UConn rebuilds itself in time for Big East
With a football program that rebuilt itself over the last few years to became one of the Big East's most impressive and improved, UConn is no longer just a basketball school.
STORRS, Conn. -- The other day, Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall drove through Greenwich, the luxury box of the state's towns. North Street, which winds from scenic Merritt Parkway to the town center, is lined with estates. Some are old and grand, and some are brand new and deliver with a bullhorn the owner's message: "Look at me! I made it!"
When Edsall arrived as head coach at Connecticut in December 1998, the only thing I-A about the football program was its intentions. He saw a small, dingy, concrete Memorial Stadium. Small, dingy cinder-block meeting rooms. A schedule heavy with I-AA Colgates and Eastern Washingtons. The players who weren't too short were too slow. Edsall had come to a basketball school. UConn was to college football what Texas was to college hockey.
Five seasons later, the Huskies are playing in $91 million, 40,000-seat Rentschler Field. They went 9-3 last season, winning three games (and losing one) in the final minute or in overtime.
"You see the big houses," Edsall said, "and you see little houses being torn down to build big houses. We kept churning and tore everything else down. We've been in construction for five years. We've got a good-looking house on the outside. Are all the things on the inside ready?"
(Pitch to Programming: This could replace Dream Job on the fall program schedule. We're thinking combination of Trading Spaces and GameDay. Call it My Team As a House.)
The metaphor is truer than you think. Edsall and his staff have moved their offices and the team meeting rooms into doublewides in the parking lot behind Gampel Pavilion. The school is about to build a football complex. The trailers are so nondescript that no one would know they are the football office. Edsall revels in the anonymity.
The 45-year-old former Syracuse quarterback has made shrewd decisions to get the Huskies to this point. He focused on the 2003 season, only the second in which UConn used the full I-A complement of 85 scholarships, but the first in Rentschler. Only when the new stadium was ready, Edsall believed, would the public first really pay attention.
"I know how it works," he said. "You better have people in the stands. If you don't, it can come back to bite you."
UConn scheduled shrewdly, too. In the last two seasons, the Huskies have beaten teams from the Big 12, the Big Ten, the ACC and the Big East. Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida State and Miami? Try Iowa State, Indiana, Wake Forest and Rutgers.
Above all, however Edsall recruited shrewdly and allowed his young players to learn on the job. Eight Husky seniors have started at least 23 games.
"These kids were our better players," Edsall said. "I saw a lot of leadership even as freshmen. They were respectful of the upperclassman, but they had a mentality that is different than the kid who we had. We tried to recruit kids with a I-A mentality."
The two weight-bearing walls in this redo are linebacker Alfred Fincher and senior Dan Orlovsky. In a way, they represent the past and the future of UConn football. Fincher, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker from the Boston suburb of Norwood, didn't get an offer from any other I-A schools. "I was looking at Boston College and Syracuse," Fincher said. "They didn't think I was good enough."
Orlovsky, a 6-5, 236-pound quarterback, became the first blue-chip, in-state recruit that Edsall won over. "I just felt more comfortable with the coaches here," said Orlovsky, a native of Shelton. "You'd meet the head coach at another school and he would say, 'Hi. What's your name again?'"
The past and the future arrived in Storrs on the same recruiting weekend. Edsall saw in them the leadership skills that he needed in his locker room. Orlovsky, with a big arm attached to an imposing body, is the classic quarterback-as-leader.
"The coaches here didn't tell me what I wanted to hear," Orlovsky said. "They told me there would be an opportunity and a lot of hard work. What sold me was Alfred Fincher, hearing him talk about what he wanted to come here and do."
Fincher made a lasting impression on Edsall, too. He liked that Fincher was an African-American senior class president at predominantly white Norwood High.
"I can still remember when he came for his official visit," Edsall said. "He sat in my office. Right then and there I knew he was a special young man, because of how he articulated what he believed in. He was just one of those kids you knew he was going to be successful. He had a passion for the game. He had a passion for doing things the right way."
Fincher has made 207 tackles in the last two seasons, and he has a career total of 23.5 tackles for loss. Orlovsky has thrown for 7,352 yards in three seasons, and his 61 touchdown passes rank second among active players.
"It only takes a couple of guys like that," Edsall said. "They can bring people with them."
Which they have, literally, to Memorial Stadium, at 2 a.m.
"We live together," Orlovsky said, referring to Fincher. "He's my best friend. Every time we work out, even in the summer at 2 a.m., it's really competitive."
Orlovsky continued to talk but the stenographer stopped taking notes and interrupted.
"We're weird," Orlovsky said. "We don't go out much. We don't have girlfriends."
"We're just really, really competitive," Fincher said. "We just won't let the other person win. If one of us feels it, the other one will feel guilty if he doesn't go."
In the wee small hours of the morning, when the whole wide world is counting sheep, they are counting stadium steps.
"One hundred thirteen," Fincher answered. "The most reps I've done in one workout is 44."
Their teammates made fun of their late, late obsession last summer. Then their teammates began to come with them. Not a lot -- the most, Fincher said, is about 10.
"It is two in the morning," he said.
But there are bonds built in the middle of the night, when you are performing agility drills or mimicking pass plays, when all you hear are the grunts and exhalations of your brothers.
"What we feel like we've done is we feel like we got an edge," Fincher said. "We think, 'Nobody else in the country is up right now.' The guys know we're out here. Going to class, you're winning. Competing in class, you're winning. Getting one more extra workout, you're winning."
The UConn seniors understand how far they have come. The upheaval in the Big East gave them a present. The school wasn't supposed to begin playing a conference schedule until 2005, after this senior class departed. But with Miami and Virginia Tech gone, and Boston College about to go, the Huskies moved up the football timetable by a season. They will open conference play at BC on Friday, Sept. 17, in front of the ESPN2 cameras.
Fincher thinks about this fall and lets out a long, loud breath.
"Man, I can't wait," he said. "This team can't wait. This is exactly what we wanted. It's been a long, hard road."
They have helped carry UConn a long way, even if it just to the threshold of the new home.
"This is the group that has really done it," Edsall said. "They are the foundation. The foundation is the stuff that gets all the dirt thrown on it, taking the abuse and the pounding. And you know what? They've never buckled. They never buckled."
My Team as a House. Check your local listings this fall.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.
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