The school that realignment left behind: Inside UConn football's collapse

One of the lowlights of the season was UConn's loss to rival UMass, 27-13, in a battle of the winless independents. M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire

STORRS, Conn. -- Inside the lobby of the UConn football facility, bowl trophies shimmer inside their perfectly maintained glass cases, an ever-present reminder that there once was a time when the Huskies were not the butt of football jokes, nor the focus of endless speculation about their FBS future.

As former UConn quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky explains it, "You had this program that was on a rocket ship." Orlovsky chose to play for the Huskies because he saw that upward trajectory, and he wanted to help lay the foundation for sustained success on the FBS level, specifically as new football members in the Big East. He remembers then-coach Randy Edsall selling the vision that UConn belonged among the bigger programs.

Orlovsky believed. So did former linebacker Alfred Fincher, who played with Orlovsky from 2001 to '04. "We were building something that could be special," Fincher said. "And when we left there, we did see the benefits."

Edsall captained the program as it transitioned from FCS to FBS to the Big East, and the success soon followed -- with the pinnacle a Fiesta Bowl appearance as Big East champions in 2010. Edsall left after that season, but that was only the start of trouble for the UConn football program.

Conference realignment soon wreaked havoc on the collegiate landscape, affecting the Big East in a catastrophic way. In the fallout, one could make the argument that no program has been hurt worse than UConn.

Since the Big East ceased being a football-playing conference in 2013, UConn football is 21-73, including 1-8 headed into its game at Clemson on Saturday. To be sure, realignment is not the only factor at play. Poor coaching hires, mounting financial woes and a push-pull with its more high-profile basketball programs about the best path forward have contributed to where UConn stands.

Even still, the fall has been much starker than anyone could have imagined.

"As meteoric a rise as it was, it has been just as quick a falloff," Orlovsky said. "And I still sit here, and I'm shocked. I'm shocked that that they are in this situation."

FORMER UCONN COACH Paul Pasqualoni still remembers the morning the ACC made its final realignment announcement, in 2012: It would take Louisville over UConn to replace Maryland. He describes the news as a "giant punch in the stomach."

"To say it was a tough day would be putting it very mildly," Pasqualoni said in a recent phone conversation. "Losing out on the opportunity to go to the ACC and everything that meant, the football part of it and the financial part of it, just was overwhelming. From that point forward, every day in recruiting was just trying to explain where we were going moving forward. And it became very, very difficult."

It turns out, that was not the first time the ACC chose another Big East school over UConn. In 2011, conference realignment was at its height, as schools and conferences across the country evaluated themselves and their long-term prospects. The Big East had its own unique circumstances, as a conference that not only originated with basketball but had schools that did not field FBS football teams.

As football increasingly drove the financial train, the Big East faced a precarious situation in 2011. With a lucrative television deal on the table from ESPN, the conference had a chance to solidify its future. But some in the room felt the league could gain more in the open market. So the Big East turned the deal down. Shortly thereafter, the ACC started showing interest in multiple Big East teams.

According to one source involved in the discussions, one of those teams was UConn. Initially, a Syracuse-UConn addition to the ACC was thought to be extremely beneficial on the basketball side -- not only boosting hoops inside that conference but destabilizing the powerful Big East basketball brand. But the source indicated opposition to UConn soon emerged: First from Boston College, which did not want to share the New England region. Then, NCAA trouble that began under then-basketball coach Jim Calhoun.

"College presidents are extraordinarily wary of those kinds of situations," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "As a group, the ACC presidents were a little gun-shy about Connecticut."

Quickly, Pittsburgh emerged as the choice to join Syracuse in the ACC. Then-UConn president Susan Herbst and then-athletic director Jeff Hathaway declined comment. Dan Toscano, who currently serves as the UConn board of trustees chairman, remembers sitting in Calhoun's box when he heard the news.

"I would say maybe we were a little complacent," Toscano said. "We were seeing the ground was shaking, and I don't know that we fully appreciated how hard it was shaking. I wasn't shocked in the sense of this could be devastating to us. Because we were such a successful brand. If you had said to me at that point, here's what UConn's going to look like five years hence, I'd say, NFW."

The following year, the ACC had another opening, when Maryland left for the Big Ten. Pasqualoni said he was not involved in any of the discussions with Herbst or then-athletic director Warde Manuel, who also declined comment.

But Pasqualoni said, "The sense was we were in good shape. I don't know if we were overconfident. I don't know if the ACC intended to select Louisville all along. But I'll be very honest with you. That was not my perception."

If the discussions did not go very far the first time around, the second time they went down to the wire. But UConn faced two huge challenges again. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich had furiously fought for inclusion in the Big 12 the previous year, only to lose out to West Virginia. He said that entire experience only served to keep him motivated to make sure Louisville did not get left out a second time.

Jurich had already steered Louisville from Conference USA into the Big East in 2005, and he knew not only how to sell his program, but how to do so relentlessly. Nothing else mattered to him.

Second, Louisville football was on the rise. In 2012, the Cardinals made the Sugar Bowl, while UConn was in the middle of a second consecutive 5-7 season. Louisville had better facilities and an overall bigger athletics budget and commitment to its entire department. Though UConn had the academics advantage, Louisville checked more boxes.

As a result, UConn stayed behind in a newly formed league. After the basketball-playing schools split off and kept the Big East name, UConn was forced to stay in the American Athletic Conference because of football. It was a move that created tensions within the entire athletic department, because the other sports programs never wanted to leave the Big East.

Instead, all programs had to recruit the Northeast with a schedule that no longer featured their geographic rivals, but rather games into Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. In football, it meant recruiting against other schools in your region -- Syracuse and Boston College -- that were in the conference that left you out.

The situation became so untenable that UConn eventually decided to make its football program independent and allow the rest of its sports to rejoin the Big East in 2020.

"There's been a narrative that we had the worst outcome in however you want to define the universe of major athletic programs because of the way conference realignment turned out," Toscano said. "People are saying that about Kansas now. It doesn't matter. All it matters to us is who we are and what we're trying to do. The rest is something you talk about over a beer."

ORLOVSKY ATTENDED THE first spring practice when Edsall returned to UConn for a second stint, in 2017. He could not believe what he saw: a team missing the physicality and athleticism required to play major college football.

"I remember going in his office, shutting the door and being like, 'What happened?' I did not know the program talentwise had fallen off that much," Orlovsky said.

If only the football issues dealt exclusively with navigating a new world after realignment. Unfortunately for football, three consecutive head coaching hires failed, sinking the football program into a deeper hole -- not only competitively, but financially. Pasqualoni was hired in 2011 off his head-coaching credentials and ties to the area -- as a formerly successful Syracuse head coach and Connecticut native. But he never posted a winning record and was fired after starting his third season 0-4 in 2013.

Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco replaced him, but after a bowl berth in 2015, things went south and he was fired the following year after going 11-26 overall. In a phone interview, Diaco said he felt he had enough administrative support, the facilities and the budget to get the job done.

"I just didn't win enough games in that last year, with the expectations where they were," Diaco said. "But it wasn't for a lack of support and resources. It was just my fault, honestly. It's a production business, and if it's not there, then you don't get to do it. I took complete accountability. I don't think they were resource-related or conference-related, or anybody else's fault."

UConn decided to bring Edsall back, hoping his familiarity not only with UConn but with the recruiting area would help the Huskies get on the right track. But circumstances had changed since the last time he was head coach. UConn was in a different conference, and then went independent, making recruiting even more difficult. Edsall had also changed as a coach; seven years older and no longer on the ground floor of something new.

He did himself no favors with several of his assistant coaching hires, and the issues only snowballed. In 2020, UConn made the decision not to play football because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two games into the 2021 season, Edsall decided he had had enough and resigned. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

"I think his intentions were really good," Orlovsky said. "When he first got there, he had the support of everybody at that institution. It wasn't we're going to try. It was we're going to do. We're kidding ourselves to think he had that type of commitment and support again."

Toscano pushed back on that notion.

"We worked hard to get to where we are," Toscano said. "We invested an awful lot of money and have a strategic commitment to competing at the highest level."

JACKSON MITCHELL WATCHED the 2011 Fiesta Bowl as a 10-year-old growing up in Ridgefield, an hour and a half away from the UConn campus. The Huskies may have lost to Oklahoma 48-20, but seeing them on the big stage made Mitchell feel as if anything was possible at UConn.

When he signed as one of the top high school players in the state in 2019, he made a promise to himself to help bring UConn back. Three years in, Mitchell hears all the jokes and sees all the memes making fun of where his team is at this point.

But he refuses to let the negativity get to him.

"It can't be like this forever," the third-year linebacker said. "Eventually it's going to show. It may not be right away. It may not be the next three games, but eventually people are going to see, 'Oh, maybe they do have something there.' Then, it's just going to keep adding up and eventually they will say, 'That's a good team.' It just takes it takes time."

UConn athletic director David Benedict, who hired Edsall, is now charged with hiring the next head coach. He stands on the sideline and hears what opposing fans say to his players, a much more in-your-face experience than what they read on social media.

"You'd like to say those things build character, but winning is important," Benedict said. "It's important for those kids to feel success and achieve success. That's the only option right now for us."

UConn has posted 10 straight losing seasons since the Fiesta Bowl appearance, which has led to rampant speculation about how much longer the program can sustain itself both as an independent and on the FBS level. UConn currently has a television contract with CBS Sports through the 2023 season and games scheduled out through 2028.

"In college athletics, what is defined as long term?" Benedict said. "All I can tell you is based on what we have on paper right now, for scheduling, we have a great runway to be able to figure that out. Five or six years is an eternity in college athletics. I don't think that change is going to stop. The only thing that's constant in college athletics is change.

"While there has been a lot of activity recently around conference realignment, I don't see that stopping after this round, and conferences, universities are going to continue to constantly evaluate things. There's going to be opportunity moving forward. And we're going to continue to do what we think is in the best interest of the University of Connecticut, as well as our football program."

The financial problems are real, however. In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the school showed a $43.5 million deficit. In 2020, UConn cut four sports as a way to help trim $10 million in institutional support to the athletic department by 2023. But school officials are adamant the Huskies will not drop down a level, and push back on the assertion there is not a full and complete commitment to making football successful.

The facilities are in place, including the $57.9 million standalone football facility built in 2006 -- something that some Power 5 schools like Florida State do not even have right now.

Now the next head coach is in place. UConn announced Thursday that it had hired Jim Mora, who last coached at UCLA in 2017 and has previous stops in the NFL as the head coach in Atlanta and Seattle. Though Mora has no ties to the Northeast, Benedict said in a statement announcing the hire that Mora was a proven winner "and he possesses the experience and the energy to lead our football program back to success. Jim is excited and undaunted by this challenge, and we both know that this program has great potential."

Everyone inside the program believes the right coach, with the right fit and temperament, can get the job done -- especially the players, who say they have bonded together through the adversity they have faced over the last two years. Players say interim coach Lou Spanos has helped change the mentality and is someone they have rallied around.

UConn will return a young team in 2022, including freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh, who showed flashes of promise in three games this season before injuring his knee. He won't be able to play against Clemson, where his older brother, Taisun, is the backup quarterback. But he, like Mitchell, believes big things are in store.

"We're going to finish this season as strong as possible," Phommachanh said. "Definitely try to show our talents with these three big opponents that we have, but in the offseason we will have something in the pot, cooking it up. I promise you."

Though Benedict does not paint the new coaching hire as make or break, others do.

"If this doesn't work, we're going to have some tough decisions to make," Toscano said. "I'm confident we'll get the right person and we'll find success. If we can't get this right, I just don't know that we have the time or the support to try it yet again. At some point, you have to start to wonder if there isn't something else wrong that we've missed. It's expensive to run a college football program, especially at the FBS level, but it's so consistent with who we are that we're supposed to make it work. And if it doesn't, I'll be the first one to raise my hand and say, 'I'll take responsibility for this.'"

For his part, Benedict is focused on doing everything he can to help the new head coach win, sooner rather than later.

"We're going to have success," Benedict said. "So when we win, people will be happy again, and those types of comments or conversations will stop."