The UConn name is hot right now.
That's what happens when two of your flagship programs win national championships 24 hours apart from one another. That's what happens when your mens' basketball squad rattles off six improbable wins and your womens' team finishes up an undefeated season.
You get a lot of awesome pub.
The man of the hour, no question, is Kevin Ollie. His story of journeyman NBA player to two-year assistant coach, to earning the full-time gig and taking his team to the top of the college basketball mountain has garnered attention from almost everyone.
There have been numerous newspaper features chronicling his rise, several special television exposes on his tale, and, most recently, an appearance on CBS This Morning. No doubt, Ollie is the “it” coach right now.
That's gonna mean the world for him and his recruiting. He's suddenly a known commodity, and so is UConn under his leadership. This should mean Ollie, who had already shown an ability to recruit even before his fame took off, will be in on every big-name prospect going forward.
But this is also good news for another young coach at UConn — Bob Diaco.
As the glow of those championship runs began to dim a bit, attention quickly turned to Diaco and the UConn football program. The gridiron does wag the dog, so to speak
A lot of people, who will be forever known as buzz kills, pointed out that, while the basketball victories were great, it wouldn't mean all that much if the football remained an issue.
I don't totally agree with that logic, as UConn basketball has shown itself capable of being successful regardless of the school's football acumen, but there's no question that, if a spot in a “power” conference does open up in the near future, what happens from late August through November (and late December, hopefully) will go a long way in finally securing UConn's future.
So how can UConn's basketball dominance help Diaco and the football team?
Well, in a recent interview with The Hartford Courant, Diaco commented on how the national championship runs could help his situation:
"The brand was national, but it's so hot right now, from coast to coast, as you're on the road recruiting, everybody knows UConn. The brand has a hot, hot name right now. That's a huge piece we'll piggyback onto, as will the rest of the university programs, from the music department to the business, that are trying to acquire talent."
I have never recruited a kid in my life so I wouldn't know the first thing about how to sell the name or brand. I have no idea if a kid playing wide receiver in some podunk town in Virginia cares about UConn's dual national championships or if the stardom of Shabazz Napier helps deliver some future QB star to Storrs.
My initial hunch would be no, but Diaco, who's lived most of his life in and around college athletics, knows a bit more about this than myself … so we'll go with what he said.
If the UConn brand has, indeed, been elevated even more because of what just happened, then Diaco is going to find himself in friendlier waters when walking into a recruit's home and selling the family on three or four years in Connecticut.
If it helps Diaco get better players, awesome.
But what I do know is this: it should help get more fans in the seats come this fall.
That's more than half the battle. That's imperative if UConn football ever wants to emerge out of the shadow of basketball and secure a place for itself in the college football spotlight.
UConn's annual Blue and White Game was played on April 12 at Rentschler Field. The White beat Blue by a score of 46-37 which, combined, might be more points scored by UConn in that one game than the program has scored in the last three years (feels that way).
Despite the high score, word from the game was that the Husky defensive line could be a force. Junior safety Andrew Adams described the front group as having the potential to be “dominant” and “a force” come the fall.
It also appeared that Diaco was content if not happy with the quarterback play, complementing all on some good moments in the game but emphasizing that there is still a “long way to go.”
However, what didn't get mentioned a lot was one number: 6,500. That's the amount of people who turned up to watch UConn play that game … a scrimmage that offers little value to anyone besides the coaches.
The number may not seem like a lot, especially when you consider that more than 70,000 turned out to watch Penn State operate the same sort of game. Most of the major college football entities in the sport can draw near-Super Bowl crowds for exhibitions.
But UConn's bar has, nor should it ever be, set to the same standard as Ohio State or Michigan, where the programs stand on 100 years of tradition. Instead, UConn needs to judge itself by itself, and 6,500 people for the Blue and White is twice as many people as turned out last year.
Can you imagine if Paul Pasqualoni was still coach? Can you envision what the attendance would have been like had UConn's Amida Brimah clanked his ugly hook shot off the side of the rim against St. Joe's and went home meekly after playing one game, or if the women had lost in the Elite Eight or even Final Four?
I'd submit that the game would have been LUCKY to draw 3,000 people under such circumstances. Hell, at that point 1,000 might have been more realistic.
It's true that Diaco's hiring had people fired up from day-one. He's a young, energetic guy who knows how to say all the right things. Crap, he might even be saying it because he believes it, who knows. But there is still a show-me feel to this football program. There is optimism, but it's been cautious.
I'm not saying that basketball success eliminates that hesitation, but what I don't think can be understated right now is that there is a tremendous amount of pride in UConn, and flying the school colors proudly and loudly has become the in-thing to do.
Yes, there are plenty of UConn sports still happening, including baseball, which is also on its own little high right now since Mike Olt and George Springer have secured places on MLB rosters (Olt with the Cubs, Springer with the Astros), but for a lot of fans, the next time they'll get a chance to cheer on their school, their Huskies, will be in August. People are excited about UConn athletics again, and that excitement is sure to carry over into the football season.
It's a great jumping off point for a coach who, from his opening press conference, has demonstrated an understanding for the need to woo UConn fans. A big part of recruiting is selling kids on a place. If you're Kevin Ollie, you can point to any number of games at Gampel, or the electric atmosphere at Madison Square Garden during the NCAA Tournament as proof of UConn's support. Diaco needs to have the same sort of atmosphere at The Rent this season … something on tape to show recruiting targets that, hey, you come to UConn and you get to play in front of THOSE CROWDS.
The Michigan game last year showed what Rentschler can be. The quote from Robert Griffin III, about UConn being one of the loudest arenas he's ever been in, all speaks to how passionate the fans can be when motivated.
But it has to be consistent.
With the excitement surrounding the Husky athletic department right now, Diaco doesn't have to build anything from scratch. He just needs to take what's out there and funnel it into football. He needs to continue stoking these fires — take the handoff from Ollie and Auriemma and, from now through August, have fans salivating for football.
He seems like the type of guy who can do it. There's already been a lot of talk about changing the culture, improving the nutrition, and instilling a winning attitude. At his press conference, Diaco urged fans to buy tickets fast because it was about to become the hottest ticket in the state. While it's doubtful football will achieve that kind of success right out of the gate, it at least shows Diaco's commitment to bringing in the fans. He clearly gets that it starts with the paying customers, and getting them is the first priority.
Look, all of this clearly has a shelf life. As was pointed out by Sean O'Leary in another post, if the Huskies get smacked around by BYU in the opening game, few are going to care about basketball championships or proclamations of a changing culture. People will pay for quality, and that's what Diaco must give them.
Yet there's no question the road has been paved a bit straighter for him now that UConn pride is at its zenith. What the championships, most notably the mens' team, did was instill a sense that anything is possible. We were asked to believe in the impossible at the beginning of March, and the impossible paid off.
Suddenly, Diaco talking about a winning tradition and turning the Huskies into one of the best football programs in America doesn't sound so crazy. It just sounds like something else in which to believe.
After March, Coach D has a lot of believers.