Coaches connect with fan base

The News-Times - - SPORTS - By Paul Doyle [email protected]­medi­; @pauldoyle1

HART­FORD — Standing in a sprawl­ing suite over­look­ing the di­a­mond at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, Randy Ed­sall glanced across the room at the fans of his pro­gram.

“These are the die hards,” the UConn foot­ball coach said

Die hards, in­deed. They gath­ered at Hart­ford’s downtown mi­nor league ball­park be­fore 8 a.m. Thursday, drawn by the op­por­tu­nity to min­gle with UConn’s coaches.

The sec­ond year of the UConn Coaches Road Show cul­mi­nated Thursday with stops in Hart­ford and Stam­ford as fans — the most pas­sion­ate of Husky fans — turned out. The three-day event be­gan with a Tues­day stop in Mys­tic fol­lowed by ap­pear­ances in Bran­ford, Water­bury and Tor­ring­ton Wed­nes­day.

For ath­letic pro­grams des­per­ately seek­ing cus­tomers, the coaches car­a­van is less about fetch­ing new fans and more about so­lid­i­fy­ing the base.

A year ago, the state’s flagship uni­ver­sity held ap­pear­ances in Glas­ton­bury, Bran­ford, Stam­ford and New York City. This year, the show re­mained within the state borders, bounc­ing from South­east­ern Con­necti­cut to Litch­field County, with stops in Fair­field County and the Cap­i­tal City.

About 100 or so turned out at each stop, lured by the chance to speak to coaches be­fore a Q&A ses­sion on stage.

For women’s bas­ket­ball coach Geno Auriemma, it was an op­por­tu­nity to an­swer questions about his 11-time na­tional cham­pion.

For hockey coach Mike Ca­vanaugh, it was a fo­rum to spread the word about his pro­gram.

For first-year women’s soc­cer coach Mar­garet Ro­driguez, it was some­what of an in­tro­duc­tion.

Then there’s Ed­sall, whose team was 1-11 last sea­son and 7-29 the past three seasons. There were plenty of questions about his pro­gram, but this was not a hos­tile crowd.

“These are the peo­ple … that are go­ing to be there in the seats re­gard­less,” Ed­sall said. “These are the peo­ple who have been sea­son-ticket hold­ers for a long time and ap­pre­ci­ate and un­der­stand that we are the pro team, ba­si­cally, in the state of Con­necti­cut.”

The pre­vail­ing mes­sage to Ed­sall?

“They’ve been just telling me, hang in there, we know you’re go­ing to be fine,” Ed­sall said. “We know you had a big task ahead of you in terms of what you have to do and just stay the course.”

Men’s bas­ket­ball coach Dan Hur­ley ar­rived from Rhode Is­land last year, mov­ing from a place where he was at­tempt­ing to cultivate a fan base to a mar­ket with a rich college bas­ket­ball his­tory. But the pro­gram hasn’t been in the NCAA Tour­na­ment for three years and is com­ing off three sub-.500 seasons, in­clud­ing a 16-17 record in Hur­ley’s first sea­son.

“We’re the flagship sports organizati­on in the state,” Hur­ley said. “All I heard about [when I in­ter­viewed], when I met with Pres­i­dent [Su­san] Herbst and David Benedict be­fore I took the job and since I’ve been here, was how im­por­tant be­ing a cham­pi­onship level pro­gram in men’s bas­ket­ball is to the state of Con­necti­cut. … My fo­cus is on do­ing what I was hired to do here — build a strong cham­pi­onship organizati­on that will have sus­tain­able suc­cess, that will reen­gage one of the best fan bases in college bas­ket­ball.”

And Hur­ley sees the Road Show has a com­po­nent in reen­gag­ing the base.

“For me, I’ve got to get out here and put the last cou­ple of years be­hind our great fan base and get them re-en­gaged and un­der­stand that real soon it’s go­ing to look like it should look at UConn,” Hur­ley said.

Wins and losses aside, there are other is­sues fac­ing the ath­letic depart­ment. The depart­ment has been op­er­at­ing sig­nif­i­cantly in the red the past few years and the mar­quee pro­grams are see­ing a de­cline in at­ten­dance.

So send­ing the faces of the teams out for meet-and-greets with the most loyal and gen­er­ous of the fan base is a prac­ti­cal and nec­es­sary way of do­ing busi­ness.

“You do some of these event, they’re ma­jor fundrais­ing things,” Auriemma said. “High end donors, you’re try­ing to get peo­ple that are al­ready in­vested to in­vest more. And then, the other rea­son, you’re try­ing to en­gage the sea­son ticket hold­ers to kind of con­tinue do­ing what they’re do­ing, get more sea­son ticket hold­ers, ex­plain to them what we’re do­ing, why we’re do­ing it.

“I think the big­gest mes­sage is, this idea that we’re all in this to­gether. It’s not like, you wait for us to win and then you come watch. You se­lec­tively choose when you’re go­ing to come to a game. … It’s just too easy to­day to just sit home and watch it on TV, so we’ve got to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment at the games that makes you want to have to be there.”

Ed­sall and Auriemma are familiar faces to UConn Na­tion. Hur­ley, who re­placed Kevin Ol­lie, is still get­ting ac­quainted with the state and the pro­gram’s fans. Smart fans, he calls them.

“They know what good bas­ket­ball looks like,” Hur­ley said.

Draw­ing them to Gam­pel Pavil­ion and the XL Cen­ter requires, then, good bas­ket­ball. Just as fans won’t re­turn to Rentschler Field until Ed­sall’s team starts to win some games.

But standing among the die hards the past few days, the coaches were hear­ing mostly words of en­cour­age­ment. The base is full of be­liev­ers.

“They just want to see progress,” Hur­ley said be­fore tak­ing the stage at the Yard Goats’ home. “No one has been un­rea­son­able to me. … Not yet.”

Ja­son Rei­der / UConn ath­let­ics

Day 2 of the UConn Coaches Road Show in Bran­ford, Water­bury and Tor­ring­ton on Thursday.

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