Every year it feels like the divide between University of Connecticut students and their football team grows.
It’s no secret that Connecticut football fans are fair-weather fans, only coming out to games when there’s something to come out for. As a result, fan support for the football program has waned over the years due to the perennially underachieving Huskies, save a few successful seasons.
But in reality, the 35-minute journey from Storrs to Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford hasn’t helped much either. More often than not, students just don’t want to go to the games. Their thought process isn’t all that flawed. I mean, why waste up to six or seven hours at the game between the drive there, the tailgate, the game itself and the drive back? It’s quite the hassle.
With that in mind, if you see the crowds at the tailgates, it’s not as if students don’t show up at all. Clearly, a lot of UConn students still participate in the pre-game festivities. You can definitively see that on Instagram during the tailgate and sometime in the next few hours afterward. Yes, some students will stay for the game. Others will stay for the first half. But a majority will file out of the parking lot soon after kickoff.
So far, this may sound like an attack on UConn students, but it’s not meant to be. I really don’t blame them. Having a football stadium 35 minutes away from campus absolutely stinks. That’s why UConn has to consider building an on-campus football stadium. For the sake of the students. For the sake of the football program.
It feels like we have this kind of debate every year.
The Huskies last played home football games on-campus in 2002 at Memorial Stadium, which had a seating capacity of just over 16,000. Rentschler Field opened in 2003 and the fans would actually come out to games for quite a while. There were multiple sell-outs – as many as six in 2004 and 2005 – throughout the years.
However, after head coach Randy Edsall left UConn after the Fiesta Bowl loss in January 2011, the fans stopped coming. The stadium didn’t sell-out again, save for a record crowd against Michigan in September of 2013. The number one reason for that is the drive to East Hartford.
The issue of available space for a football stadium on-campus is definitely a big one, but UConn has a lot of land to work with and could make space if need be. And they should absolutely do so for a number of reasons.
First off, the students will certainly go to the games. With an on-campus stadium, the walk to the parking lot and then into the seats would be a Saturday tradition like no other. Students won’t have to worry about getting “all the way back home,” and can feel like they actually go to a college where football matters, a la the Big Ten schools.
I visited my friend at Ohio State for a game against Michigan State two years ago. It was a then-record crowd of over 110,000 fans. The walk to Ohio Stadium, affectionately known as “the Shoe,” was electric. The energy of the students was palpable, the stadium was buzzing and the game was wild.
After years of watching UConn football, viewing an Ohio State game in-person made me feel as though I’d never actually been to a college football game before. Ironically enough, Ohio State lost to Michigan State that night, while UConn upset then-undefeated Houston at the Rent.
Those were not the results I expected that night, yet I still longed for UConn to experience the type of enthusiasm I felt visiting my friend at Ohio State.
The other major reason the football program needs an on-campus stadium again is recruiting. There’s no question that talented high school football players take a look at how a university treats its football team before making a decision to sign on the dotted line. Having an on-campus football stadium will bring in fans and, as a result, bring in more recruits.
High school football stars want to feel loved, and the only way to make them feel loved at UConn is to get them a fan base that goes to games. It is undeniable. Building an on-campus stadium will be crucial to re-building the UConn football program, both for its success in the short-term with bringing in fans and for its longevity as a school that can bring in blue-chip talent.
I’ll end on another anecdote.
My freshman year here at UConn, I had a friend from the Midwest who quickly realized she didn’t like it here as much as she thought she would. She told me she wanted to go to a school where football mattered like in the Big Ten, where it was easy to go to games and rally around the team, where school pride in the football team mattered.
At the time, I was pretty blind to the truth. I said who cares, we have basketball. Plus, plenty of people go to the tailgates and cheer on the team. We’re fine the way we are, I said.
How horribly wrong I was.
She ended up transferring to Wisconsin and after seeing loads of posts on social media from her, as well as posts from my friend at Ohio State, it’s pretty clear who’s having more fun at these football games.
Watching Ohio State complete the comeback over Penn State, right around the time of kickoff for UConn against Mizzou, and seeing the reaction from the Buckeye faithful while the Rent struggled to fill the seats against an SEC school was the final nail in the coffin, in my opinion.
UConn football needs an on-campus stadium.