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Manuel's message speaks volumes

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published 01/31/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 01/30/2013 11:29 PM

UConn athletic director Warde Manuel called it "a conversation." Other team and campus sources say it was a monologue, not a dialogue, complete with Manuel in full throat, rattling the walls.

This much we know: Manuel addressed the UConn football players not long after the season ended and let them know, loudly and clearly, that the season that had just transpired would never, ever happen again.

Manuel confirmed that the "end of the year meeting" happened during a conversation prior to the women's basketball game Tuesday night.

"I needed for them (the players) to understand that they have themselves to look at," Manuel said.

Team and campus sources said they'd never seen him so animated.

"As a former student-athlete, I wanted them to recognize that it takes work, it's not just going to happen because we want it to happen," he said. "They understood. It was a good conversation."

Manuel said his speech was impromptu.

"I wasn't really there to say that. Just a spur of the moment thing. I went there to talk to them and it evolved into what it is," Manuel said. "Look, I'm not saying anything different than Paul (coach Paul Pasqualoni) and the staff say to them all the time.

"I wanted them to know that I love them and care about them. But I also expected that they would take the feeling they had at the end of the year and remember it, learn from it and work in the offseason on the field and academically to make sure we're in a good position in the fall."

Opinions on campus vary about Manuel's decision to address the team. Surely, as athletic director, it is his right. Some, however, believe he overstepped his bounds. Others say the players had it coming, figuring that if they could beat Louisville, they shouldn't lose to Western Michigan.

Either way, the story here is Manuel's urgency. Lesson to be learned: Don't ever doubt football's significance to UConn's future. Perhaps some of you view that as a blinding flash of obvious.

Others, though, have whispered that perhaps it's time UConn dropped football and focused on the two basketball teams and hockey's emergence into Hockey East. It would preserve some old basketball rivalries and save money that could be used for the increase in scholarships that hockey - and the requisite number of women's scholarships to satisfy Title IX - will require.

"I don't even respond to that," Manuel said, indicating football is here to stay.

All of which makes UConn a curious place. The sport it needs the most to succeed isn't the sport that commands the passion of state fans. Rentschler Field wasn't full once last season. Names of football players aren't nearly as familiar. Connecticut, while no Kentucky or North Carolina, is still a basketball state first. And yet it needs football to succeed to find a suitable resting place among all the conference realignment.

Even UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma said after Tuesday's game that the more football wins, the better it is for everyone in the athletic department.

Manuel's urgency with the football players should tell us this much: Anyone who cares about UConn sports needs to throw as much support behind football as possible. UConn has suffered in the past from too much polarization, led by absurd backbiting between men's and women's basketball. Happily, Kevin Ollie's emergence has given peace a chance.

The larger point: Regardless of what anyone thinks about football - off-campus stadium, boring offense, occasional dull schedule, etc. - it's the sport that needs the most attention. More people need to go to the games. The reward for success is significantly greater than the rewards from any other program.

Look at it this way: Basketball of both genders has combined for 10 national championships, and it's delivered UConn to nowhere higher than purgatory.

Hate that all you want. It's still the best proof yet that football is king, even if the support here is tepid at best.

Bravo to Manuel for addressing and then undressing the players with his voice and his passion. Hope the coaches were listening, too.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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