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Still grieving over a teammate's death, UConn rallied with a pair of victories to become bowl-eligible

UConn coach Randy Edsall says he'll remember the 2009 season as "the longest and the toughest" of his career. Everybody else should simply remember it as his finest. Not only has he held his fledgling program together through a tragedy, but in the last two weeks he has also led it to a double-overtime victory over Notre Dame in South Bend—a win he describes as the biggest in school history—and a 56--31 defeat of Syracuse last Saturday that ensures the program of its third straight season of bowl eligibility. Most remarkable is how the Huskies have responded in the wake of that tragedy.

At a 6 a.m. meeting on Oct. 18, Edsall gathered his players and told them that junior cornerback Jasper Howard had been stabbed to death outside a campus dance earlier that morning. Six days later Edsall's grieving team fell 28--24 to then No. 22 West Virginia on a late touchdown. A week later the Huskies lost by the same score to Rutgers on an 81-yard TD pass with 22 seconds left, then fell 47--45 at No. 5 Cincinnati on Nov. 7. "We kept saying, 'We're going to win this one for Jazz,'" says senior cornerback Robert McClain. "There were times it got me down."

With his close-cropped hair and square jaw, the 51-year-old Edsall, whose first season at Connecticut was in 1999 (three years before the Huskies jumped to Division I-A), looks about as tender as a Marine gunnery sergeant. But he can also be empathetic. He turned to his own experience with the death of his father, Richard, last February, encouraging his players to open up to coaches and each other about the feelings they were experiencing. "My dad didn't say 'I love you' a lot, but we both did every time we spoke the last two years," says Edsall. "You can't be afraid to tell people how you feel."

Edsall has let his emotions show twice this year: at his first news conference after Howard's death and during a televised postgame interview on the field after the victory in South Bend. Encouraged by his example, the Huskies have rallied around each other in memory of their fallen teammate. "We understood when coach got emotional," says junior middle linebacker Greg Lloyd. "We're like his kids. This is a family."

UConn will finish its regular season at home this Saturday against South Florida. A victory would virtually guarantee a bowl invitation for the Huskies (6--5 overall, 2--4 in the Big East). But win or lose, Edsall's accomplishment should not go unnoticed. "As a teacher, coach and mentor, I've probably learned more about my job than I could have ever imagined," he says. "There's so much more to this game than X's and O's."

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HUSKY VOICES Edsall (inset) let his emotions show as Kashif Moore (82) & Co. collected a second straight win.