A lot has been said about Randy Edsall this week, and even more than two years after his abrupt departure, it's clear that UConn fans still harbor strong feelings towards their old football coach.
Obviously most fans are still hurt, and many of us have reveled in his struggles at Maryland these past two years. Prior to the Louisville game, UConn's win at Maryland last year was the team's biggest win of the season, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that a win over Edsall this weekend would carry special significance, especially in light of the team's disastrous loss against Towson to open the season.
But it wasn't always this way. Even though the break-up was painful, UConn football had some great times under Edsall, and he helped guide the program to some unimaginable heights in less than a decade at the FBS level. While I don't think it would be accurate to say he was "beloved" by the fans, he was respected as a builder of the program and someone who could be counted on to step up as a leader and father figure when things went wrong, especially after the way he handled the death of Jasper Howard.
So on the eve of his return to East Hartford, I feel like now is a good time to stop and take a moment to reflect on Randy Edsall's place in UConn football history. Given everything that's happened, what is Randy Edsall's legacy?
Lets start with the good. Randy Edsall was named UConn's head coach on Dec. 21, 1998 and was tasked with leading the I-AA program through its transition into the Big East. Edsall went on to become the program's all time wins leader, going 74-70 overall in 12 seasons as UConn's coach and 50-37 in seven season after joining the Big East.
During that time, Edsall's teams won eight or more games six times, including five of his seven years in the Big East, and during that time the team went to five bowl games and captured a share of the Big East Championship twice.
Edsall was able to do this despite the fact that Connecticut isn't exactly a hotbed of football talent and the players he brought in generally weren't highly regarded recruits. Instead of relying on talent, Edsall was consistently able to take the players he had and develop them into quality players, with some of the more notable ones including Dan Orlovsky, Donald Brown, Darius Butler and Jordan Todman.
Then, of course, was Jasper Howard's death in 2009. Hours after winning a huge homecoming game against Louisville, Howard was stabbed to death in front of the Student Union after a fight broke out between his teammates and a group of thugs. Howard was coming off one of the best games of his career and was only a few months away from becoming a father, but in a cruel twist of fate, he was gone.
Howard's death rocked the team and the university community, but Edsall was widely praised for his handling of the crisis. Immediately after the incident, Edsall went to the hospital to identify Howard's body, and upon arriving back to campus, he gathered his players and delivered the bad news.
"There's nothing written in the manual in how to deal with these situations," Edsall said at a press conference following the attack. "But I know this — this is a strong team, with strong leadership, and we'll get through it."
If it wasn't bad enough that UConn lost one of its own, the fact that the team suffered three consecutive gut punch losses afterwards made it feel as though the wheels could easily come off completely. The worst was the loss to Rutgers in the team's first home game since Howard's death, when UConn came back to take the lead on a last minute rushing touchdown, only to give up an 81-yard touchdown pass with seconds left to lose the game.
But as bad as this stretch was, the team stayed competitive each time, and then when UConn finally paid a visit to South Bend for the highly anticipated showdown with Notre Dame, the Huskies came through and beat the Irish on their home field. UConn went on to win the rest of their games, ending the regular season with a last second field goal in a blizzard to beat South Florida before stomping South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
Edsall pulled a similar trick the following year, when UConn got shut out by Louisville to fall to 3-4 and 0-2 in the Big East. The team regrouped, ran the table and wound up clinching the school's first BCS Bowl bid in school history.
Now this is where the bad comes in.
Obviously UConn was significantly outmatched by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, and the fact that the team couldn't even muster a single offensive touchdown was very disappointing. I was covering the team for The Daily Campus at the time, and after the game one thing that struck me was team's demeanor. Nobody was particularly upset at the outcome of the game, all of the players I talked to were basically disappointed that they lost but still happy to have had the opportunity to play on that kind of stage.
I remember leaving the stadium that night bummed out, but steeled by the sense that if the players were doing ok, then there wasn't any sense in me getting all bent out of shape.
Then the next morning happened.
I distinctly remember waking up the morning after the Fiesta Bowl, going down to the hotel lobby to grab some breakfast and seeing the news break on SportsCenter. Nobody saw it coming, not the players, not the other reporters, nobody. Edsall had given no indication he'd be leaving during his press conference the night before, and evidently he didn't mention anything to the players either.
When we called Kashif Moore, he told us that he and everyone else found out pretty much the same way, through text messages, phone calls, news reports and each other. The players were pissed, and rightfully so. Here they were less than 12 hours after playing in the biggest game in program history, and the coach who led them through hell and back couldn't even deliver the news to them in person the way he made Jordan Todman announce his decision to leave for the NFL.
The fallout was swift and fierce. Edsall was a traitor, a fraud, a hypocrite and a snake. He was a pariah who fans openly rooted to fail, and when his first year at Maryland was a disaster, UConn fans delighted in his struggles.
There also became a renewed focus on Edsall's shortcomings as a coach while he was here. Though Edsall was good at developing unheralded players, he never was able to attract more highly regarded talent the way UConn's conference rivals did. UConn also never had any semblance of a passing game after Orlovsky left, and while the team's running game was usually exceptional, the offense as a whole typically wasn't very exciting.
Then there is the fact that while UConn was consistently good under Edsall, it was never great. UConn only beat one ranked opponent under Edsall, and almost every year the team could be counted on to lose one or two games that they had no business losing.
In that respect, things haven't changed much in the post-Edsall years for UConn. Under Paul Pasqualoni, the Huskies still manage to lose to inferior teams on a regular basis, the offense remains unwatchable (only now it doesn't have a top-quality running game to prop it up) and the results remain consistent. The only difference is that instead of finishing 8-5 every year like they did under Edsall, now the team finishes 5-7 and never wins more than a game in a row.
So in the end, what is Randy Edsall's legacy? Does all the good he did for the program outweigh the ugliness of his departure? Was he overrated to begin with? Has the unimaginable awfulness of Paul Pasqualoni and George DeLeone helped paint Edsall's tenure in a more positive light?
I don't know, it's complicated and it probably won't be until UConn has another new coach and finds itself on better footing before any kind of consensus is reached. What I do know is that Edsall will always remain a central figure of UConn's football history, and I have a hunch that as time goes on, Edsall's tenure will be looked at more positively and he'll eventually be forgiven.
Follow Mac Cerullo on Twitter at @MacCerullo.