As part of TheUConnBlog's 2010 Season Preview Month-ish, we're counting down the days to the UConn football team's opener against Michigan. Today, we look back at the Huskies' first season in Division I-A, 2000. You can read all our Football Preview Month-ish posts here.
We don't know quite exactly what Christopher Columbus said to Ferdinand and Isabella to convince the royals to allow him to sail to America. (If I were including a scene of this momentous event in one of those "________ Movie" movies, no doubt it would include the phrase "BLING BLING!" screamed by a stereotype WITH ATTITUDE. And then I would be $50 million richer.)
We can presume that Izzy and Freddie each shared Columbus' enthusiasm for finding a new world. It's understandable, really: they were excited for the same reason anyone ever gets excited: because of crazy amounts of gold.
So it was when one Randall Tomworthy* Edsall arose in December 1998 to replace Skip Holtz as UConn football coach.
Now, I'm not saying that the task of turning UConn into a respectable Big East football program, able to compete with Virginia Tech, Miami and Syracuse, was as difficult as Columbus' trip to the Americas. That would be laughable. It's much easier to sail on a boat. (Columbus' recruiting standards were much lower, too.)
Edsall took over an empty cupboard for his first season in 1999, when most of the playmakers from UConn's one Division I-AA playoff team were gone. UConn would finish that year 4-7 - including six games in which the Husky defense allowed 40 points.
And so UConn had to just lurch forward into this new world, ill-prepared as it might have been. Like the great explorers, both Edsall's task and his potential rewards would be immense, though Edsall has unfortunately thus far refrained from using smallpox to weaken his enemies. (That won't last forever, though. Beware, Syracuse!)
For his second season, Edsall would be making the jump to a full I-A Independent schedule, with just 70 scholarship players. Edsall was basically captaining the Pinta, only if the Pinta's sails were made out of dreams. That might sound nice, but you're forgetting that dreams are incredibly flammable and conduct lightning like nobody's business.
So yeah. Welcome to I-A, newbie.
This, then, is the story of UConn's 2000 football season. It's easy to look back at history knowing what we do now. Sure, now we know that by the time 2010 rolled around, UConn would be a lock for the Orange Bowl.
Then? It wasn't always so sure that this I-A experiment would be a success.
(*Not Edsall's middle name.)
Let's set the scene. The college football world was a very different place in 2000. The top quarterbacks in America were Chris Weinke, Drew Brees, and Michael Vick. The best team in America played in the Big East. Southern California's program was in a tailspin, having missed three bowls in four years. Rutgers was in the midst of a 135-year streak of futility (it'll be 145 this year, guys!).
Most terrifying of all, Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the first one I ever bought!) was made of pages made of regular-old paper, rather than ornately colored, glossy wisdom-sheets.
Looking back at UConn football circa 2000, a year which before now I knew nothing about, is bizarre. The names are unfamiliar to me. About the only recognizable name (besides Edsall) that came up was Dan Orlovsky - and only because one of the Hartford Courant stories I found from August of that year mentioned that, contrary to rumor, his verbal commitment to attend UConn in 2001 was solid.
Expectations were about as low as possible for this squad, as you might expect. The roster was made up of 95 players. Roughly 73 of those players were walk-ons, sophomores, redshirt freshmen, or true freshmen.
The experienced players (notably John Fitzsimmons, a 1,000-yard receiver on the '98 team) would have to step up to compete with the likes of Boston College and Louisville. But the I-AA stars would have to make way for a higher quality athlete
Edsall, to his credit, did his best to make the team competitive early on. He brought in junior college QB Ryan Tracey to shore up that position, and Phil Steele gave a relative rave review to UConn's linebackers.
I know, how unlike Randy Edsall to recruit good linebackers. I'll wait for you to recover from your shock-induced coma. UConn did lose senior LB (and 1999 team MVP) Brandon Smith for the season (concussion) early during summer practice, though.
Still, this was a 4-7 team from I-AA stepping up and playing a mostly I-A schedule. It was bound to get ugly at some point.
Game 1: Eastern Michigan 32, UConn 25; Sept. 2, 2000 at Ypsilanti, Michigan
UConn record: 0-1 overall, 0-0 I-A Independent
The problem with having 15 fewer scholarships isn't a lack of talent. It's a lack of depth. UConn learned this problem the hard way, losing a bunch of players to injury during summer practice, and then a starting cornerback in the first quarter of this game.
Still, UConn had a chance to beat its first-ever I-A opponent; a fourth-quarter comeback turned a 24-10 deficit into a 25-24 lead with three minutes left in the game. Then, as would become a hallmark of Edsall's teams, special teams happened.
Australian-Rules footballer Adam Coles, the freshman punter, just kind of miskicked a punt from UConn's end zone. The ball traveled to the 17 yard line. Eastern Michigan scored a few plays later to win the game.
Game 2: UConn 37, Colgate 7; Sept. 9, 2000 at Storrs, Connecticut
UConn record: 1-1 overall, 0-0 I-A Independent
I will say this for UConn fans: as much as I bash them about the Whalers, the response to UConn football joining I-A was immediate and relatively substantial. UConn's season ticket sales (for a team that for the moment barely, if at all qualified as I-A-worthy) increased by 100 percent to nearly 6,000. Memorial Stadium was actually filled to capacity for the 2000 home opener against Colgate; the 16,632 crowd broke a 30-year attendance record.
One of my biggest hopes is that one day UConn will play a football game at Memorial Stadium again. (Well, if the Blue-White Game counts as a "football game"). Rentschler Field is nice and all, but having been to other campuses for football games, nothing beats the atmosphere of tailgating from your dorm room, being able to hear the congregating crowd outside your room, and watching your home-away-from-home turned into the center of attention.
For a few years early this decade, I imagine it was awesome, even if the quality of play was nowhere near what is now.
Case in point: this game. Tracey was 25-35 for 287 yards and 2 TDs, while 5-9 junior RB Taber Small scored three times. UConn outscored Colgate 23-0 in the second half.
Game 3: UConn 24, Buffalo 21; Sept. 16, 2000 at Buffalo, New York
UConn record: 2-1 overall, 1-0 I-A Independent
Buffalo had moved up to I-A in 1999, and redefined "hapless" in its first season. The Bulls went 0-11 in 1999 - including a 23-0 loss in Storrs - and opened 2000 by losing 63-7 to Syracuse and, more impressively, 59-0 to a 2-0 Rutgers team. The Scarlet Knights would end 2000 with their then-customary 3-8 record.
So, reality check time: the halftime score on this day was Buffalo 13, UConn 10. UConn stormed back with two touchdowns in the third quarter. Then, in the fourth, Buffalo blocked two punts, pulled within three, and advanced to midfield in the final minute. Ronel "Hop, Skip And A" Jumpp (name of the decade?) sacked Buffalo's quarterback to knock the Bulls out of field goal range; Buffalo missed a 58-yard field goal at the gun.
Game 4: Northeastern 35, UConn 27; Sept. 23, 2000 at Storrs, Connecticut
UConn record: 2-2 overall, 1-0 I-A Independent
Really? We should have been done with the "losing to I-AA" thing by this point.
If that's the sentence that came to your mind on seeing that result, well...you should probably stop reading. Tracey threw for 300 yards and Fitzsimmons caught two touchdown passes. Northeastern outscored UConn 20-0 in the second half in front of a sellout crowd on UConn's Family Weekend. Ten years later, Northeastern doesn't have a football program any more, so WHO'S LAUGHING NOW YOU BIG JERKS?
Game 5: Louisville 41, UConn 22; Sept. 30, 2000 at Louisville, Kentucky
UConn record: 2-3 overall, 1-0 I-A Independent
Years before this game meant anything, Louisville was merely a pretty good Conference USA team. This was back when Conference USA was the functional equivalent of the Mountain West today.
The Courant's headline after this game was "A For Effort: Huskies Played Like They Belonged." Yeah. I bet everybody got a trophy, too. And a pizza party.
Tracey threw for 300 yards again (though he was only 27-for-54), as UConn appeared ready to become a high-flying, run-and-gun offense predicated on passing, passing and more passing. UConn fans bemoaned the fact that the running game was basically nonexistent. I can only assume that Edsall is a spiteful, spiteful man in light of 2008, when 104% of UConn's offensive yards came from Donald Brown runs.
Game 6: Boston College 55, UConn 3; Oct. 7, 2000 at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
UConn record: 2-4 overall, 1-0 I-A Independent
Boston College knows a good thing when they see it. They scheduled UConn in 2000, 2002 and 2003 (and 2004, when they played in a Big East game) as the UConn program was getting its bearings; they haven't played since. Randy Edsall would love to play BC, and it makes all the sense in the world for UConn and Boston College to play a Thanksgiving weekend game in Gillette Stadium. And yet they don't.
It's really too bad, though. My most entertaining Twitter-fights - the online geek's version of a blood feud - have been with our SBNation frenemies over at BC Interruption. It would really be the perfect rivalry; I get another avenue to focus my loathing on Boston, New England gets its undisputed regional champion each year, and BC/UConn fans can taunt each other with a purpose.
Anyway, this is all a way to avoid talking about this game, which showed how far UConn had to go to compete with even an average BCS-level team (Boston College finished 2000 6-5, 3-4 in the BE). Future Cleveland Brown William Green ran wild, rushing for 225 yards as BC took a 41-3 halftime lead.
Game 7: UConn 38, Akron 35; Oct. 21, 2000 at Akron, Ohio
UConn record: 3-4 overall, 1-0 I-A Independent
Ah, the old football version of a walk-off. So rare, so exhilarating. UConn has only a few last-second field goal wins in its I-A history. Matt Nuzie has one of them; I write that mostly just to have it on the record that I'm capable of using his name without an exasperated "F---ING" in front of it or in the middle.
Geoff Heyl capped off UConn's final drive with a 30-yard field goal to bring the Huskies back within a game of .500. Small scored two first half touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, with Akron ahead 28-21, Tracey ran for the tying touchdown and found Steve O'Connor for the go-ahead score. Akron tied it in short order before backup RB Evan Benson advanced the ball 39 yards by himself, setting up Heyl's game-winner.
The win capped off a rather important weekend for UConn football; on the Thursday before the game, state officials broke ground at Rentschler Field (the ceremony was delayed just long enough that the team, who was in attendance, had to fly out to Ohio) and Dan Orlovsky made his commitment to UConn official that Friday.
Game 8: South Florida 21, UConn 13; Oct. 28, 2000 at Storrs, Connecticut
UConn record: 3-5 overall, 1-1 I-A Independent
It had been a decent season so far. Nothing spectacular - and downright embarrassing in one case - but UConn held its own against the lower levels of Division I-A. That changed on this day, when Tracey - who had thrown for 1,984 yards, 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions - went down with a season-ending knee injury just before halftime.
USF, in just its fifth year as a football program, scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pick up a comeback victory. The Curse of Ryan Tracey continues to this day, as in the Bulls' three visits to Connecticut since 2001, UConn has picked up an awesome, dramatic victory.
Sidenote: the game info for this game lists the weather conditions as "windy," and the Courant describes the wind as reaching as high as "40 miles per hour." I merely wanted to raise a discussion point: what the hell is up with the wind in Storrs? It blows in your face no matter which way you walk. And it's always freezing. Discuss amongst yourselves.
Game 9: Middle Tennessee State 66, UConn 10; Nov. 4, 2000 at Storrs, Connecticut
UConn record: 3-6 overall, 1-1 I-A Independent
Luke Richmond took over for Tracey and got the Huskies off to a decent start, throwing a 59-yard touchdown pass to Fitzsimmons to pull UConn within 8-7 five minutes in.
Middle Tennessee State then went all MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE; when that didn't work, the Blue Raiders just went on and scored 44 straight points to take a 52-7 halftime lead.
Richmond, oh by the way, tore a ligament in his thumb, and this whole season just went to shit real fast.
Game 10: Rhode Island 26, UConn 21; Nov. 11, 2000 at Storrs, Connecticut
UConn record: 3-7 overall, 1-1 I-A Independent
UConn lost to Rhody for the first time since 1988. They were held scoreless in the first half. The Huskies trailed 26-14 late in the fourth quarter until Terrence Smiths picked up a blocked punt, and this charming man returned it for a touchdown. URI was able to run out the clock, and drop UConn to its third straight loss in embarrassing fashion.
But we've still got the Ramnapping Trophy, so come and get it! Then again, maybe asking for a kidnapping in a kidnapping-based rivalry isn't my most brilliant idea.
Game 11: Ball State 29, UConn 0; Nov. 18, 2000 at Muncie, Indiana
UConn record: 3-8 overall, 1-1 I-A Independent
Fun fact: this is one of the two times during this year-in-review countdown that UConn was shut out.
Not so fun fact: by game #11, just about everybody was hurt. Edsall brought back Richmond to play quarterback in this one despite his thumb injury, because third stringer Chris Willis suffered a concussion. Only 46 scholarship players were left to face the onslaught of the mighty Fighting Lettermans.
2000: A Snapshot
PASSING: Ryan Tracey (Jr.) 159-292, 1984 yds, 15 TD, 5 INT
RUSHING: Taber Small (Jr.) 161 rush, 560 yds, 8 TD
RECEIVING: Steve O'Connor (Jr.) 50 rec, 678 yds, 2 TD; John Fitzsimmons (Sr.) 42 rec, 676 yds, 9 TD
DEFENSE: Jamar Lundy (safety, So.) 102 tkls, 10 TFL; Razul Wallace (linebacker, So.) 97 tkl, 17 TFL; Jamar Wilkins (DE, Sr.) 74 tkl, 11 TFL
SPECIAL TEAMS: Geoff Heyl (kicker, So.) 10-16 FG, long 48; Adam Coles (punter, Fr.) 56 punts, 40.5 yards per, 17 inside the 20; Cliff Hill (punt returner, So.) 12 ret, 11.1 yards per, 0 TD; Carl Bradford (kick returner, Jr.) 34 ret, 20.7 per, 0 TD
2001 NFL Draft: No UConn players picked
Mercifully, it was over. UConn's first season in I-A started out promising. At the very least, they were a middling MAC-level team. Then, injuries and a lack of depth took their inevitable toll, as they do to any team making this jump.
No one would judge Edsall based on this season, of course. It would be up to him to recruit the necessary athletes to compete in I-A, and he had the finest decrepit trailers and the best high school football field in the world with which to do so.
There were serious problems - six teams ran for 240 yards or more on UConn - but time and experience would only help Edsall. The important thing was that UConn start to improve each year. And there was no doubt UConn would improve on 3-8, right?
Wrong. Check back Saturday to bask in the glory of UConn's 2-9 2001 campaign.