STORRS - Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Who, you may ask?
Randy Edsall, of course. In a move that is relatively rare in college football, or in any sport for that matter, the UConn football team and Edsall have reunited.
The Huskies’ old head coach is their new head coach.
After the disappointing tenure of Paul Pasqualoni and the disastrous stint of Bob Diaco, who spent roughly three years each as the Huskies’ head coach in Edsall’s absence, UConn wanted to hire someone it knew could win here.
After his disappointing tenure at Maryland, Edsall took perhaps the only major college football head coaching job that he could.
So is this is marriage of convenience? Or a match made in heaven?
Before a single snap in a game has taken place, it actually has begun to look like the latter. Edsall, along with the new coaching staff he has assembled, have already appeared to energize a program that was losing fans and perhaps losing faith in itself.
The current Huskies have been raving about Edsall, even as he chews them out for a sub-par practice, in part because of the words they’ve received from their predecessors.
“Guys that have played for him in the past have told us, have told me personally, that we’re lucky to have Coach Edsall,” senior linebacker Junior Joseph said. “Guys that I played with two years ago that didn’t have a chance to have Coach Edsall were hitting me up, saying ‘You’re lucky to have him.’
“When you have guys that played for him or wish they played for him tell you that, you’re automatically going to buy in,” Joseph said.
In some ways, it’s not a surprise that the players are buying what Edsall is selling.
He’s already the winningest coach in UConn school history, compiling 74 victories from 1999-2010. He took the Huskies through a complete program upgrade, guiding the Huskies to their first-ever bowl game appearance, and victory, in 2004, and to a BCS bowl game in his final season.
“I was watching the highlights from when UConn played at Notre Dame and beat them in double-overtime,” senior tight end Tommy Myers said, referring to the Huskies’ 2009 victory in South Bend, Indiana. “That tradition, I got goose bumps. That tradition is what we need to bring back. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
One might think athletic buildings on campus would soon be erected to bear his name.
But it was his departure from the program - sending his team back from the 2011 Fiesta Bowl on a plane with the seat reserved for the head coach empty - that tainted Edsall’s legacy at UConn. That day, without informing his team, he flew instead to College Park, Maryland, on his way to accept a head coaching job with the Terrapins.
Coaching Maryland was Edsall’s “dream job,” the Glen Rock, Pennsylvania native said when he was hired there. But Edsall went 22-34 at Maryland, making just two bowl games in five seasons and losing both of them.
Edsall spent the 2016 season as a special assistant with the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
His return to UConn, before it was heralded by the players, had to embraced by the assistant coaches Edsall wanted to hire. It seemingly was, as evidenced by his ability to lure Rhett Lashlee from his job as Auburn’s offensive coordinator to take the same job, for less money, at UConn.
“I know Coach Edsall’s been successful here before,” Lashlee said. “Kind of what drew me here was the excitement of doing something nobody thinks can be done. We were able to do that in 2013 at Auburn. That’s where the fun comes for me. I know he has a plan to take UConn to where he has taken it before, and hopefully even higher.”
Of course, Lashlee’s decision may have had something to do with Edsall allowing him a bit more freedom with the offense than Gus Malzahn may have at Auburn.
“Coach has been great. He does a good job of leading our staff, of setting the standard of expectations. But he lets Billy (Crocker) run the defense and he lets me run the offense,” Lashlee said. “He does a good job of hiring good people and trusting them to do their job.”
Crocker, who came over from Villanova to be the Huskies’ defensive coordinator, has installed a new 3-3-5 defense at UConn. It’s the first time an Edsall-coached team has employed such an approach.
“Coach Edsall is a very structured guy,” Crocker said. “It’s very regimented, it’s very structured. I love that because that’s kind of who I am.”
Now 59, Edsall may still be a disciplinarian who doesn’t permit his players to get too far out of line, but he’s also a coach who admits he has to always adapt.
“Most definitely. Experience is a great teacher. If you don’t allow yourself to continue to learn and grow, you’re never going to be the best you can be,” Edsall said.
“I still don’t know everything. I’m always looking to get better.”
The way the Huskies look on the field during Edsall’s second tenure, however, is going to change. That was clear when he was asked what has changed since his first stint in Storrs.
“We’re in a different conference. That’s first and foremost,” Edsall said, referring to the American Athletic Conference.
“We played a style of play when I was here before that was conducive to winning for where we were at in the development of the program at that time,” Edsall said. “Now, when you come back and assess the conference that we’re playing in and what we have to compete against and what I think we need to do to be successful, that’s going to be different.”
That involved bringing Lashlee into the fold in order to run a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. And getting Crocker on board to help stop offenses of a similar ilk around the league.
“There’s still going to be principles and philosophies that are going to be the same. It’ll be different from a schematic standpoint,” Edsall said. “But in terms of what it takes to win and things you have to do to win and the things you have to do to mold and build young men to be successful, that’s not going to change.”
Translation? Edsall still wants to run the ball well enough to win, and stop the opposition from doing the same.
“My philosophy in football will never change. You win up front,” Edsall said. “If you can win the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage, you’re going to have a better chance of winning the game.”
Although his return has largely shaped the Huskies’ offseason, Edsall winces slightly when the focus turns to the importance of Thursday’s opener and his return to the UConn sidelines.
“It’s not about me. It really isn’t. It’s about those kids,” Edsall said.
Just how much can the Huskies be expected to win in Edsall’s first season back, though?
Diaco’s final season ended with six straight losses and an anemic offense that didn’t score a point for 10 quarters of play. It’s not 100 percent clear if the Huskies have enough talent to turn things around quickly.
“I’m not worried about the talent level. I know we can be a good team because I know as coaches we’re going to hold you accountable. But if we’re going to be a great team, then they’ve got to hold themselves accountable,” Edsall said. “So I’m not real worried about the talent. What I’m worried about is getting guys to play as a team.”
Working as a team, something Edsall has preached since long before getting back to his old office, remains vital to his approach.
“If we can play as 11 every time that we’re out there and guys are going to hold everybody accountable, all the other things will take care of themselves,” Edsall said. “There’s enough talent to win.”