<
>

Laugh all you want, but 'Civil Conflict' played out perfectly for UConn

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Inside a small, windowless makeshift media room at Bright House Networks Stadium, Connecticut Huskies coach Bob Diaco sat down to address reporters Saturday night after what had to be an emotional victory.

There was no dais with a shiny team shield. In its place was the kind of plain folding table you might see in a school cafeteria. There was no background banner festooned with sponsor logos -- just a bare white wall of cinder blocks. The doorway outside was marked "storage."

There was no sign of the nameless wood veneer trophy purchased by the Huskies to signify the Civil Conflict -- since renamed the "ConFLiCT" to avoid potential war references and deftly emphasize postal abbreviations. The second-year UConn coach no longer seemed interested in the contrived rivalry he created between his program and the UCF Knights, two teams separated by 1,218 miles with seemingly little in common and almost no shared history.

Dressed smartly in a gray suit and dark blue plaid tie, Diaco projected measured confidence and zero smugness. After breaking down the nuts and bolts of the preceding game, Diaco was asked whether he would be building trophies for upcoming games against American Athletic Conference opponents South Florida, Cincinnati and East Carolina. That's when he showed his cards.

"If it helps us win, I'm down for whatever," Diaco said after the Huskies thumped the Knights 40-13. "It's something you can point toward. ... It's in the preparation. It's in the year leading up to the game."

He didn't care that UCF wasn't interested in reciprocating in the rivalry. He wasn't concerned whether anyone outside the UConn program was interested in the one-sided feud. But it definitely mattered to him that UConn sits at 3-3 and 1-1 in the American, poised to play meaningful games down the stretch for the first time in years.

"The team is excited getting our first road win," Diaco said. "We keep tapping at the rock and eventually it's going to crack."

The method Diaco used in manufacturing a grudge match against UCF was undoubtedly clumsy. He had described the matchup in cringeworthy terms months ago to the Connecticut Post: "Hey, we don't like you. We don't care if you don't like us, but we don't like you. At your place, at your school, you meet us by the flagpole. We'll be there."

But what pundits and social media trolls might not realize is that Diaco didn't have any delusions of putting UConn-UCF in the same breath as Michigan-Ohio State. He simply wanted to raise the bar for his team -- which had gone a combined 5-19 the past two seasons -- to the level of a two-time defending conference champ. By doing so, he provided a carrot for his players to chase and a ton of publicity for his program. And the team's fans started to buy in.

"The ConFLiCT is a great thing," said Huskies season-ticket holder Al Dufour, who traveled from Connecticut to attend the UCF game. "We don't have things like that in the American. The American conference is a huge conference that's growing. ... It's about growing this conference, growing these two programs. UCF has had some great success the last couple years. UConn is on the rise again."

On the other side of the feud, UCF is pointed sharply in the other direction after Saturday's loss.

The Knights are just two seasons removed from a BCS bowl victory. But star quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receiver Breshad Perriman are gone, off to the NFL as first-round draft picks. UCF lost 14 starters from last year's team and has battled a rash of injuries. It adds up to an 0-6 record, the program's worst start since going 0-11 in 2004. It's so bad that a local bar has gained national attention for pledging to give away free beer during Knights games until the team wins its first game. It has given away 3,750 cups so far in two weeks.

We hate to say this, but UCF might actually not be very good at football. We really didn't expect this level of sucktitude. Might be giving out free beer all year... #savethebasement

Posted by The Basement Orlando onĀ Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nevertheless, tailgating for the UConn game was fervent on campus as adult beverages flowed freely under a thick sea of tents along the mall leading to the stadium. A number of fans wore black and gold "BEAT UCONN" decals, and enthusiasm abounded leading up to kickoff.

Said UCF alum Kevin Dennis: "They took it to us last year, kept us from winning the American conference outright. This year, we're gonna show them what UCF is all about. First victory at home, baby. We're gonna beat UConn. No doubt about it."

As it turned out, the ConFLiCT itself lived down to the hype. UConn avoided mistakes and forced four turnovers in what amounted to a runaway romp. As the Huskies opened a 30-point lead early in the third quarter, the announced crowd of 26,669 began to trickle toward the exits. When the margin grew to 37 late in the third, only diehards remained among rows and rows of aluminum benches.

In the wake of the loss, longtime Knights coach George O'Leary discussed his team's immediate concerns -- namely coaching up a young roster and trying to get healthy.

"Very disappointed on the outcome and the continued mistakes we make offensively and defensively," O'Leary said. "Just a lot of kids out there that are not ready yet."

O'Leary stepped down as UCF's interim athletic director Monday but is staying on as football coach. Regardless of who is at the helm at UCF in 2016, perhaps that person should look to how Diaco successfully dialed up his team with a manufactured rivalry and wood veneer trophy.

Maybe the Knights will be the ones with the Countdown to ConFLiCT clock next year.