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UConn builds a program the right way

8/20/2004

STORRS, Conn. -- "Seize the opportunity."

Three words plastered on a banner outside the entrance of the football practice field at the University of Connecticut have never had so much meaning.

It's the first day of practice on a rain soaked afternoon but the seniors seem to have an extra spring in their step. The coaching staff's instructions echo throughout the field that much louder.

For the first time in the football team's 105-year program, the University of Connecticut has reached Division I-A status as a member of the Big East Conference.

In what started out as a vision at the start of the 1990s, current athletic
director Jeffrey Hathaway and former AD Lew Perkins took a struggling I-AA football program and formed it into an outside contender for the Big East title.

Yes, the same football program that was losing nearly three million dollars a
year back then. The same football program that played at an outdated (50 years old) and undersized (16,000) facility on campus, Memorial Stadium and had an overall winning percentage under .500.

For a school known for its basketball, few expected UConn football to succeed. But then, isn't that the premise of every great success story?

"I think what transpired was Lew was the AD at the time and together we went to the board of trustees and explained to them that we felt the direction of college athletics was going to be set by the Division I-A schools," Hathaway said. "Frankly if UConn wanted to be part of setting the direction, than we needed to be an I-A school in football."

The opportunity started with Perkins who was hired at UConn in June 1990 before leaving in 2003 and Hathaway who at the time was the Executive Associate Director of Athletics.

After discussing the program's future with former school president Harry Hartley, Perkins made a public declaration for an upgrade to Division I status in 1991.

"We set out on a 10-year process to go from I-AA to Division I," Hathaway said. "We sat with Roy Kramer, then of the Southeastern Conference, and developed a plan to develop an operation budget that would break down X amount of dollars to Y number of years. Using that as a blueprint, we were fortunate to receive an invitation to the Big East based on the football stadium situation at the time."

Memorial Stadium didn't meet Division I requirements of a 30,000 minumum seating capacity. Hitting the fundraising trail, the duo was in search of not only funds to finance the construction of a facility but a location in Connecticut. Building a stadium in Storrs was out of the question. Surrounded by farming communities, the locals were against a football stadium being built in their backyard.

"The stadium proposal was up and down and an emotional rollercoaster at times," Hathaway said. "There was a letdown and we had to go in another direction but we never strayed from the course and that was a key component."

The letdown's came in the form of stadium proposals by the New England Patriots and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who flirted with the idea of building football stadiums in downtown Hartford.

Finally in November of 1999, Governor John G. Rowand announced hat United Technologies Corporation had donated 75 acres of its East Hartford location to be used for the new home of the Huskies. With legislation approving the $91 million for construction cost, Rentschler Field was on its way of being completed.

"The stadium was built through the good effort of our governor, speaker of the house and many other legislatures," Hathaway said.

The main piece of the puzzle, Rentschler Field is the newest college football stadium in Division I with a capacity of 40,000.

In the meantime, the rest of the pieces were falling in place.

Randy Edsall was hired from Georgia Tech where he was serving as defensive coordinator. Edsall, who replaced Skip Holtz, was so impressed with what Perkins and Hathaway pitched, he took the head coaching position without even visiting the campus.

"I was excited when they called and offered me the job and then when I came up to campus finally -- because I didn't come up to campus until I took the position -- I wondered what the heck I was doing when I looked at the facilities," Edsall said.

Even with the lack of facilities at the time, that didn't hamper Edsall on the recruiting end. He sold a program that was on the verge of moving up in ranks.

"Honestly, coach Edsall brought me to Connecticut," senior linebacker Alfred Fincher said. "When I came here on my visit, it was just a good feel and coach just sealed the deal. I talked to him one-on-one and he told me what I wanted to hear."

In what turned out to be a steal, Edsall was also able to convince local quarterback Dan Orlovsky to turn down offers from programs in the ACC and the Big Ten and attend UConn. From nearby Shelton, Orlovsky could be entering his senior season suiting up at quarterback for the likes of an Illinois or Virginia but instead will be going into his fourth year as the starter for the Huskies.

"It's gratifying and an honor to be part of the Big East," Orlvosky said. "This is what we came here to do, play in the Big East and it's a great challenge for us but it's a good opportunity and hopefully we can take advantage of it."

He is coming off a season in which he led his team to a 9-3 record and threw for nearly 3,500 yards and 35 touchdowns.

"I was very, very tough on him when he was younger because I knew if he wanted to get to the point where he was a quarterback, we had to be tough and demanding," Edsall said. "I know this, it has made him a better quarterback and our relationship has grown stronger each and every year."

Orlovsky has created a real buzz, shooting up the NFL prospect charts and even being mentioned as having an outside shot for the Heisman Trophy.

"I couldn't care less," Orlvosky said on the talk about potentially being the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft in April. "My goal this season is just to continue to get better, go out and play football and have fun and the rest will take care of itself."

Initially, UConn had no plans of moving to Division I-A status until the 2005 season. But due to number of teams involved in conference realignment with the ACC and Conference USA, the Big East found itself with just seven football programs for the 2004 season and granted the Huskies their long-awaited promotion a year early.

"I think it was a tremendous opportunity for us and our seniors," Edsall said. "The things that go along with playing in a conference in terms of recruiting and exposure and the ability to be playing for one of four bowl spots with the Big East."

Orlovsky, along with Fincher, are two of 19 seniors who have seen the program make a 180 degree turn.

"When we came in here as freshmen, this program wasn't really much and that's no disrespect to the guys before but it really wasn't ready for Division I," Fincher said. "As we progressed through the years and got older and now that were seniors, everything's looking good."

Said defensive end Tyler King: "The last couple years we have been underestimated. You can see such a difference from my first year here up until now. The difference is just light-years ahead of where we were before."

The difference is so great the Huskies have seven home games on tap for the 2004 season along with four nationally broadcast games, tied for most in the Big East. The response from the community has been encouraging as well, with nearly 27,000 season tickets sold and counting.

"There was a tremendous excitement about moving into the new stadium last year and by being able to move up this year, we carry over that excitement into the new conference," Hathaway said.

While the players refuse to say it outright, the goal for this season is a bowl game, something that King feels is a game-by-game process.

"We just want to win one-game at a time," King said. "We have 11 one-game seasons and God willing a 12th game."

That is, if they seize the opportunity.