Until recently, the most memorable day in the 105-year history of football at the University of Connecticut was Sept. 22, 1984, when the Huskies' Gregg Morrisonalmost returned a kick for a touchdown against Morgan State, whose excitable assistant coach, Darrell Coulter, sprang from the bench and tackled Morrison just before he reached paydirt.
UConn may be the defending national champions in men's and women's basketball, but only two years ago citizens of the Nutmeg State "didn't know what college football was," says Huskies quarterback Dan Orlovsky. "Nobody cared."
To say that the crowd was UConn's 12th man was not a metaphor but, on many Saturdays, an actual head count.
Those 8,000 or so fans who did regularly brave the chain-link-fenced gulag of Memorial Stadium would tailgate in a high-rise parking garage, their grilled food tasting equally of propane and octane. "You'd drive down 195 [toward campus] and couldn't tell that a football game was about to be played," says Randy Edsall, who accepted the UConn coaching job in 1998 even though--or more likely because--he had never set foot on campus.
Edsall, who had helped build the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars from scratch as an assistant under Tom Coughlin, arrived certain that he could do the same at Connecticut. "If I had seen the place before I made up my mind," says Edsall, "I might not have been so convinced." He was forced to hold his first team meetings in a trailer.
Nevertheless, Edsall barnstormed the state, attempting to turn New England leaf peepers into college football fans. "I'd tell 'em, 'Guys, you can watch the leaves change only so many times in the fall,'" he recalls.
Likewise, Edsall labored in vain to lure in-state stars to his Division I-AA program. "What kid's gonna stay here when he can go to Michigan or Notre Dame?" he says. "We had to find that one young man who dared to be different."
Astonishingly, in 2000, a cannon-armed quarterback from Shelton (Conn.) High spurned Michigan State, Purdue and Virginia, and committed to UConn. "It just came down to Coach Edsall being a down-to-earth guy," says Orlovsky.
At the same time, UConn basketball was winning manifold championships. "Recruits knew the brand name UConn through basketball," says Edsall. "I could sell them on what Geno [Auriemma] and Jim [Calhoun] had done. UConn wasn't a household name when they got here. Now it is. I could say, 'We're gonna do the same thing in football.'"
In 2002 UConn became a full-fledged Division I-A program, and--after the season's final home game--Memorial Stadium disappeared in a cloud of nostalgia. And pepper spray. (Campus police were determined to protect the goalposts, defending UConn's end zones better than UConn ever had.)
In 2003 the Huskies moved into brand-new, 40,000-seat, $91 million Rentschler Field, also known as the Wrench and, to a small group of contrarians, the 'Schler. It was built on a 75-acre former airfield where Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart once alit. What had been the nation's most vertical tailgate is now its most horizontal, radiating out along milelong former runways. After one game a leaf peeper walked up and down a runway for two miles before reporting his car stolen. Police found it where he'd left it--one runway over.
"There was a lot of excitement in 1990 when we opened Gampel Pavilion," UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway says of the Huskies' hoops home. "People went just to see what it looked like."
And so they came to the 'Schler, which was filled to 93% of capacity last season. The Huskies threw the ball relentlessly, so as to entertain the peepers. "When you're trying to sell a new product," says Edsall, "three yards and a cloud of dust isn't gonna get it done."
It was as if UConn, having airlifted in the trappings of a big-time program, was now willing one into existence, right down to that staple of big-time college ball: gratuitous state troopers framing the field.
Last year the Huskies, behind Orlovsky's 33 touchdown passes, went 9--3 and finished eighth in the nation in total offense. This season, the team's inaugural one in the Big East, UConn has become the first school to go from I-AA to a BCS conference. Only defending national champions USC and LSU, plus Boise State, have longer active winning streaks than the Huskies' seven straight. The 'Schler now has 28,000 season-ticket holders, myself among them. Orlovsky might well be the first quarterback taken in next year's NFL draft. Last week the university rewarded Edsall with a six-year, $5.3 million contract extension.
On Saturday, UConn played Duke at the sold-out 'Schler. In the game's final two minutes, down two and driving, the Blue Devils--unable to hear over the din of 40,000 peepers--incurred delay-of-game and false-start penalties. As a result their game-winning field goal attempt with six seconds remaining was not a 26-yard chip shot but a 36-yard finger-crosser. It sailed wide left for UConn's 15th win in its last 18 games.
"The fans won the game for us today," Orlovsky said afterward. And then he paid his fellow citizens the highest compliment he could think of: "It was like we were at a basketball game."
Connecticut has gone mad for Randy Edsall's air show. "Three yards and a cloud of dust isn't gonna get it done," he says.