When reports surfaced this week that discussions between Notre Dame and UConn could lead to a game at Fenway Park in 2014, everybody from Irish coach Brian Kelly to UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni sounded excited. While fretting about the field dimensions, Kelly, a Boston-area guy, said he thought the first football game at Fenway since 1968 would be cool. Pasqualoni raved about the Monster seats and the sausages.
Could this game, a Notre Dame home game, happen? Yes. Will it happen? We'll see.
What the possibility of this game did appear to signal is the new UConn regime's willingness to expand its horizons beyond the Connecticut border.
"In general, we want to play our home games at Rentschler Field," UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said. "That's my first inclination. But given the change in the landscape, what's being done around the country, the opportunity to play one-time games or to move a home game to a bigger venue — what I'd like is the flexibility to look at that if it enhances our football team and university."
"Having said that, I understand the investment the state and the people in the state have made to provide us with a tremendous facility. I would like that flexibility, though, particularly where our fan base is regionally in markets like Boston or New York."
Manuel was cautious. He knows that taxpayers poured $100 million into Rentschler. He knows about the backlash when Notre Dame tried to strong-arm a 10-year deal with UConn without stepping foot in East Hartford. In regards to UConn-Notre Dame at Fenway, in fact, Manuel said even less than his coach, who said that Manuel was working hard on it. "I don't comment on anything schedule-wise until it's finalized," Manuel said. "We don't have a contract to play Notre Dame."
The former lineman at Michigan did give one heck of a one-word answer, though, when asked if he felt that UConn needed to sell its football program more than it has been sold in recent years.
"Yes," Manuel said.
I'm thinking that UConn would look at games against such schools as Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium. I'm thinking that UConn would look at games like Boston College or Notre Dame at Gillette Stadium or Fenway. One game a year maybe, or every other year. These could be big days for the school's visibility. Those could be big days for the cash coffers, the other green monster.
In the past, I was against moving games away from Rentschler. The seismic shift in college athletics has changed my mind. With the elimination of automatic BCS bids, the mountain no longer will come to the Big East. And with the Big East scraping to remain relevant, even the possibility that Boise State might come to Rentschler once a decade, it's even more incumbent that UConn go to the mountain.
There have been times with UConn when the sizzle was bigger than the steak. Evidence the Fiesta Bowl embarrassment. To go to Notre Dame in 2009 and win in overtime remains a remarkable moment for the program. The Fighting Irish also were a mess, and their fans couldn't wait to run Charlie Weis out of town.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not badmouthing the sizzle. You need it in college football. The game is like boxing in that regard. There aren't a million games like in basketball. You need the hype. Even with the four-team national playoff coming in January 2015, that will leave 118 teams out of the mix. This isn't the 68-team March Madness. Teams still will be looking for the week-to-week bang and lucrative bowl opportunities.
Look at the days leading into the 2010 season opener at Michigan. Even though Denard Robinson ended up throwing a wet maize and blue blanket on it, folks around here were juiced. Compare that to the season opener this year against UMass. Zzzzzz. Sorry, I dozed off there. The Huskies are a one-point favorite Saturday at Western Michigan, which won at the Rent last year. Even if UConn comes away with a meaty win, the sizzle will say, ho-hum, another MAC team. The game isn't on TV, and 30,200-seat Waldo Stadium figures to be half full.
The Huskies had 5,000 empty seats for UMass and 6,000 for a good N.C. State team. The point here is that UConn football needs a jolt. Not all of it has to do with W's and L's. The 2011 and 2012 schedules, save the Edsall Bowl, lacked that jolt.
Playing in New York solely for the sake of playing in New York, of course, isn't the answer. Syracuse played USC on Sept. 8 at MetLife Stadium and the announced crowd was 39,570. There might have been 5,000-10,000 fewer in attendance. That's not good for a stadium that holds 82,561.
Syracuse has a game against Penn State in 2013 and one against Notre Dame in 2014 scheduled for MetLife. Those are the games that UConn should be looking for, big draws close enough for their fan base. If you do it right, fill the place, a one-game equal split can be more lucrative than a home-and-home series.
UConn has Maryland and Michigan scheduled at the Rent for 2013. Any time you can Hail! The victors valiant and Hail! Edsall not-so-valiant in the same season, well, that's an attractive schedule. As part of a home-and-home series, there's also a game at the Rent against Tennessee in 2015. Beyond that, there's work to be done.
There has been much speculation about how the Big East will configure its 14-team football conference in 2015. Brett McMurphy of ESPN, citing sources, reported that the most popular model right now is one in which UConn plays in a division with Louisville, South Florida, San Diego State, SMU, Navy and Memphis. The Huskies would play Rutgers every year and rotate one other school each year in cross-division games. That would mean Boise State once every six years on the schedule, once every 12 at the Rent. Frankly, that would suck. All the more need for games with some pop. It's high time that UConn and Boston College start playing again, maybe an even-split purse game at Gillette to re-ignite the rivalry followed by a home-and-home series.
"I've had good conversations with [Boston College AD] Gene DeFilippo in general about the schools' relationship," Manuel said.
With DeFilippo leaving, of course, those general conversations will need to become specific with a new AD whose name reportedly could be Wisconsin deputy AD Sean Frazier.
Although athletics director Jack Swarbrick called media reports that Notre Dame will play UConn in Fenway Park in 2014 "inaccurate," there were no reports saying that it would definitely happen. Fenway wants to host college football. UConn would jump at the opportunity. Talks date to Jeff Hathaway. No, there haven't been hard-core negotiations, money, tickets, etc. Yes, we have to see how Notre Dame's move to the ACC affects its scheduling. Still, it's a much better bet than Bobby Valentine returning as Red Sox manager.
"I am sorry to see them go," UConn President Susan Herbst responded in an email last week after Notre Dame announced its Big East departure. "I hope we can figure out how to play them still, in special games, even when they have left the conference."
In retrospect, that probably was foreshadowing.