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UConn football should come back to Storrs, however it can

The Huskies are unique in their off-campus set-up, and not in a good way. It’s an uphill battle to change that, though.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Despite the size of the stadiums and fanbases, it is very uncommon at the Division I level for collegiate football teams to play their home games off campus.

There are 131 FBS schools. Just 15 of them host their games in off-campus stadiums. Twelve either share a stadium with an NFL team, play fewer than five miles from campus, or both. Two others play in the Rose Bowl (UCLA) and the Alamodome (UTSA).

The last one? UConn, which has its home stadium 20.1 miles away in East Hartford. The distance is tied with Miami (FL) for the second-longest between a school’s campus and its football stadium, behind just UCLA, as the Rose Bowl is 26.2 miles from Westwood.

The other 14 are comprised mostly of urban schools with limited space or unique geographies, such as Oregon’s location on the south bank of the Willamette River, with Autzen Stadium on the other side.

Moving back to campus is not unprecedented. San Diego State returned to campus in 2021; South Alabama did the same in 2020 and Colorado State opened a new home in Fort Collins in 2017. Rentschler Field, which opened in 2003, is the newest off-campus college stadium that is not shared with an NFL team aside from Georgia State—which departed the Georgia Dome upon its closure in 2017 and converted Turner Field, just 1.5 miles from campus, from a baseball to a football stadium—and UAB, which moved from Legion Field to a new, downtown stadium roughly equidistant to campus, 2.5 miles away, in 2021.

What’s the deal with UConn?

According to a study conducted by architecture firm Populous and presented to the Capital Region Development Authority, which operates Rentschler Field, the stadium requires $63 million in renovations over the next five years.

It makes sense for most of the other 14 schools on the list to play away from campus. Nine of them play fewer than five miles away and have either played at this location for a significant amount of time or are in an urban environment where space is limited and reasonably prevents an on-campus stadium. Five of them share a facility with an NFL team, ensuring a world-class environment for its student-athletes. UCLA, UConn, and UTSA are the only exceptions to these categories and of those, only UConn is in a rural, college-town environment.

Instead of spending $63 million over five years to give the 20-year-old stadium a few extra years, the state and university should instead look into a new facility to bring the Huskies back to campus where they belong. But it’s going to take some creative negotiating for this to be possible.

Making it happen

The 20-year lease on the stadium, which expires in June 2023, is extremely favorable to the CRDA, including ticket surcharges, while the university also covers the first $250,000 in losses. Now is as good of a time as any to re-examine that relationship.

The state has tried to use UConn to boost the city of Hartford for 40 years through the school’s highly popular men’s and women’s basketball programs and for another 20 years through the football team. Unlike every other high-end athletic program, for some reason, it’s UConn’s job to prop up the relatively nearby city at the expense of the campus community and student-athlete experience.

Stadium cost is not an issue. Let’s get that out of the way. While it is Mobile, Alabama, and not Connecticut, the on-campus home of the South Alabama Jaguars cost $78 million and opened in 2020 with a capacity of 25,450, along with 11 suites and 42 loge boxes. That is a marginal difference from $63 million, especially when these renovations will likely recur in 15 years or so. In Connecticut, with a larger capacity of 30,000-40,000, this will surely be more expensive, but if you’re already committing $63 million just to renovate an existing structure, going a bit higher to get a brand new one and improve the state of the football program isn’t a terrible investment strategy.

However, this would require a lot of cooperation from the state, which has a vested interest in keeping UConn football right where it is. State bonding would likely be required to finance the construction in the absence of large donations and, depending upon the location, at least US 44 and Route 195 would need to be widened, which could prove very difficult due to the residential nature of most of these roads.

Ultimately, UConn leadership needs to be willing to make this happen, to endure the negotiations that it would take to get this done. It requires the athletic director and the president to agree that this is the right course of action and start grinding away. Athletic Director David Benedict has made one very tough decision with the move to the Big East and football independence. Perhaps he has another one in him; doing so would certainly help cement his legacy as a positive one, regardless of what happens on the gridiron.

The one cost that presents a large hurdle is infrastructure improvements. Depending on the location, 10 miles or more of US 44 and Routes 32 and 195 will need to be widened from the two-lane roads that they are currently to reach US 6, I-84 and I-384. Most of these stretches are fronted mostly by houses and follow windy, hilly paths. The construction and land purchase costs would be substantial and could even exceed the cost of the stadium itself. As seen with other road projects in Connecticut, this can be a huge undertaking.

Finding a location

Additionally, finding a site on or near campus to build the stadium will be hard. The campus is pretty crowded as it is and would likely require either conservation land, which is tricky to re-zone, or creative use of certain spaces. Here are some options:

Depot Campus

While not perfect, Depot Campus is two miles from the rest of the main campus, most of the buildings are uninhabited and with nearly 250 acres in space, building a large facility with ample parking makes this the most realistic on-campus option. UConn shuttle buses already run there regularly, which would make student travel much easier than the 35-minute bus drive and rental that they currently undertake. However, part of the campus is on the National Register of Historic Places, which limits and complicates the development of the site.

Industrial Tract

Using a portion of Industrial Tract on the west side of Discovery Drive between the Industrial Partnership Building and US 44 is probably the most geographically ideal location, but it also comes with issues. As conservation land, it would likely require approval from the town of Mansfield, a legislative jurisdiction that is famously unwilling to make anything regarding UConn expansion easy. It comes with lots of parking nearby, including C, J, and K lots, and easy access to US 44, but the size of the space and distance from homes on Grandview Cr. could also pose an issue.

Other sites where a stadium could possibly work include the former Mansfield Apartments and Moss Sanctuary on S. Eagleville Rd.

While collegiate athletics is a billion-dollar industry and it’s naive to think that the industry is still pure, it’s not for donors, or the residents of the state, or for a nearby city to brandish its reputation for some foot traffic. It’s for the students and the school first and foremost. The game day experience is also likely to be more lively on campus, as a result of making it so much easier for students to attend and get rowdy. It would also give the campus a good spot to host events such as major concerts and even graduation, adding a campus-wide event, rather than one broken out by colleges.

Returning UConn football to a campus-adjacent area is something worth exploring, especially in light of the price tag to renovate Rentschler Field. Just don’t count on the state and the CRDA letting the Huskies go without a fight.