On Randy Edsall, safe bets and recruiting

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In an extremely Connecticut move, Randy Edsall is UConn’s football coach again after agreeing to a five-year, $5 million deal with incentives Wednesday.

Edsall went 74-70 in twelve seasons at UConn, overseeing the program’s transition from Division I-AA to Division I-A. His teams won two Big East co-championships, and managed a string of four consecutive 8/9-win seasons capped by an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2010 season.

For what it’s worth, Edsall generally seems to be a decent person with a legitimate spot in his heart for the school. Football alumni and donors are celebrating his return to Storrs. His low salary could be a big help if the school is going to commit to spending the necessary amount of money on strong assistant coaches. His press conferences will be a lot more boring and less infuriating.

The way he left UConn in 2011 was ugly, particularly for a coach who was big on holding players responsible to his teammates, but college football is a business, and it’s not reasonable to maintain a grudge at him for doing business. (Unsurprisingly, his hiring announcement showed the requisite amount of contrition to make it moot enough.)

This is not an embarrassing hire or a reason to turn one’s back on the program. But let me explain why I hate this, as I alluded to yesterday.

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There will be a lot of talk that UConn is making the “safe” move. To be clear: there is no such thing as a safe coaching move.

(Other safe coaching moves: Hiring Paul Pasqualoni — the Big East’s all-time winningest coach! Connecticut high school coaches love him! — and extending Bob Diaco’s contract after a miraculous 6-6 season — what if another school pays us to steal our coach? That would be bad, for some reason, possibly because we don’t trust ourselves to get it right!)

I understand the logic. UConn football is a failed program as the calendar flips to 2017; turning back to a trusted hand to re-rebuild the program — the only person who ever won here — is a reasonable choice to make UConn respectable enough for the next next big thing to take over in however many years. You can talk yourself into Edsall as the guy who gets UConn back to a program that goes 7-5 most years, as they did seven of his final nine seasons here. There’s a certain amount of sense there, and it might even be the best of a bunch of bad possibilities.

But I have three issues with that logic: it ignores the actual problem holding UConn back (recruiting), it presumes that Edsall will perform exactly the same magic he did in a completely different environment, and it shows a distressing lack of ambition for a program that needs a lot more of it.

Two of the bigger reasons Bob Diaco is no longer the head coach here is that he failed to recruit well enough to have a team ranking in the top half of the AAC talent-wise, and he was unable to develop enough of his recruits to overcome that deficit.

Edsall, whatever his faults, at least mastered the second part here (though oddly not at Maryland). He developed the hell out of the two- and three-star recruits he brought in, sending a number of overlooked recruits to the NFL and posting winning records most years. That’s a credit to his (and his staff’s) ability as coaches and talent identifiers. He very likely maximized the talent he pulled in at UConn; outside of the what-could’ve-been 2009 season, he didn’t leave a lot of wins on the table.

If UConn got back to overachieving with middling recruits, it probably could get back to being a perennial minor bowl team, an obvious improvement over the last two head coaches.

But it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that UConn football faces if it wants to be viable at this level: stars matter if you want to win championships, conference or otherwise, and UConn hasn’t ever been good enough at acquiring those players.

UConn’s only recruiting class to ever be ranked among the top half of its conference, per Rivals and 24/7, was Paul Pasqualoni’s 2013 class. Would you be shocked if I told you that UConn has finished clearly in the top of half of its league standings exactly two times in 13 years of conference play? (The point stands even if you want to count 2009, when the Huskies finished tied with three teams for fourth in an eight-team league, or 2015, when they tied with Cincinnati for the sixth best record in a 12-team league and lost to the Bearcats by 24.)

Less talented teams can beat more talented teams, and can sometimes even finish ahead of them in the standings over an eight-game sample. More talented teams will win in the long run. You should want your program to have more talent than your opponent so you can beat the teams you’re competing with more often. This shouldn’t be controversial. UConn can’t be consistently competitive with Houston or USF if it primarily competes with CAA and Ivy League schools for recruits.

The school had an opportunity to address that deficiency with this hire; if Joe Moorhead said no, my preference would’ve been to search for a winning lower-level coach who can sell a system, or, if you must go the retread route, a Greg Schiano-type who could recruit UConn back to competence.

Instead, UConn has elected to give it another go with Edsall, who did as well as could be expected (a 22-26 league record is legitimately pretty good, considering!) recruiting the worst- and second-worst classes in the Big East for so long. But I don’t see a compelling reason to believe Edsall is going to recruit better than he did in his first go-around here, now that he can’t sell recruits on playing in a “power” conference, or on the opportunity to realistically play in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

Moreover, Edsall isn’t returning to remotely the same situation. Ten years ago, UConn was barely keeping its head above water competing, on the field and in recruiting, with mostly northeastern and midwestern schools who made, uh, rather uninspired coaching choices (nvr 4get u GRob & Wanny). Now, they’re competing with mostly southern schools in fertile recruiting territory, with exciting and dynamic young coaches running modern fast-paced offenses.

Maybe it’s likely that Edsall squeezes more wins out of 3-star talent than Diaco did. Maybe he makes some dynamite hires with his assistant coaches, and it gives us a much-needed boost in recruiting. And maybe Edsall will pay off long term by building up the infrastructure and talent level necessary for the next coach to succeed.

Conversely, one might note that it took four years and a Charmin-soft schedule for Edsall to have his first winning season in 2003, and one might also note that his leaving before the 2011 season was extremely convenient, given that the top option at quarterback for that season turned out to be walk-on Johnny McEntee. And one might note that the last time we hired a “safe” veteran coach with Syracuse ties who won multiple Big East titles, well…

Either way, on Day 1 of the new Edsall regime, I can understand that there’s a path forward. I sincerely hope it works out. UConn fans need it to work out. The school needs it to work out if it still harbors any flickering Power-5 conference realignment hopes.

What concerns me most (besides recruiting) is that this hire is a sign that imagination is very limited when it comes to UConn’s administration. Tracking back to Edsall tells me that the people in charge in Storrs don’t think that UConn football can compete for recruits, or for conference championships on the field. It tells me that they envision UConn as a team that wins between four and eight games a year and runs a clean program, end of story.

I know where UConn stands in the pecking order right now, and I know that it’s a very difficult place to succeed in football for at least the immediate future. A program that averages six wins a year would be a significant step forward, and it is going to take time for any coach to get this program running at even that level.

It might also be possible that the administration is right! Edsall’s diamond-in-the-rough recruiting and plucky eight-win seasons might very well be our ceiling, given the structural issues holding us back (our lack of tradition, the competition we face from at least three power-conference rivals within a few hours’ drive).

But if that’s true, we need to seriously start having a conversation about what the goal of UConn football is, whether success is feasible in the face of so many obstacles, and whether it’s a prudent idea to spend millions of dollars chasing Boca Raton Bowl appearances in a southern mid-major conference while the rest of our top-notch athletic department withers on the vine.

I don’t want to have that conversation.

I would rather have a football program that was ambitious, daring, forward-thinking, and felt like it was building something to last. I’ll settle for Competent Edsall-ball, but I don’t have to be thrilled with it.