Dom Amore: Even as UConn football sinks lower, Fiesta Bowl Huskies keep the faith

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In a sense, it really was like old times for UConn football Saturday. The veterans of the Fiesta Bowl had returned home and their coach had, once again, left the building.

“It’s tough. I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy,” Kendall Reyes said. “Still, we’re here, we’re always going to support our alma mater. Our friends, our buddies, our memories still lie here.”

Reyes, and the other 16 former Huskies who gathered for a pregame ceremony and watched the unwatchable from their third-level suite, have wonderful memories of their football careers at UConn. The hurt that followed the 48-20 loss to Oklahoma on New Year’s Day 2011, when coach Randy Edsall left for Maryland without riding home on the team plane, leaving Jordan Todman to inform the team, has long faded.

“I got over it pretty quickly,” said Reyes, who went on to play in the NFL from 2012-18. “At the end of the day you understand everything’s a business. It kind of gets played out to be bigger than what it was. It’s college football, it happens all the time.”

Thanks to Edsall’s second exit from UConn last Monday, and the state of affairs that precipitated it, there wasn’t quite the happy, joyous reunion there might have been. The former Huskies came with their families to watch the old alma mater on a pretty afternoon, but this was not the day, nor the opponent, to look for a ray of hope.

Neither Edsall’s departure, Lou Spanos’ takeover nor Steve Krajewski’s elevation to starting quarterback had any visible effect. After a three-and-out to start the game, Purdue drove down the field and stuck it in the end zone seven possessions in a row to run up a 49-0 lead that would be the final score. The Boilermakers mercifully decided to stop there. The closest the Huskies came to scoring was a missed 50-yard field goal.

Spanos, his voice painfully hoarse from his first week as head coach, “brought new energy into the building,” Krajewski said, but he was also coaching with a heavy heart, having lost his father to COVID-19 a few days after getting his head coaching opportunity. Spanos kept his grief private, just told his players to call their parents, tell them they love them.

And he asked for more patience, despite another cartoonish loss.

“Fans, I know don’t want to hear, ‘Be patient,’” Spanos said, “but, please be patient. We’re trying to get this right. We’re going to get this right.”

Up above the field there were those 30-somethings telling their children and reminding each other that this was right once. The stands were once filled, the football worth watching.

“It’s bittersweet,” former offensive lineman Jimmy Bennett said. “I’d have liked to have seen Edsall, would have liked to have seen a better game. [What’s needed] is just a little more support. Edsall was in a tough situation, a lot of coaches have been in tough situations. You don’t have a conference now. The talent level has increased and you’ve got a really young team right now, it’s just a matter of giving the kids something that, ‘Hey, we’re on the cusp,’ maybe get one win and start stacking them.”

That is roughly what happened when the Huskies made their climb as a new FBS program. There were struggles, even in 2010, when they captured the Big East’s bowl bid with an 8-4 record.

“We were 3-4,” Reyes said, “and we were a good team. We were like, ‘How are we 3-4? We had a gut-check moment, a great week of practice and, boom, things started rolling and the next thing you know [Dave] Teggart’s kicking that field goal down in [South] Florida [to clinch the Big East title].

“All the memories, that momentum, guys were playing on fire. That whole experience was huge, really big for the program.”

The rest is bitter history for UConn, which has not had a winning season and only one bowl appearance since. Edsall, who was fired at Maryland, returned to UConn to go 6-32 and after losing to Holy Cross, an FBS school, decided last Sunday he’d retire at the end of the season. A day later UConn shortened his lame duck period by 10 games and this reunion fiesta went on without him.

“I have nothing but great things to say about him,” said Bennett, in the program six years. “In terms of what he does for young men, it’s not just about football, how are you academically? How are you as a person. It’s unfortunate how things happened, but I have nothing but good things to say about Coach Edsall.”

They were part of a solution once, the 2010 Huskies. They’re as stumped as anyone as to how to UConn gets back there from here, as an independent, looking so overmatched against opponents like Purdue, but Bennett and Reyes, at least, believe it can be done. Again.

“I couldn’t tell you what the exact answer is,” Reyes said. “I’m sure we’re all searching for that. We had a good team, we had great players. Sometimes things don’t shake out the way you want it to. It’s time for a new change and we’re going to support whoever comes in, whatever the next situation is. We’re going to support whatever direction the school goes.

“The first time it happened it might have seemed it impossible, and it happened. I wouldn’t rule out it happening again. All it takes is a few things going in the right direction, you get the program churning again. Places change. Things could change pretty quickly. It stinks to lose, absolutely, but this is a still a great athletic program. We’re going to get it figured out and then look back at these days and say, ‘That’s part of the history.’”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com

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