UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel is a football guy.
He played at the University of Michigan, one of the standard bearers for all of college football, helped turn around the University at Buffalo program during his tenure as athletic director at the school, and was hired, quite frankly, with the expectation of doing the same at UConn.
It's a tad of an overstatement to say the following, but not by much: Warde Manuel was hired to do exactly what he did on Wednesday night.
Sure, the hiring and subsequent extension of Kevin Ollie as mens' basketball coach was huge, but that was really only part his decision. Program builder and Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun timed his retirement in a way that left Manuel almost no choice but to promote from within, and the obvious candidate was Ollie. Then, when Ollie's team, under the specter of Big East and NCAA Tournament bans, and after having suffered several key defections from the roster, played at a top 25-level for the first two months of the season, committing to Ollie was no longer an “if” question but, rather, “how long?”
The hiring of Mike Cavanaugh ahead of the hockey team's admittance to Hockey East was also an important hire, but UConn hockey doesn't rank nearly as high in terms of importance to the school as does the football program.
Nope, Manuel was always going to be judged by how he handled football and, ultimately, who he chose to be the team's next head coach.
Right now, he's in line for an easy A.
Everything about this process stood in stark contrast to former AD Jeff Hathaway's “blind monkey looking for a banana” imitation after Randy Edsall skated down to Maryland after the Fiesta Bowl. Hathaway's list was impressive only in how uninspiring it was. Think of when you were applying for college. You had your “reach” schools, your “choice” schools, and your “safety” schools, right? Well, good ol' Jeff didn't have any “reach” or “choice” candidates, only “safety” guys, and he ended up hiring someone considered to be the safest of all the safe choices.
The reason for Paul Pasqualoni's hiring never made any sense. He was a favorite of local Connecticut high school coaches, meaning he'd have an upper hand when it came to state recruiting.
Cause, you know, if you're gonna compete at a national level, you have to have a heavy dose of Connecticut players coming through the program.
Then there was the age. Most of us viewed Coach PP as being a little long in the tooth to help bring UConn to whatever next level they could possibly reach. Hathaway, on the other hand, seemed to love the idea that Pasqualoni would likely remain a part of UConn as long as the school would have him.
No worrying about some big program stealing Grampy Paul away. The man was destined to be a lifer.
So, UConn ended up with Coach PP, two years of football program regression, and a fan base that was pretty much apathetic to the whole thing.
Manuel took the Hathaway playbook and flipped it on its head.
He wasn't looking for old and mediocre, he was looking for young, hungry, and ready to prove something. Whereas Hathaway inspired yawns with his list of candidates, Manuel's was so aggressive it bordered on an overreach. After giving TJ Weist a well-deserved interview for the job, Manuel turned his attention to perhaps the hottest name among assistant coaches, Pat Narduzzi.
Joining the Broyles Award winner on the candidate list was Bowling Green's Dave Clawson and Ball State's Pete Lembo. Oh, and the 2012 Broyles Award winner, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
No, UConn wasn't reaching out to Nick Saban. That wouldn't have been a reach as much as a laugh-riot joke. But in terms of who Manuel could actually convince to come to Storrs, he was looking for the best.
For a while, it looked like his plan was about to blow up in his face.
When word came down Wednesday that Narduzzi had turned down Manuel's job offer, it felt like UConn was a plane that had just lost an engine. They could still land, but surviving the flight was suddenly 50-50.
It didn't take much to see things spiraling downhill.
Narduzzi was clearly UConn's first choice, and it was a PR nightmare to have him reject the school's offer. Throw into the mix that Texas is about to need a new head coach and the dominoes from that could eventually reach all the way down to Storrs. Depending on who gets hired, a whole new crop of job opportunities might open up.
Pete Lembo, suddenly aware that he was the Husky's second choice, might have waited around to see who else wouldcome calling. Va. Tech's Bud Foster never seemed that interested to begin with.
Quickly, UConn could be crossing names off their list, looking more and more foolish every step of the way.
That's why Manuel moving quickly to wrap up Diaco was so important. It stopped the boulder from ever reaching the edge of the cliff. If he hadn't, today would have been more speculation, more “leads” about strange Groton flights to Muncie, Ind. As every hour passed, UConn's footing would have seemed more tenuous, and more questions would have been raised about UConn's viability as a program, Manuel's ability to sell a candidate on the school, and the entire athletic department's future.
Today, however, has a much different tone to it because Manuel acted.
Writing this on Thursday afternoon, it's not clear how the entire Diaco deal worked itself out. As far as most people knew, the only candidates to officially interview for the job were Weist, Lembo, and Narduzzi. Diaco was just a rumor.
Somewhere, somehow, Manuel did his interviewing and program-pitching behind closed doors, in a hush-hush environment. A few hours after reports of a Muncie rendezvous with Lembo were chilled, Diaco was suddenly coming to Storrs.
It was a sly move by Manuel. He rebounded off the Narduzzi rejection to secure a great candidate with loads of cache.
It was a master stroke by the young AD.
Of course, Manuel's final grade is tied directly to Diaco. If, in four years, the young coach is struggling to find his footing and UConn is continuing to produce mediocre football teams, no one will remember that Manuel's hire was hailed as genius. He'll simply be the AD who brought in the wrong guy.
Yet, if we do this like a college football poll, Manuel is right at the top of the pre-season rankings.
It's also an encouraging sign for the department as a whole.
I've been more critical of Manuel than most, mainly because I believe he was outmaneuvered by Louisville's Tom Jurich for an invite to the ACC (or maybe I just can't get over that hideous Hawaiian shirt he wore down in Maui while conference realignment was blowing up in his face). I also thought Manuel dragged his feet in giving Kevin Ollie an extension last year.
Yet, even with some of my reservations, I've been more impressed than disappointed in UConn's young AD. From the minute he stepped on campus fundraising has increased ten-fold, the long-dormant basketball practice facility suddenly broke ground, fences were mended with some of school's bigger boosters, and UConn was admitted to Hockey East.
Manuel wisely gave Pasqualoni one more year to prove himself in 2013, acted swiftly to fire him when it was clear Coach PP was headed for yet another unsuccessful season (a 41-12 blowout by Buffalo will convince anyone), made the smart choice in promoting TJ Weist to the interim head coach position, and then got out of the team's way as the season played out.
It's hard to see how Manuel could have played this better.
Clearly, there is still more to do.
UConn's hockey team will need a new campus home eventually, and that may tie in to what the school decides to do with Gampel Pavilion. Does a new “Calhoun Center” get built while Gampel is used solely for hockey, or does the GP get a major overhaul to where both basketball and hockey can be accommodated?
Improvements to most other athletic fields have also been proposed, meaning more investment from the school, meaning more revenue that needs to be secured.
Oh, and UConn needs to figure out a way to either push itself into one of the power conferences or make life in the American both financially and competitively viable.
That's a lot for Manuel to tackle.
But if the handling of this coaching search, and the hiring of Diaco is any indication, UConn has a great chance of seeing all of those initiatives through to the end. Manuel is still young and most likely learning. The fact that he's already ahead of the game is a plus.
Warde Manuel is a football guy, and his main job now is saving the UConn football program. He looks to be on the right track.