As the UConn faithful stormed Rentschler Field after their 36-33 win over No. 19 Liberty, it can be easy to get lost in the moment. The excitement, the adrenaline and all those feelings that come with witnessing an upset of this magnitude are hard to ignore. Once you get past these feelings, we should all take a step back and really look at how impressive this upset is — not individually, but as a culmination of such a successful season in relation to the UConn football program’s history. Last week, I semi-jokingly called for a Jim Mora statue after getting UConn back to 5-5, but I’m not joking anymore. It’s time to build it.
To understand the magnitude of this and really appreciate the feat to its fullest extent, let’s go through the Huskies’ last nine seasons starting with 2013.
Less than three years removed from their Fiesta Bowl season with Randy Edsall, UConn was entering their third season under Paul Pasqualoni, a longtime Syracuse coach. The coach had gone 10-14 in his first two years, a far cry from UConn’s four straight 8+ win seasons under Edsall, but still not terrible.
Pasqualoni started off the year with a 15-point loss to FCS Towson, almost foreshadowing his time as a UConn coach. They lost the next three, which included a close home defeat to No. 15 Michigan on primetime television. Pasqualoni was fired and offensive coordinator T.J. Weist was named the replacement. Weist lost the next five games, but with the help of freshman quarterback Casey Cochran, the Huskies ripped off three straight victories to end the year, including a 45-10 rout over future NFL first rounder Paxton Lynch and the Memphis Tigers.
Instead of keeping Weist, who had the Huskies moving in the right direction, UConn hired reigning Assistant Coach of the Year Bob Diaco from Notre Dame. This seemed like a good hire at the time with Diaco’s pedigree, although many fans would have been content to give Weist a try full-time with the success he had in his last three games.
Diaco unsurprisingly started off his tenure with a 2-10 record, constantly reassuring fans that this was a rebuild that would take longer than a year to turn around. They did at least beat FCS Stony Brook — if narrowly — and they also notched a win over UCF, where the Civil ConFLiCT rivalry was created. This was the point where UConn started to become more of a joke to the media. Although good for culture, trying to create a rivalry as a 2-6 team may strike some as silly, which is not ideal for an outsiders’ view of the Huskies or for recruiting.
In his second year in Storrs, Diaco seemed to be moving things in the right direction. Although he said some bizarre things at times, he started to win, which solves everything in the eyes of fans. It wasn’t the prettiest 6-7, but the Huskies pulled off an impressive upset at home against No. 19 Houston in a similar fashion to this Saturday’s game, going to the St. Petersburg Bowl, although they lost. Six wins were nice, but Husky fans were expecting more in year three.
Connecticut started off 2016 with a 3-3 record. Even though they continued to not blow out their FCS opponents, they were winning those games. As average as the year started out, they finished on a six game losing streak, including three games where they scored fewer than five points. Diaco was promptly canned and AD Dave Benedict made an interesting choice, bringing back Edsall, the most successful coach in program history, who left the program in the middle of the night following their 2010 Fiesta Bowl year. It went about as well as one would expect.
The Huskies went 3-9 in their first season under Edsall’s second stint, which wasn’t terrible considering the rebuilding job that Edsall was selling. He continually pushed the narrative that nowadays players aren’t “mentally tough,” sounding like a grandpa who was shaking his fist at 10-year-old kids playing on his lawn. The year was really encapsulated by a game at Cincinnati, where the Husky receiver Hergy Mayala scored a last-minute touchdown to get within one point. He celebrated excessively and got an unsportsmanlike conduct flag called on him, pushing the PAT back 15 yards, resulting in a shanked kick.
The 2018 team featured what many consider to be the worst defense in college football history. The Huskies allowed 50.4 points per game, which is the most ever. Their lone win in their 1-11 campaign came against Rhode Island in a 56-49 shootout, not the way to beat your FCS opponent. Still, Edsall promised results — as soon as he got Diaco’s players off his roster.
2019 was hardly better. By game two, they were already relying on side-arm throwing quarterback Jack Zergiotis as their starter. They finished the year 2-10, with their only wins coming against FCS Wagner and UMass, a team that, at the time, was towards the bottom of the FCS teams.
UConn was named the 2020 College Football National Champions by the New York Times, for courageously sitting out amidst the
Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. They were supposedly taking the time to refresh and reset their team, coming back stronger than ever in 2021 ready to win some games.
It’s hard to imagine last year going too much worse, with the Huskies starting out with a 45-0 blowout loss at Fresno State and following it up with a loss to FCS Holy Cross. After that game, Edsall “retired,” but it looked much more like the decision to retire was done for him. They got trounced in most of their games, using three different quarterbacks in the process. They beat FCS Yale to avoid becoming the worst FBS team of all time, but things were not going well. Screwing up the next coaching hire was simply not an option. UConn needed to prove they could win in the FBS, or it would be nearly impossible to get a coach to sign on.
Enter Jim Mora. Just about a year to the day of the Liberty game, the Huskies hired Mora, who had his own troubles over the past decade and was looking to prove that he still could do it.
“I’m grateful that Mr. Benedict over here took a chance on a washed up coach,” said Mora on Saturday.
And what a hire it was. In just 11 matchups, Mora has already won as many games as Edsall did in his entire second stint, which included 38 such opportunities. The ranked win over Liberty is the first such victory since 2015, before Edsall came back.
The feeling is simply different around the program. When the team loses, the blame doesn’t go on anyone who wasn’t involved. Mora knows how to uplift his players when times get tough and ground them when they’re getting a bit too high. He has maturity in a way that UConn hasn’t had in a coach in a very long time.
So looking at the Liberty game as a culmination of all the suffering that UConn and the fanbase has endured, it should really mean a little more to everyone involved. These fans, who’ve stayed with the team through thick and thin, have had to go through so many losing seasons and so much turmoil. All those weeks on ESPN’s Bottom 10 are what makes this win — and the five that came before it — so much nicer and rewarding. UConn’s success is here, and it should stay so long as Mora does. The state of Connecticut deserves this, and thanks to Mora, UConn football is back.