"When did you start liking sports?" my son asked me on the way to his first UConn game at Gampel Pavilion, home court of my alma mater.
"Probably about when I turned six," I answered. My son is five.
Senior night at UConn was Shabazz Napier's final game at Gampel Pavilion. Shabazz has had a remarkable career. Recruited by Jim Calhoun. Mentored by Kemba Walker. Captain for Kevin Ollie. The past quarter century has been a "special" time in Storrs. No matter what happens in the future, my son will be able to say I saw UConn players in a game at Gampel who had won a national championship. Not just Shabazz, but Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander (who actually started in the NCAA Tournament championship for UConn when they beat Butler).
The future at UConn Athletics, however, is a bit shaky, a bit of a question mark. Conference musical chairs took five power conferences and turned them into four bigger conferences. UConn was the big loser, no matter what anyone says. While Cincinnati and its solid football and basketball programs were left out too, they were programs that grew into perennial contenders in the Big East (with all apologizes to Oscar Robertson - remember, Dr. J went to UMass and the program wasn't good for decades later until college basketball ruiner John Calapari took over). UConn basketball is in elite company, company of just themselves when it comes to titles in the past 15 years (UConn has three, Kentucky and Duke have two). The UConn Womens' basketball team has eight (soon to be playing for nine) championships. But the UConn women are now in a conference where only two teams have beaten them in the past 25 years (Rutgers and Louisville - that beat UConn once in 1993 and having lost the every Big East/AAC meeting to UConn, 15 in a row). Next year there will be no team in the conference that has beaten the UConn women.
But for the night, I got to enjoy the fatherhood ritual of taking my son to the game, having him ask me questions about the game. When I took my daughter earlier in the year she seemed to think the fouling was the best part of the game. My son was asking me all kinds of questions about why a three-pointer is three points, why a foul shot is one point, etc. He told me that UConn would win and that UConn fans would be happy. I asked him if he was a UConn fan and he smiled and said "a little bit".
UConn's opponent on Senior Night was Rutgers. If UConn was the loser in re-alignment, Rutgers was the winner. We all know that basketball is number two when it comes to college sports hierarchy, but a strong number two it is. Rutgers last win in Connecticut in men's basketball was before I was born. In fact, Rutgers never beat UConn in Connecticut as a member of the Big East. Rutgers only beat UConn twice in basketball in their entire history as conference mates. And while the Rutgers women have been competitive with the UConn women (as much as anyone can), UConn has the eight titles and a 30-7 all time record against the Scarlett Knights.
But that's just basketball (we'll leave out UConn's men's soccer and field hockey national titles, super regional baseball team a few years back and their strong women's soccer program). What about football? UConn must be vastly inferior? This is where UConn has done an awful job of the perception of their program and also caught an awful break with timing. Since 2001, UConn is 6-7 vs. Rutgers. So, Rutgers has won one more game against UConn than its lost. UConn won the Big East outright once. Rutgers never won the Big East outright. Twice they tied. Both times they lost in the final two weeks of the season (once to Louisville in a winner-take-all game and once to UConn) and lost their chance to play in a BCS game. But, Rutgers will have either Ohio State or Michigan coming to 54,000 seat stadium every year from now on as a member of the Big 10. Rutgers basketball facility is one of the worst in the American, let alone the Big 10. But Rutgers has "growth potential"? Because they grew so much when they joined the Big East (sarcasm!)? If it weren't for departed Greg Schianno, they'd have nothing to show on the field/court for their time in the Big East.
My son never got to see Jim Calhoun coach in person. He was too young. The timing didn't work out. When it comes to timing, if the shake up was five years ago, how would Louisville have gotten into the ACC ahead of UConn? When Bobby Petrino left Louisville, the Cardinals won six games combined the following two seasons. Yes, Louisville just won a basketball title, but UConn did three years ago as well. Of course Pitt (which UConn actually has a winning record against in football) and Syracuse (which UConn also has a winning record against, and the Orange never beat UConn on the road in football) have tradition and the ACC likes that. Why else is Wake Forest in that league? Wake Forest - has a chance to play for a national title if they go undefeated, UConn does not (automatically). Ugh. The timing of Randy Edsall leaving and the hiring of Paul Pasqualoni is the only reason UConn is not in the ACC (or similar league) today. It was that crucial, that mistaken, the hiring of Pasqualoni, who not only failed to tread water, but regressed the program. If it was five years from now, and Bob Diaco succeeded (which I think he will), UConn is jumping ship to clearer waters.
We can't sit idly by as UConn fans. Not for us. Not for the future generation of UConn fans. I don't want my son to be telling his kids how "UConn actually won basketball titles and I saw some of those guys play". We have to attend games. We have to talk about the good of this big school in the middle of cow pastures. We have winning programs. We have winning coaches. They will be able to bring in athletes to play for the next few years by showing up with "UConn" on their jackets. But if things don't change, even Geno Auriemma is going to have trouble recruiting with his hands full of rings.
Perception is key. Rutgers wasn't really that much better than us at football. Louisville had their dark moments. Pissing off Boston College is not why the ACC took Louisville. Louisville is as good as anyone in the country right now when combining football and men's and women's basketball. Right now. That's temporary. Three years ago UConn was in a BCS game, a men's basketball title, a women's final four, a number-one ranked men's soccer team and a baseball super regional.
With my son usually in bed by eight, we left the game fairly early into the second half. If it wasn't a school night we would have stayed until the end. Walking back to the car a light snow fell. The roads were a bit slick, but my son had fun running, trying to catch the fat snowflakes in his mouth. The lot across the street from Gampel where a bonfire celebration was held after the 1999 men's basketball title has been filled with beautiful new academic buildings. The UConn Co-Op has moved between McMahon Hall and Gampel and doubled in size. We drove by the Mansfield downtown buildings on the way out. Those weren't there when I was in school. Now they are filled with student activity and energy. My son pointed to buildings and asked if I had classes there. He's more an academic than a jock, I can already tell that. There's a lot more than just sports to give someone pride in UConn.
This is my school. I'm a graduate. A Connecticut resident and taxpayer. I'm a fan, and not one of those lousy fans who were getting all over 18-year old freshman Jake Voskuhl because he didn't have any offensive skills compared to big men in the Big East with junior and senior future NBA centers and power forward. We will only win if we, the fans and the alumni, are vocal about our pride and our tradition, and supportive. We belong with the elite. When the NCAA randomly throws up the APR rule just to punish us or big money rips apart a stable conference alignment in the quest for the sake of greed, we survive. Both basketball programs are going to be competing for titles next month (keep in mind, UConn is the only school, ever, to win men's and women's basketball titles the same year). We should be doing the same next year, and the year after that. We will win with these coaches, these players and the future players that come in. It's a crucial time for the fans to be there step-for-step.