I have mentioned time and time again that what head coach Jim Mora is building inside the Burton Family Football Complex will bring the University of Connecticut football team back to relevance. (This is in the future though.)
Since the National Football League season started, however, I have noticed one team that stands out from the rest of the pack in terms of its similarity with the Huskies: The Detroit Lions. You may be wondering why them and not the New York Jets or Jacksonville Jaguars, but there are several other factors to consider when comparing the two athletic programs.
Jumping right into the comparison, we first need to evaluate their current head coaches. Dan Campbell used to be a tight end for the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and the Lions. When Detroit fired Matt Patricia during the 2020 season, I never expected it to hire Campbell because of the way the coaching carousel spins. Campbell, who was both an interim head coach with the Miami Dolphins and an assistant head coach, got the job after an interview rivaling a theater application.
Like many people, I was doubtful that this hire would work out, but Campbell’s emotional connection to his team has really impressed me over the years. There have been times where he legitimately cries with them in the locker room after a tough loss, and most coaches cannot say they did that. Having that emotional connection already makes him a fan favorite.
Even Mora’s hiring by UConn was a surprise, given that he had not coached since 2017. People suggested everyone from former interim head coach Lou Spanos to former Presbyterian College head coach Kevin Kelley. Like with Campbell, I had my doubts about the hire, but I have seen a coach working to make his team better than the day before right from the start.
It comes down to how Mora speaks about the Huskies and how he coaches them. He always finds the positives in a brutal loss and tells reporters how much effort the team put into their game. But do not take the coach’s wise words for what they are — look to the team’s social media pages for more intriguing information.
At all costs, every other NFL team should hold on to their kneecaps. That reference to “The Big Lebowski” has been Campbell’s calling card since he got hired, and it has become a popular internet meme. This is Campbell’s way of declaring that things are going to change in the Motor City. Not only do the Lions have kneecaps, but they also have a season on “Hard Knocks,” an NFL documentary covering the behind the scenes of a team’s players and coaches.
Following the UConn football team on any social media page means that you have probably heard about the Husky Revolution. Following years of embarrassing disappointment, Mora incorporated a culture of sweeping change that both the fans and the players have felt on a personal level. All revolutions take their time, but this cultural coup may work out in the long run.
After UConn’s loss to the North Carolina State University Wolfpack, Mora told reporters that said revolution “is coming.” Although this will probably not catch on because Dan Hurley already made those words famous in 2020 after a loss to Villanova University, I would not be surprised to see it regain popularity. People better come get them now, because both teams should no longer be treated like a punchline to a bad joke.
Back in 2008, the Lions became the first team to ever go 0-16. They have made the playoffs only three times since then, despite having Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. Lately, Detroit has selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft four years in a row — it had the eighth (2019), third (2020), seventh (2021) and second overall picks (2022), respectively.
UConn is in the same boat. From the start of Randy Edsall’s second stint in 2017 until the end of the 2021 season, the Huskies won a mere seven games, winning consecutive games just once and losing to every FBS team since beating the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2019. They did not have a season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have consistently been in most major media’s Bottom 10 rankings.
I hope both teams earn more wins and see better days, especially since they have the pieces to do so.
Both teams have a defensive star poised for a successful NFL career. UConn’s defensive weapon is Jackson Mitchell, a Ridgefield native who is fourth in the country with 58 total tackles. They may only have him for the rest of this year, but he has become a superstar for the Huskies and could be a second-day draft selection. Both him and 2022 third-round pick Travis Jones have set a foundation for successful defensive players from the Nutmeg State.
Detroit has Aidan Hutchinson, who attended the University of Michigan, hails from nearby Plymouth and could become the Lions’ best defensive tackle since Ndamukong Suh. Hutchinson has three sacks and seven total tackles through three games, and those numbers put him on a trajectory to succeed at the professional level. Once he gets more opportunities to do so, he will become an elite defensive tackle in the league.
This season, months of intensive training and well-received motivation are paying off, as both UConn and Detroit already have a win. It is expected to be a gradual process back to relevance, but this is already an improvement from 2021.
Do not let recent results fool you. Both of these teams are experiencing growing pains and are on the rise. A few years from now, they will be competing with the best of the best, and I will only look back on their 2022 seasons with a smile when they do.