Susquehannock High School graduate Randy Edsall closing book on consequential career
In time, the angst of the moment will pass and a more reflective look at Randy Edsall’s two stints as UConn’s football coach will be possible.
For the moment, Edsall’s sudden announcement Sunday, that he will retire at the end of this season, only added to his legacy of awkward goodbyes.
The first time, at a moment of high achievement, the Susquehannock High School graduate bolted without saying goodbye at all after the Fiesta Bowl in 2011. This time, he is orchestrating what figures to be an excruciatingly long farewell tour, 10 games, several sure to be ugly.
As bizarre as any aspect of Sunday’s news, Edsall conducted his virtual news conference by declining to discuss his decision to retire, and field only the routine, day-after game questions, the nuts and bolts of Saturday’s 38-28 loss to Holy Cross — a coach-killer of a defeat that obviously landed on target. For now, Edsall let his prepared statement stand alone:
“After 17 years of service at the University of Connecticut as its head football coach,” he wrote, “I’ve decided to retire at the end of the season. Back in 2017 I made a commitment to the university, but felt it was better to make this announcement now rather than the end of the year, to allow the university ample time to prepare for the future of the football program. All my focus and attention for the rest of the season will be to prepare our players and coaches to go out and win as many games as possible.”
To this, Edsall would only add, “I will bust my [butt] to the best of my ability until the end of the season, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve done it all my life, and that’s not going to change.”
There is much to unpack at this fork in the rocky road that is UConn football, but let’s start here:
A respected place in UConn history: When the end comes, Edsall, 63, should hold a respected place in the history of UConn athletics, indeed, in our state’s sports history.
He took a Division I-AA program, as the level was then known, that celebrated a handful of upsets at the Yale Bowl as its landmarks, and in a few short years beat Notre Dame in the shadow of its Golden Dome, soundly defeated South Carolina in a bowl game and delivered a trip to Arizona to play on New Year’s Day.
None of that should be forgotten. Edsall gave us plenty of reasons to puff out our chests.
Personally, I never begrudged him the decision to jump to Maryland after the loss to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Coaches make career moves when their stock is highest. That’s the business, and they often don’t even stick around to coach the bowl game. There is never a good or easy time to leave, and he admitted, albeit as he was returning years later, that he handled it poorly.
Cruel years for UConn: The years following his departure have been cruel to UConn, and much of that, as has been well chronicled, was beyond the school’s control. The investment in FBS football was made to play in a league with the likes of Boston College, Syracuse, Pitt, Miami, and when the original Big East crumbled, UConn was left holding a bag filled with shattered promises. Three ADs got the next three coaching hires wrong. Jeff Hathaway recycled Paul Pasqualoni, a good man and football coach who was not the right one for UConn at age 61. Then came Warde Manuel’s choice, Bob Diaco, the young, hot coordinator, a hire that made all the sense in the world until the glare of head coaching exposed him.
That led David Benedict to bring back Edsall, who had failed at Maryland, to resuscitate the program he had built.
Edall 2.0 doomed from start: This, too, made sense on some level, but “Randy Edsall 2.0″ was doomed from the start. Sports history teaches us that second-time-around coaching adventures, often tried in college and the pros, rarely work. Johnny Majors went back to Pitt after 20 or so years, John Robinson tried a comeback at USC, both ill-fated. Joe Gibbs’ attempt after 12 years in retirement to fix the Washington football club didn’t work. Earl Weaver came back to Baltimore and finished his Hall-of-Fame career in last place. A legend, Joe Mullaney’s second stint as Providence men’s basketball coach in the early days produced a 48-70 record.
The magic only happens once. You can’t go home again, and Edsall, in his 60s, couldn’t stage a second rise in Storrs as times had changed, radically. That win at Notre Dame was only 12 years ago, yet we have come to talk about it as if it happened in another age, the way people talk about Columbia’s 1930s trip to the Rose Bowl.
Recent record can't be defended: And while Edsall’s heart may have been in it, it is fair to question if he really had the fire in his belly for a second go-round. His 6-32 record since his return speaks for itself, and cannot be defended.
The year off due to COVID-19 bought him time and a contract extension ($1.25 million per year). He touted the year off as a chance to develop his players’ size, strength, speed and chemistry, but the first two games were a 45-0 loss at Fresno State and Saturday’s debacle, a loss to Holy Cross, an FCS team, as I-AA is now called.
“When Randy Edsall arrived in Storrs in 1999, he was tasked with leading a Division I-AA program through the challenging transition to Division I-A,” Benedict said, in his statement Sunday. “By 2011 his student-athletes were graduating at an admirable rate, the program was producing an abundant amount of NFL talent, and UConn had made an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. While the program has been unable to recapture that level of success on the field during Randy’s second stint as our head football coach, the decision to retire at the end of the season was made by Randy. As is the case with all our teams, I am constantly evaluating the football program and will continue to make decisions that I feel are in the best interest of our student-athletes.”
Trudging forward: So UConn football trudges onward, with no serious discussion of eliminating or dropping the program to FCS. The school is committed, buildings built, money spent, contracts signed, to make its way as an independent. This time the national search, which UConn said would begin immediately, must result in the right coach for the time and place. Recycling didn’t work, nor did the up-and-coming coordinator. It’s hardly a plumb job, but how about probing for a head coach who has built and sustained a successful FCS or even Division II program? A coach who would be thrilled to work with UConn’s facilities and resources and knows how to find hidden talent and make the best of the hand he is dealt, a coach, say, like Holy Cross’ Bob Chesney? They’re out there, some in our own backyard.
As Edsall rides off slowly into retirement, give him his due for the good times, but UConn must now leave the past behind and look ahead, even if the future is murkier than ever.