It wasn’t long after Randy Edsall cut himself and a reporter short Tuesday that he began to think he could have, and should have, said something more than “I’m done,” in response to an oddly approached but ultimately fair question about in-season changes to a coaching staff.
Agitated, the Susquehannock High School graduate had walked away from the podium at the Burton Family Football Complex and, as it turned out, onto the website Deadspin, which posted an article about Tuesday’s scene with an opening line of, “Let’s get the obvious out of the way: UConn sucks!” Public discourse in a variety of forums wasn’t much kinder.
Bad optics: Tuesday’s Q&A had played out to its usual length of just under 25 minutes and was most likely over, but the closing optics were bad and Edsall’s reaction, well, he could have helped himself when asked about Wake Forest firing its defensive coordinator and his philosophy on such moves. He could have deflected negative attention a dozen ways. He could have shifted focus. He could have proactively backed Billy Crocker, the coordinator running UConn’s defense and the man clearly in mind as the brief back and forth began.
“I know where this is going,” Edsall said before exiting.
Finishing discussion: On Wednesday, a day on which he does not typically speak with the media, Edsall chose to meet with reporters in the Burton lobby, continuing and finishing a discussion that started nearly 24 hours earlier. He chose to take blame, chose to take accountability – chose, even, to show fire and agitation fans were probably longing for.
He had to. A depressing season had for the first time taken on a sour feel for something other than the scoreboard and, ultimately, an uncomfortable news cycle isn’t the worst thing for a team looking for something to latch onto.
"I'm the guy responsible:" So for two minutes, Edsall spoke with purpose and edge, addressing UConn’s issues and its people.
“If anybody ever wants to write anything, it's not the assistant coaches, it's not the players,” Edsall said. “I'm the head coach. I'm the guy responsible, and if things aren't going the right way then fire my ass. It's as simple as that. I'm the leader ...
“I'm making decisions that I think are best for this program, and if things don’t measure up then fire me. I accept that responsibility as a head coach. I've been doing it now for many, many years. And I'm not going to stop doing things the way I think is right. I'm going to do it the way I want and I've got the people in place and it's very simple.”
There. Solidarity achieved, perhaps. Maybe that will show up as the Huskies (1-3) play Cincinnati (4-0) Saturday at Rentschler Field.
Losing makes things hard: Losing can turn press conferences into delicate interactions, make teams easy targets, make coaches defensive, media members curious, story lines old. Context is important.
The thought of a staff shakeup wouldn’t be relevant if the Huskies, with by far the worst defense in the nation, weren’t struggling so. If the team was 2-2 and/or showing increasing signs of potential, Edsall wouldn’t be defensive. If UConn weren’t allowing 54.5 points and 664 yards a game, websites wouldn’t be so eager to pick apart an awkward end – not an early end – to a press conference.
Protecting players, coaches: That part bothered Edsall, the assumption Tuesday that he avoided the media. He exited angrily, sure, not necessarily prematurely.
“If you want to write stuff, if you want to question stuff, question me,” Edsall said. “Don't question my players, don't question my coaches, because I'm the guy in charge. I'm the leader. And it starts top down, and it's all with me. I've got no issues with any of my players, my coaches or anybody. And you know what? I don't have any issue with how we're doing things here. People don't like it? Tough.”
Assistant responds: Crocker, in an impossible spot, answered questions Wednesday mostly about Edsall backing him, and about his painfully inexperienced unit.
“Everyone here has each other’s back,” Crocker said. Of the team’s morale, he said, “The kids are fine. They’re young. We’re putting babies out there. We have to keep getting better.”
Crocker was hired by Edsall before last season after spending 12 years at Villanova, the final five as coordinator. In 2016, his defense was the best in FCS, thriving in a somewhat unique 3-3-5 alignment.
Changing defense: Here’s the thing about the 3-3-5 he brought to Storrs, though. It went the way of the Civil Conflict Trophy long ago. Meaning, it’s no longer a thing at UConn and hasn’t been all season. Two weeks into August camp, the Huskies scrapped the 3-3-5 for a more traditional 4-3 defense after more closely considering the roster’s personnel.
So Crocker isn’t even coaching the system he is accustomed to.
“It’s been a change up,” Crocker said. “We’re all trying to work together to get it where we want it. When I first did it, it was different. We’ve got to work through some kinks.”
When Crocker, a Waterford native, was hired he said he could have stayed at Villanova, “Probably forever. … But if there was one place that could pull me away -- this was a shot I had to take."
Feel-good story: He came “home” and it was a feel-good story, a Connecticut guy teaming with the coach who had pushed UConn onto the college football map. UConn’s defense was among the worst in the nation last season.
This season, it’s been worse. A decision was made to play freshmen and sophomores because what good would it do in the long run to play juniors and seniors at this stage of a rebuild? The Huskies have been picked apart by Central Florida, Boise State, Syracuse – all undefeated, all formidable – and even FCS Rhode Island. And then there was Crocker’s name in the news, there was Edsall clearly uncomfortable.
“It’s part of the deal,” Crocker said. “It’s part of the profession. I would never second-guess [coming to UConn]. If I didn’t [come] I would have been saying, ‘What if?’ on the other end. You make decisions in life and you move forward. Am I happy [with the team’s performance]? No. I don’t know if you’re ever happy in this profession. It’s tough, but it’s fine. We’ve got to play through it.”
Struggles expected: Struggles were expected. That doesn’t make them easy to swallow. There’s a natural impatience and frustration with the project, one for which Edsall will ultimately be responsible.
He’ll take the blame, or the credit.