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Why UConn needs to increase the football season ticket base now

To join a power conference, UConn needs a bigger stadium. Warde Manuel knows this. Bob Diaco knows this. But can they make it happen?

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Rentschler Field was built with more than 40,000 fans in mind. It was designed to allow an expansion of between 10-15,000 seats on the current open-end of the stadium, where the scoreboard currently resides.

Some thought it would be done by now. Randy Edsall lobbied for that expansion in 2008, in hopes of luring Notre Dame, Boston College and Penn State to town on an annual basis.

The debate, or what constitutes a debate in this case, was reignited when UConn athletic director Warde Manuel publicly discussed increasing the capacity to 50,000 during an interview with the Hartford Business Journal.

The comment was couched under the guise of new revenue but the goal, as with most things UConn-related, is about leaving the fledging, if surprisingly successful, American Athletic Conference.

At 40,000 seats, the Rent is not big enough for UConn to join a power conference. We can make all the Rutgers jokes we want, but Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State are not showing up every other year to a stadium that is one-third the size of theirs. UConn had to add about 5,000 temporary seats to make last year’s Michigan game happen, which did after Michigan basically spent two full years begging to move the game.

And let’s not revisit the Notre Dame debacle when the state legislature demanded UConn not agree to a 10-game series against the Irish. I think Notre Dame officials may still be laughing about that one.

My only real recollection of true momentum for stadium expansion, under the wrath of former AD Jeff Hathaway, came during the 2007 season when three consecutive home games against Louisville, USF and Rutgers resulted in three straight sellouts despite awful weather.

But Randy Edsall left. So did the fans.

When I first wrote about why Paul Pasqualoni should be fired, the football on the field had little to do with it. In his first two years, UConn was mediocre but not putrid. They were competitive at times. It all didn’t really matter because no one cared. Apathy had taken hold and was destroying the program.

UConn fans were spoiled so they can be forgiven. When Edsall left, it was literally unlike anything UConn fans had ever had to deal with before. He had been there for a decade. Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma had been around for multiple decades. UConn coaches don’t leave, right?

At other schools, particularly in football, this is par for the course. Michigan State has recovered from Nick Saban bolting. Cincinnati has seen two top coaches leave and remains a winning program. Louisville fans understood, if begrudgingly, that their coaching position doesn’t match the one at Texas.

The fans were leaving before the 2013 season began. Then Towson came through, embarrassed the Huskies and the football program was officially in freefall.

All the basketball wins in the world can’t make up for the sight of 20,000 empty seats on ESPN when Louisville came to town and easily won despite putting forth a D- effort.

Enter Diaco.

The college football coach in 2014 is a CEO. The wins and losses matter but how they are achieved mean just as much. Think about the difference in public opinion for Microsoft when Bill Gates was in charge compared to Steve Ballmer. Or Apple with Steve Jobs compared to Apple with Tim Cook.

From the moment Bob Diaco started speaking at his introductory press conference, I knew UConn had the right guy for this particular predicament. The UConn football program needed an injection of life. They needed a guy that fights off energy vampires and infuses excitement.

The early returns are promising. Like he had a Master’s in marketing, he paraded his team out in full pads to welcome the women’s team home from their national title. He held an open practice for students and hundreds showed up. He doubled the crowd at the spring game. He’s said all the right things.

It should come as no surprise that Diaco worked under Brian Kelly for the past four years, another head coach who has built programs up through the cult of personality. Kelly, though, had different tasks. He took a good program in Cincinnati and made it great. He took a sleeping program in Notre Dame and awoke a giant.

What does Diaco have? Randy Edsall proved you can win at UConn. But was his success as good as it could get?

The limitations against UConn football have been duly noted elsewhere, with three in particular standing out. First, the lack of FBS-level recruits in New England. Second, the conference is now a notch below the Power Five. Third, Connecticut is a basketball-only state.

Of those three, Diaco only has the power to change the last. He already has a powerful ally in Geno Auriemma, imploring the fans to support the football team for the good of the university.

The schedule helps, though we’ll dive further into that in a future post. For the next four months, Diaco has to do what he has been doing for the past four months – rallying the UConn fans around an unknown.

We know UConn can win football games, they have before. We know UConn can fill up the Rent, we have before.

It’s time to start doing both again for this 2014 season to be a success. The latter is much easier than the former.