STORRS, Conn. -- Last I saw Jim Caple, we were sitting in Knoxville at the Old College Inn knocking back enough pints to rival Pat Summitt's win total. Still, I'm certain it was not the Guinness but the cocktail of southern accents, UT hubris and "fines doubled" orange that had my head spinning.
Mary Buckheit at UCONN
The Search For Mr. and Miss Bracket
I had to bail. Conveniently, business called.
Jim had a date with the World Baseball Classic, so he passed the Mr. & Miss Bracket baton and shoved off to sunny San Diego while I forged on up to scenic Storrs (high temp of the day: a balmy 39 degrees).
Oh, Connecticut, my home state, which I had just abandoned a month ago for a move to Los Angeles.
I used to refer to it as "Patheticut" -- with meager night life, shoddy DOT snowplowing jobs and unintentionally amusing local news broadcasts. It was a place I was so anxious to leave that I spent four years of college in the Albany area (and remarkably, found it to be a social upgrade).
Still, somehow, here I was in Connecticut. Home sweet home -- the proudest monkey -- sitting in the Co-Op across from Gampel Pavilion to culminate ESPN.com's college campus tour with a visit to my UConn Huskies.
It's amazing what a little trip to Tennessee can do to a northern belle.
The feelings running through my bod (with almost as much force as the winds outside) were similar to that weird sibling phenomenon. The one that tolerates your brothers and sisters verbally assaulting you at every turn, but the moment someone outside of the fam takes a swipe, it triggers an immediate spike in your domestic defense department.
Sport loyalties are no different. We move out of town, go running for the hills kicking and screaming without as much as a glance in the rearview, but one thing that sticks like an EZ-pass to a westward-waging windshield is home-team allegiance.
Take my buddy in CT who hails from Indiana. No one is faster on the draw to cornfield-bashing banter than the Hoosier himself, but he'd spit soybeans if you stepped on Reggie or Peyton.
Likewise, I threw two fingers to the Constitution State a few weeks ago, but I've been busy on the campaign trail, hailing "my" Huskies as will-be national champs in every watering hole I happened into along the 3,500-mile, transcontinental drive.
Thing is, rooting interests have a way of bringing out the very best in the place you call home.
|Mr. and Miss Bracket Contest|
• Buckheit: Home, sweet home
• Video: Searching UConn
• Caple: Orange love
• Video: Searching Tennessee
• Caple: Bleeding UCLA blue
• Video: Searching UCLA
• Caple: Go Zags or bust
• Video: Searching Gonzaga
• Caple: The Search begins
Growing up in Connecticut made me a Husky faithful for life, regardless of what my present zip code might suggest. Similarly, spending an afternoon on campus at UConn taught me that there's a whole new breed of Husky hard-cores being born with every manila envelope that departs the admissions office ... no matter what state it is bound for.
Take Joey Agresti, a UConn freshman from Cranston, R.I., who pushed through the double doors spewing smack wrapped in a Rhode Island accent so thick it would make Peter Griffin proud. I asked him what brought him to Connecticut and he confessed, "The basketball. ... My mu-tha was wicked pissed. I could have gone to URI and saved a couple grand. But who wants to root for the Rams? Nobody. Nobody wants to root for the Rams. I came to Connecticut for the Huskies."
Then there was Phil Casale, who explained in emphatic Jersey intonation that Husky basketball wears so hard on him he needs heftier health insurance at the ripe age of 22.
"I'm dead seee-reee-ous. It is my life. It controls me. It consumes me. It makes me sick."
Evidently, Phil is to the UConn health center what Norm is to Cheers. If you could have your own stool in the waiting room, he would, and he can document a direct correlation between Husky losses and his trips to the infirmary.
"A loss makes me sick in the head. I can't think, I can't eat, I can't sleep. I'm serious. I can't even breathe. I get depressed. They thought I was depressed! But my parents know me. They knew it was just the basketball -- the Huskies. It's my life. It's why I came to UConn."
If you're still not ready to call Connecticut -- a relatively recent addition to the national powerhouse neighborhood -- a "basketball school," maybe you can be convinced by Brian Coffill, drum major of the UConn pep band. I'm sure he'd be happy to show you the rock on his ring finger.
"See this," he boasts proudly, "it's a double national championship ring -- men and women -- the same year! You don't see that every day, do you? Uhh, no. Oh wait, actually, the only place you can find one of these is right here in Connecticut!"
He flashes the rock on his finger with more swagger than an NBA trophy wife. You can't argue with that.
And hey, it helps keep those fires burning when the teams involved know their way around a parade route.
Under Geno Auriemma, the UConn women have won five national championships (including three in a row when Diana Taurasi governed the land). The UConn women were the Big East Conference tourney champs this year and earned a No. 2 seed, leading most Connecticut residents to ask, "What's going on this year?" The Huskies (scarlet No. 2 and all) survived the first round with a big win over Coppin State to set up a showdown with No. 7 Virginia Tech in the second round.
On the men's side of the (commemorative championship) coin, under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun the Huskies have won two national titles and, despite scares against No. 16 Albany and No. 8 Kentucky, they are poised to make a run for the third.
And thank God for that! Like the students who filed into the Co-Op, I've got a lot riding on Connecticut's success. I've done my fair share of jawing on this tour, all on the Huskies' behalf. I'm just thankful this is the final stop so I can head home with a sweet taste in my mouth. So go ahead, chalk this story up and cry homer, but if I've learned anything in the last month, it's that we all are.
I know the kids in Storrs were just as goofy, cocky and, in some cases, legitimately insane as the students at Gonzaga, UCLA and Tennessee ... but they were my kind of insane.
As college sports fans, we've been injected with that something for our school. For me, it's the Huskies. Sure, Connecticut has its faults, which explains why I'm typing this from an apartment three blocks from the Pacific Ocean. But while sand and sunshine may have been easy to get used to, home-team heritage is just impossible to let go.
I've been defending the Huskies all across the land, and somehow it helps to forget about the days of overpaying for beers in Hartford, double-checking my locks in Bridgeport and scraping the snow off my car in Bristol.
Call it a homer, call it a halo effect, call it college fandom; it's really one and the same.
So who has the most passionate fans? I hope your answer would be your school ... even if folks like Jason and Phil could prove you wrong.
Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.