Geno Auriemma steals the show no matter where he is. Wednesday night was no exception, but this venue was a little more upscale. Four of UConn’s most prominent coaches and about 100 people gathered on the 44th floor of Hearst Tower in NYC for the third leg of the Coaches Roadshow.
Auriemma, Dan Hurley, Randy Edsall and Jim Penders, as well as Athletic Director David Benedict, were eager to talk to fans who had come out to the Big Apple—an important place for UConn going forward.
“I mean, look at where we’re at,” Benedict said, referring to the panoramic view of the skyline and the view of Central Park below. “This is the biggest stage some would say in the world. So for us to have the ability to come down here and fill up a room of our fans and alums, it’s great to be able to do that.”
It wasn’t too long ago that UConn launched the “UConn sixth borough” marketing campaign, making tee-shirts and renting out billboards to let the world know that New York is UConn’s backyard. While the purpose for events like this during a time that the athletic department is strapped for cash are obvious, it doesn’t make it any less important for garnering more fan support.
“People have been really warm. They’re excited,” Auriemma said. “They appreciate the fact that we’ve come down and talked to them as opposed to waiting for them to come up to campus, and this is just the kind of stuff that doesn’t happen.”
And fans were treated well. In addition to a social hour, food and drinks, a rowdy Q&A session, moderated by SNY’s Justine Ward, gave fans a look into the minds of coaches regarding their own sports and the nature of college athletics now.
All the coaches had their chance to speak on their sport—Penders, especially, talked about recruiting down-to-earth kids who are dependable over the ones who hire “baseball gurus” to tell them how good they are and like to flash shiny equipment on the field. Edsall reassured everyone that he knows the football program is not where they want it to be, but they’re working hard to get it back to decency.
Hurley mentioned how the men’s program was set to start some crucial on-campus visits from recruits next week. He has to show them clips from his time at Rhode Island to highlight his coaching style, but he also likes to show the kids the fanbase and the gametime atmosphere they’re committing to.
Well, UConn has been lacking in that department recently.
“We’ve spent quite a bit of time breaking down the UConn games, creating that (highlight reel),” Hurley said. “And when they make some great plays—well, not that there were that many great plays from last year—there are clips that we can’t put in the edit just because there’s just some bad crowd shots.”
“On a Christian Vital made three, you can see the crowd and you can see there’s nobody at the game. You can’t show a recruit that,” he added. “Jalen Adams drives to the basket, dynamic play, no student section. Having that fanbase is going to attract kids who want to play with a good atmosphere. They want to run through the tunnel and feel that electricity.”
And Geno, being Geno, just couldn’t help himself.
“You know, I haven’t said this publicly yet, and I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but it’s not a good optic when the women’s team is out-drawing the men’s team on campus,” Auriemma said. “Or at the XL Center.”
Auriemma simply took over the room, with everything from jokes about Lackawanna College in Scranton to his team’s most recent Final Four loss to Notre Dame. The bluntness made guests cringe, but they couldn’t deny Auriemma’s unequivocal nature. He even threw in a Bob Diaco joke for good measure.
“We had another coach one time that locked all the doors and you had to, like, scan your finger to get into practice. That didn’t last very long,” Auriemma said. “That’s why Randy’s back. Among other things.”
But his biggest message was not a diss of the men’s team, or football, or his own shortcomings in recent years. It was a call out to fans, and their loyalty.
“You can’t sit there and go, ‘I wish we were in a bigger conference.’ Because those are the conferences that are watching and go, ‘Wait, their women’s team gets more fans than the men's team at the XL Center,’” Auriemma said. “This is big picture. You’re either a fan of UConn, and you’re going to support UConn no matter what, or you’re a fan of winning. And those are two completely different things.”
In the end, Auriemma said, it comes down passionate fans and a love for all things UConn.
“No matter how you spin it, this is still UConn,” Auriemma said. “We don’t have that kind of stuff that we can actually-- we can’t cheat in recruiting, what the hell are we going to offer them? There’s only so much you can tell a kid. If you’re gonna come to Connecticut, you’re gonna come because the people there really care about you, not about the things.
“We need passion. That’s what attracts kids, I think.”
Stephanie Sheehan is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. She tweets @steph_sheehan.