That is the number of times UConn fans left Rentschler Field pumping their fists and high-fiving their friends in the past three seasons. It came back way back on Thanksgiving weekend in 2011 when Rutgers came to town with BCS dreams and left with a brutal 40-22 loss.
The moment doubled as the only time there was any sort of good vibrations accompanying the doomed Paul Pasqualoni era. The win momentarily kept UConn’s bowl hopes alive, before they were summarily trounced in painful fashion for a national television audience by Cincinnati.
UConn fans have continued to trudge to the Rent because they love the school, they support the program and they rooted for the players. But it wasn’t easy. The writing was on the wall in 2012. It finally came to a head in September 2013.
Because those who follow and cover college football have the memory of a goldfish, the general national consensus that UConn has always been terrible at football. The Fiesta Bowl stands out as an aberration. The truth is that the Fiesta Bowl was the culmination. Under Randy Edsall, UConn football provided at least one feel-good, fist-pumping home win for the faithful.
Here’s the list to hammer home my point. If you attended them like I did, you can probably picture how you felt walking back to your tailgate. Or rushing the field.
2003 – Indiana, Rutgers
2004 – Pittsburgh
2005 – Syracuse
2006 – Pittsburgh
2007 – Louisville/USF
2008 – Virginia
2009 – USF in the snow
2010 – Pittsburgh, West Virginia
Some of those wins were more important than others. The 2010 wins helped secure the Big East. The 2005 win ultimately meant nothing because we didn’t know Syracuse was going to be 1-11.
Of all the wins on that list, the 2006 overtime win over Pitt is the most underrated and the doppelganger for what a big win in 2014 could look like.
Pitt was 6-3. UConn was 3-5. Pitt was up 31-17 after three quarters. A good portion of the Rent vacated the premises. Following a tough 2005 season, the air was rapidly leaving the UConn program. But UConn rallied. Randy Edsall went for two in double overtime. D.J. Hernandez scored. And I spent that night celebrating over shots of Southern Comfort in downtown Hartford.
UConn immediately lost the momentum with a horrible loss the next week at Syracuse and didn’t win another game. However, the season ticket base remained strong going into 2007 and UConn would commence its run of four straight bowl trips, culminating in the Fiesta Bowl.
The nature of college football lends itself to perception as reality and beauty in the eye of the beholder. A 6-6 season in 2014 for UConn is a lot different than a 6-6 season in 2014 for Alabama. The expectations are different for just about every FBS team. In every other sport, the goal is usually the same – make the playoffs. In college football, that’s simply unrealistic for about 80 percent of the division, and that includes a majority of the "Power Five" conference members. Some playoff, right?
So it is up to each program to define what success is for them. For 2014, it is clear that UConn football needs to right the ship. They need to sellout games. They need to build momentum. They need to rebuild after the previous regime broke the program.
That’s why I thought Bob Diaco was the perfect candidate before he was hired because he’s done it before. The Notre Dame football program, before Diaco arrived with Brian Kelly, was broken. After UConn’s landmark win there in 2009, Notre Dame fans were congratulating and thanking us in the parking lot – they wanted Charlie Weis gone. His "pro style" approach to coaching went over about as well as my attempts to karaoke Elvis. It was enjoyable only for a very brief moment.
In 2010, the first year for Kelly, Notre Dame went 8-5, got blown out by Navy and lost at home to Tulsa. That shouldn’t be a good year for the Irish. But they got a big win against a Top 15 team in Utah, which led to finally beating USC, which led to a Sun Bowl victory over Miami and yada, yada, yada Notre Dame is likely now an annual playoff contender.
Kelly changed the culture at Notre Dame. He brought the university into the 21st century a decade after the rest of the sport had. Notre Dame was 4-5 before that Utah game and the faithful were not happy. One fist-pumping home victory later and things had changed.
The 2014 UConn football schedule sets up perfectly for Bob Diaco. Four of the five toughest opponents, on paper, come to the Rent. That gives UConn four prime opportunities to beat a really good team at home and show everyone – the fans, the players, the recruits and the media – that things are turning around.
Simply put, the fate of the 2014 UConn football season will be decided by how they fare in these four games. To make a bowl, they need to win at least one of these games.
A win – preferably two – over any of these four opponents would make a powerful statement.
If it’s over BYU or Boise State, it will serve as a flashpoint that could carry through the season and a reminder that UConn can compete with good programs nationally.
If it’s over UCF or Cincinnati, it will serve as notice to the rest of the American Athletic Conference that UConn is aiming to be an annual conference contender.
The UConn football program has dealt with a lot of negativity the past three years. A big win at the Rent will help to erase those memories.