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Friday, December 14, 2001
UConn knows what all the hoopla is about

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Lew Perkins, the athletics director of the University of Connecticut, doesn't back down from a challenge. As a 6-foot-5 high school basketball star, he once scored 59 points in a game. When he arrived at the Storrs campus in 1990, he discovered a parochial, regional power in need of modernization.

Eric Roy & Keith Harrison
In the 11 years that have followed, the Huskies have won a men's NCAA basketball title, two women's titles and a men's soccer championship. The football team? Don't ask. In just the third year of I-A competition, Miami -- the nation's lone undefeated team in Division I-A that will play for the national title in the Rose Bowl -- is on the schedule next season.

"We're stepping up schedule-wise," said Perkins, who presides over a $31 million program. "We hope they win the national championship - it'll look good in the media guide."

Connecticut football has been in business for 103 seasons now, but the most-decorated aspect of the program - outside of the school's lone NCAA playoff appearance in 1998 - remains its fine football media guide, which has been honored by the College Sports Information Directors of America six years running.

There is, nevertheless, some good news on UConn's Division I-A football front. In the school's second season with the big boys, the Huskies improved dramatically. After losing to Eastern Michigan by seven points in 2000, UConn was a 19-point winner this time around. After falling to Ball State and Middle Tennessee by a total of 85 points in 2000, this year's total was a more respectable 29 points. There was even a stunning one-point victory at Rutgers.

Head coach Randy Edsall, a former offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and an assistant under Tom Coughlin, both at Boston College and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, generally has been upbeat about UConn's place in the Division I-A world order -- with a single exception. Back in September, the week of the Temple game, the frustration finally leaked out in his weekly media luncheon.

"I kind of laugh at people that (say) we should go down and beat Temple and beat all these other teams that have been playing Division I(-A) football for over 100 years, who have facilities and who are recruiting all these players that we never had a shot at," Edsall said. "It's just ludicrous.

"People have to understand that this is a building process. We don't have the talent that Temple has. We don't have the talent Rutgers has. We don't have the talent that a lot of people have. The best talent we have is our freshmen who are being red-shirted, for the most part, or who are getting their diapers changed after practice.

"It seems like some people want miracles," he said. "This is not something that happens overnight. Because you're playing a Big East team, all of a sudden you don't think you're going to go out and dominate people and beat them."

By the numbers
Requirements Proposal UConn
Football scholarships 76.5 72
Home games vs. I-A opp. 5 5
Avg. home attendance 15,000 14,536
Total varsity sports 16 24
Minimum for men/women 6/8 11/13
Total athletic scholarships 200 234.4
Scholarship budget $4 million $5.26 million
Said Perkins: "We were straight-up with Randy. We told him what it would be like. We've said all along this would be a five-year, seven-year transition. We want to do it right."

For the record, UConn went 3-8 in its first season of independent I-A football and came back this season with a 2-9 mark and was at one point ranked dead last among the nation's 117 Division I-A teams. Next year? Probably something in the same neighborhood, based on a formidable -- some would say daunting -- schedule. UConn will play four teams it lost to this season (Temple, Middle Tennessee, Buffalo and Ball State) as well as visiting Miami and Boston College, Iowa State, Navy and Vanderbilt. Also on the schedule are winnable games against Florida International, Kent State and Akron.

The Huskies will play three more independent seasons. In 2005, the Huskies will become full-fledged Big East members, which would put them in line to receive annual revenue sharing, which now approaches $1.5 million. This will come at a cost, however. Perkins is currently negotiating a Big East entrance fee that could run between $5 million and $10 million. That sum is likely to come out of the school's revenue sharing. Another price: UConn must play at each Big East school once without receiving a guarantee.

"I always equate what we're doing to building a house," Perkins said. "Right now, we're pouring the concrete."

Literally, into the foundation of a 40,000-seat stadium on an old air field in East Hartford. UConn currently plays in the 16,200-seat Memorial Stadium, but the new $90.75 million venue already is under construction and scheduled to open in 2003. NCAA rules insist on a 30,000-seat stadium for Division I-A teams, but the Huskies currently are playing under a special waiver.

"It'll have the ability to go to 55,000," Perkins said. "That's a good size for a Big East school in the Northeast. Plus, we're in the process of raising $25 million for an indoor practice facility, locker room and weight room. That's very important to us."

Perkins' chief mandate when he was hired in 1990 was to upgrade the football program. By 1994, the board of trustees was on board with the idea.

"I find it impossible to look at this university 15 to 20 years into the future without being at the Division I-A level," explained Gerard Lawrence, chairman of the committee investigating the upgrade. "We have no choice."

Shrill words? Not exactly. Unlike the powers of the SEC, PAC-10, Big Ten and ACC, UConn has only one horse in the two-horse race of the NCAA's elite schools. If the college conference structure evolves as businesses have, the future belongs to the strong and powerful -- the few schools with credible football and basketball programs.

Early in the process, UConn President Philip Austin got behind the upgrade for that very reason. "The only reason I would recommend going to Division 1 football," Austin said, "is it is an insurance policy to the magic of UConn basketball."

The risk of not playing Big East basketball or not being invited into a super-conference of schools with two major programs was too much for Austin to bear.

"I would do almost anything, including stumbling into a football program, to meet those requirements," he said.

There is a potent financial angle as well. Before it moved up to I-A, UConn was losing between $2 million and $3 million per season with its I-AA football program. UConn's theory of playing I-A football is to spend more money ($5 million to $7 million annually) to lose less (approximately $1 million). Television money, both from regular-season games and the lucrative bowl games, is the biggest difference between Division I-AA and I-A. The increased costs go to additions to the coaching staff, increasing scholarships and improved facilities.

Division I-A may have a more subtle, psychological impact, too. Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, recognizing the effect of the school's basketball teams on the populace -- both the men and women have reigned as national champions in recent years -- has supported the upgrade.

"I think we've taken this university from kind of a dormant, quiet campus and we've injected UConn with a billion dollars in new money and new facilities," Rowland said. "Our basketball program is second to none and we should bring up our other facilities where we think it makes sense."

The football optimists in the Nutmeg State tell a parable: There was once a small, sleepy college basketball program that had rivalries with schools like Yale, Boston University and New Hampshire. But along came the opportunity to become a charter member in the Big East Conference in 1979 and the school jumped in with both feet. Initially, it was a disaster. After seven ho-hum seasons, the coach was fired and another was brought in. The new coach went 9-19 in his first season, but a year later his team won the NIT. Incredibly, two seasons later the team reached the NCAA's Elite Eight and in 1999 became national champion. The coach was Jim Calhoun and the team, obviously, was UConn.

It happened in basketball and the wild success of the program has made it an investment worth protecting. But can football follow that dizzying course set by basketball? Not likely.

For starters, as long as Calhoun could coax an NBA-quality star like Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Donyell Marshall, Nadav Henefeld or Scott Burrell to play in Storrs, he knew he'd have a decent team. Football fields twice as many players as basketball, so the impact of a single player is far less. The state of Connecticut produces about five Division I-A football players per year, so even if Edsall can keep them all home -- which is no guarantee given Syracuse's recent ability to lure them away -- UConn still needs to find players in places like New York, New Jersey and the fertile recruiting grounds of the south.

And will Connecticut fans come out to see a team that easily could be a loser for another decade? In New England, where college football rivalries are more on the order of Yale-Harvard or Williams-Amherst, only Boston College has truly carved its own niche. This past season, more fans (72,681) watched UConn play football at home than ever before. Put in context, however, that's far less than a full house for a single Michigan game.

"We've made the decision not to take shortcuts," Perkins said.

When Perkins hired Edsall in 1999, the athletics director wouldn't let the coach tell prospective recruits that UConn was destined for I-A and the Big East until the new stadium was approved and, thus, the conference made the invitation official. That cost Edsall two years of uncertainty in recruiting, a turn of events that contributed to the lackluster record. Free to sell the I-A future, Edsall brought in a recruiting class this year that was ranked No. 70 overall by one publication.

With 20 red-shirted freshmen due for spring practice, UConn should field the NCAA maximum 85 scholarship players next season. Now, if the Huskies could just beat Miami for that breakthrough victory.

"Please," Perkins said, "don't hold us to that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com