Senior column: The resilience of UConn athletics

Shabazz Napier grabs his jersey in celebration after winning the 2014 NCAA men's basketball National Championship game, 60-54, against the University of Kentucky on April 7, 2014 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He was the tournament MVP and helped lead the Huskies on a storied title run. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

My four years at UConn might have been the most turbulent years in the history of UConn athletics. The men’s and women’s basketball teams battled through tournament bans, coaching changes and conference realignment, the hockey program laid a foundation for national contention and the football program hit rock bottom, only to begin their ascension under a new head coach. What I learned during all of this is that UConn is resilient, and it transcends any individual sport.

When I arrived at UConn in 2012, the football team was quite possibly the worst show on grass. Paul Pasqualoni was seemingly devoid of energy and it reflected in his team’s play on the field. In only two seasons as UConn’s head coach, Bob Diaco has brought the program back to life. There’s still a long way to go, but his energy and enthusiasm for the game is infectious. I think coaching plays a major role in the success of UConn athletics and there seems to be a theme of coaches that share Diaco’s spirit and optimism in their own sports.

While the football program was fighting to return to prominence, hockey program was vaulting to levels that the program has never experienced. In 2012, UConn was a middling Atlantic Hockey Association team that played home games in front of small Freitas Ice Forum crowds. Fast-forward to 2016 and I had the pleasure of covering a Hockey East Conference playoff team with high-caliber NHL prospects in front of thousands of fans at the XL Center. That’s about as fast as you can build a program in any sport, and once again, the head coach deserves a ton of credit.

Freshman forward Max Letunov skates behind the net during a game against Northeastern on Friday, Feb. 19 at the XL Center in Hartford. Letunov led the team with 40 points, 24 assists and 16 goals. He was a big factor in the Huskies' 11-21-4 season that saw them host a Hockey East playoff tournament. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

Sure, it was a little lucky that the Huskies were able to slide into the best hockey conference in the country, but UConn is also incredibly fortunate to have Mike Cavanaugh driving the Ice Bus and bringing the electricity of college hockey to Connecticut. Between men’s basketball, women’s basketball and hockey, no college can offer a greater collection of winter sports teams than UConn.

Speaking of basketball, I don’t know if any men’s college basketball team has been through more than UConn in the past four years. Every season was it’s own individual adventure, but that’s just another reason to love UConn basketball. They don’t get put in the same breath as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or UNC, but everybody knows not to count them out in March. That’s not something you can say about many programs. The reason? Something about the coaching and culture of UConn basketball that seemingly makes them fearless in March.

I’ll never forget the National Title run in 2014, but it wouldn’t have been so special if not for the 2012-2013 season. It was almost as if the tournament ban in 2013 allowed the student body to pack all the excitement of two tournaments into one amazing title run. Shabazz yelling “that’s what happens when you ban us!” after they won the title was a perfect moment to summarize the chip on UConn’s shoulder. The Huskies won four championships in 15 years, but somehow bring an underdog mentality year after year.

There was no telling what would happen to the program after my freshman year when the Big East fell apart, but UConn has showed that nothing really changed in Storrs. They haven’t exactly set the world on fire the past two years, but the recruiting is stronger than ever and the team bounced back nicely this year after an NIT season in 2015. UConn won’t ever be the team everyone picks for the Final Four every year, but that’s what makes the victories so special.

UConn football head coach Bob Diaco addresses the media on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2016. Diaco was a key piece in UConn's 6-7 season, which included an upset victory over the undefeated Houston Cougars on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015 and a trip to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida for the St. Petersburg Bowl- the team's first bowl appearance since 2010. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

The bottom line is that UConn feels like it can sustain athletic success through just about any situation. I think this is really a credit to the coaches, past and present. In only two years at the Daily Campus I had the pleasure of covering a wide variety of sports here and every coach was truly passionate about their team. Men’s track and field coach Greg Roy has been at UConn for over 30 years and still has a passion for coaching that aligns with big names like Diaco, Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie. The same holds true for softball coach Jen McIntyre and women’s hockey coach Chris MacKenzie.

My hope is that the new athletic director, David Benedict, will continue to provide UConn athletics with the type of leadership that can not only win championships, but hang tough and battle through the low years as well. As long as this happens, UConn is just going to keep getting better. 


Aaron Esposito is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering men’s hockey. He can be reached via email at aaron.esposito@uconn.edu.