drop down in level and will continue to push back against the claim that there isn't a complete commitment to making football a success.

Facilities are already in place, including a $57.9million standalone football facility that was built in 2006. This is something that many Power 5 schools such as Florida State don't even have.

The next head coach has been appointed. UConn announced that it has hired Jim Mora to be its next head coach. Mora was last at UCLA in 2017, and previously served as the head coach in Atlanta, Seattle and Seattle for the NFL. Although Mora does not have any Northeast ties, Benedict stated in a statement that Mora is a winner and has the experience and energy to help our football program return to success. Jim is enthusiastic and unafraid of this challenge. We both know this program has great potential.

All members of the program believe the right coach with the right temperament and fit can do the job -- even the players who claim they have formed bonds over the many challenges they have had to overcome in the past two years. Players feel that Lou Spanos, the interim coach, has changed their mindset and helped them rally around each other.

UConn will be returning a young team to 2022. This includes freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh. He showed promise in three games before injuring his knee. He will not be able play against Clemson as his older brother Taisun is the backup quarterback. He believes, as Mitchell, that big things are ahead.

Phommachanh stated that "We're going finish this season strong," "We will show our skills with these three major opponents, but we will also have something to cook up in the offseason. I promise you."

Benedict doesn't see the new coach hire as a make-or-break situation, but others do.

Toscano stated, "If this does not work, we will have to make some difficult decisions." "I am confident that we will find the right person, and we will succeed. If this is not possible, I don't think we have the resources or time to do it again. You have to ask yourself if there's something wrong with the program. Although it is expensive to manage a college football team, especially at the FBS level it is so consistent with our values that it should work. If it doesn't work, I'll be first to stand up and take responsibility.

Benedict, for his part, is determined to do everything possible to help the new head coaches win, sooner than later.

Benedict stated, "We're going be successful." "So when people win, they will be happy again and these types of comments and conversations will cease."