Randy Edsall was hired as football coach at UConn in 1998, bringing with him 18 years of coaching experience as an assistant but no real certainty in a program that faced plenty of questions.
The Huskies were about to embark on a transition to what was then called Division I-A, the highest level of competition in football, and faced significant hurdles in doing so. Memorial Stadium, which held 16,000, was rarely full on game days. Trailers around the field housed the coaches' offices, and regardless of rain or snow, practice was held outdoors.
Edsall changed all that. At 40 years old, his goal was to one day become the head coach of a Division I program, and UConn provided him both the opportunity to do that and also to shape its future.
"It doesn't get any better than this," Edsall said at his introductory press conference.
It's a line he's repeated often when asked about his name being connected to other positions around the country. But 12 seasons after that December day when Edsall was hired, he leaves UConn for another challenge — Maryland, where he will be introduced as the program's 34th coach this afternoon.
The news comes a day after Edsall led the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl, part of the Bowl Championship Series, where they lost to Oklahoma, 48-20.
Though the outcome wasn't favorable for UConn, simply having the opportunity to compete in the Fiesta Bowl was. The Huskies qualified for the game by winning a share of the Big East title for the second time in four years.
They opened the season with a loss at Michigan, one of college football's all-time winningest programs, and beat Notre Dame last season in South Bend, Ind. The Huskies have played teams from the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC the past two seasons.
"Twelve years ago, [consider] the teams we were playing," Edsall said Friday at a press conference before the Fiesta Bowl. "This year we opened up with Michigan and we're finishing with Oklahoma. It is a lot different than opening up with Maine and ending with Rhode Island. I think that kind of spells out exactly where we've come from, what we have been able to do and what we have been able to accomplish.
"I know that people would have never thought that that would be the case back in 1998, '99, 2000, even 2003, '04 maybe. But that's what makes things fun."
Edsall began building momentum in his first four seasons, though there were growing pains. In 1999, just one year removed from their first appearance in the Division I-AA quarterfinals, the Huskies finished 4-7. There was the 3-8 finish in 2000 bogged down by a 66-10 loss to Middle Tennessee State — still the worst in program history — and a 2-9 season in 2001.
By midseason 2002, UConn started to show signs it belonged. A 61-14 victory over Florida Atlantic began a season-ending four-game winning streak that included wins at Navy and Iowa State — a victory that Edsall long considered the biggest in school history.
It set the tone for a monumental season in 2003. Rentschler Field, a 40,000-seat stadium in East Hartford, opened, putting to rest a series of complicated legal and financial challenges both for the state and university that dated to the failed relocation of the NFL's New England Patriots to Hartford.
UConn opened the stadium with a 34-10 victory over Indiana and finished 9-3, though its status as an independent prevented it from being selected for a bowl game. That, and a victory, came the following year in Detroit, when the Huskies defeated Toledo 39-10 in the Motor City Bowl.
The Huskies opened their $5 million, state-of-the-art on-campus facilities, the Burton Family Complex and Shenkman Center, before the 2006 season. The 2007 season brought the Huskies their first ranking in the major polls and a share of the Big East title.
The Huskies returned to bowls in 2008 and 2009, a season filled with emotional highs and lows that included the victory over Notre Dame and the fatal stabbing of cornerback Jasper Howard on campus. By 2010, winning was no longer a goal in Storrs. It was expected.
But that wasn't all Edsall accomplished. Though he left UConn with a 74-70 record in 12 years — including a 65-46 mark in what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision — he also was lauded for his graduation rates and ability to develop players. The Huskies had 14 players selected in the NFL draft prior to his arrival; 11 have been chosen since.
Sometimes ebullient, occasionally prickly, always persistent, Edsall no doubt leaves the UConn football program in a better place than it was a dozen years ago.
"Everything that I wanted to do when I came to UConn was to build a program that would stand the test of time; that we weren't going to be a football team, we were going to be a program," Edsall said Friday. "If you can surround yourself with good people and get them to believe in what you're doing and instill in them it is the right way to do things, then you can accomplish those things."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun