UConn is still laboring on the hamster wheel of college football, insisting it will get somewhere despite running in place for so long. The latest swing is the hire of Jim Mora Jr., who spent 6 seasons at UCLA going 46-30, and 29-24 in the Pac-12. In his first four seasons with the Bruins he took them to bowl games every year, and won 10 games twice. But his only trip to the Pac-12 title game was in his first year, and success kept dwindling after that. Following back-to-back losing seasons he was fired in 2017.
The Huskies had some reasonable success in the last 15 years. As members of the Big East, old foe Randy Edsall incredibly took UConn to the Fiesta Bowl in ’10, where they were promptly throttled 48-20 by Oklahoma. The destination was big, even if the team wasn’t. In those days the Big East champ was still invited to a major bowl game. UConn finished the season unranked at 8-5.
Edsall and his Happy Dance went to 5 bowl games in their first 7 seasons in the Big East, which is certainly an achievement for a recently promoted program to FBS. But again, none of those seasons ended in the top 25, so in many ways it was a product of a bloated bowl system combined with a lower-tier conference. Going 8-4 in the Big East didn’t move the needle nationally or bring any sustained success. But to be fair, Syracuse would have loved 5 postseason games in 7 years.
The bottom has dropped out though, in Storrs. They’ve won 3 games or less in 6 of the last 7 seasons. They’ve trotted out Coach P, Bob Diaco, dug up the corpse of Edsall, and tried to fake a pathetic rivalry with UCF. It’s been gruesome. There’s been calls to shut down the football program or return it to FCS so that the expenditures can be funneled into more profitable and popular programs, mainly basketball. The stadium is in Hartford and the team is an orphan. UConn is back to being an independent in football, a casualty of reentering the Big East for hoops. Can Mora make them anything more than Army without the history or service academy rivals?
“When this job came open, I reached out to them. I don’t think I was on their radar at all. I mean, at all. I haven’t been on anyone’s radar. I had a couple people reach out to the athletic director, David Benedict, and he got interested.” – Jim Mora Jr.
Mora certainly was desperate to get back into college coaching. UConn was clearly enchanted by name recognition. So what’s Mora’s plan? The transfer window.
“I see it a little bit like free agency in the NFL. It’s a chance to get some really good players, really quickly. You can have a great recruiting class, but there are still young players that haven’t played in college football. They haven’t really spent time away from home or been on a college campus. But you can go get some transfers that have some experience, playing experience, experience on campus. They’re more mature. You can make some quick headway that way. And I think you coach the heck out of them.” – Jim Mora Jr.
So how does this affect the Orange? A regional rival is obviously competition for the little talent that exists in the northeast. This year’s roster includes DB Justin Barron as the only player from Connecticut, although hypothetically the Orange would be battling the Huskies for players in NY, NJ, New England and Canada. There have been occasional stars from Connecticut, like Dwight Freeney and the late Aaron Hernandez.
If Mora locks in on the transfer portal it doesn’t much matter if UConn is a few hours down the road or across the country. In that case it’s a nationwide battle to sell playing time, coaching style and opportunity. A UConn program without success or a conference is not a recruiting threat to anyone, even a mediocre SU team. Mora cited the “fertile recruiting ground in the area” but that’s just meaningless buzzwords. In the Class of ’22, the entire state produced zero 4-stars or 5-stars. For the Class of ’21 there were a pair of 4-stars: edge Will Aybar went to Stanford and DL Kechsuan Bennett went to Michigan. UConn won’t be winning battles over those schools anytime soon. But as SU slides through another low period in program history, everything threatens to push them down even more. the Orange would be well served to get back to bowl games on a regular basis to avoid slipping farther down the ladder and keeping whatever territory they can claim.