Dom Amore: Jim Mora’s challenge to rekindle enthusiasm for UConn football

STORRS — Jim Mora walked from the field and looked surprised, rather delighted to see a throng of reporters and cameras waiting for him.

“It’s nice to have some microphones back out here,” Mora said. “You guys haven’t gotten to see a lot, so our fans haven’t gotten to read or see a lot.”

This is one, possibly the least important, but one of the more telling of differences between coaching football at UConn and other FBS programs, where year-round, saturation coverage can give a coach a different kind of headache. Of course, UConn is a basketball school, even when basketball was in a down cycle, and Mora knew that when he came to Storrs in 2021. With the men’s team repeating as national champ, the women’s team getting back to the Final Four and media outlets stretched thin, there wasn’t much attention left to pay to the football Huskies spring practices, so little, the coach seemed to miss us.

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This is the fact of football life at UConn, and it can only be partially changed by winning games. That does not mean that worthwhile things cannot be accomplished in football, or that there isn’t enough passion to go around. It’s just going to take a certain level of determination to get there, and an understanding that football never going to be king of Horse Barn, or any other nearby hill.

The Fan Fest, which concluded the spring sessions, fell on a cold, gloomy Sunday, keeping the crowd down, and keeping those who came bundled up and shivering, far from the street festival atmosphere on a Friday night that was Mora’s first spring event. It fed further, perhaps, into the notion this program just doesn’t catch many breaks.

“There are things that bother you,” Mora said. “You can’t let them slow you down or stop you. There are definitely challenges here, but there are opportunities as well. We all know what the challenges are, I don’t have to repeat them, they’re obvious. I focus on the opportunity. You feel rewarded when you overcome those challenges. That’s what we’re all about.”

Mora, 62, is entering Year Three at UConn. Two years ago, he infused the football program, the campus and parts of the state with new enthusiasm for football, after a decade of dismal seasons. And he made good, leading he dramatic turnaround from 1-11 in 2021 to 6-6 and a bowl invitation in 2022. Last spring, there were high hopes, not only for the upcoming season, but for an invitation to the Big 12, football promised land. It was excruciatingly close, thought to be a done deal, but it fell through at the 11th hour. Mora, after weeks of preaching the old control-what-we-can-control sermon, was obviously deflated; he’s only human, and he later said as much. The season ended with a number of close losses and a 3-9 finish, back almost to square one.

Now comes Mora’s third season and in its own way it’s pivotal. No slogans this year. Can he recover some of the excitement that has dissipated?

“This is what I love to do, I love being around these kids,” Mora said. “I love the challenge of coming back off of — that was my worst year as a head coach and in terms of record. Every day’s a new opportunity. At this point’s just every day trying to pour it into these kids.”

As last season was ending, Mora called for more money for name-image-likeness opportunities to be raised. There was some progress, and some indication the Huskies have made a net gain through the transfer portal. They had a number of players visiting on Sunday, and there is likely to be more transfer movement, in both directions.

Things around the program are a little different. Some coaches have left, including John Marinelli and Nick Charlton. Mora gave up the idea of serving as both head coach and defensive coordinator and hired Matt Brock to run the defense. Brock is installing a multiple defense, with use of three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

“It’s helped me immensely,” Mora said. “I felt like it was necessary to fire myself from the defensive coordinator role. I don’t think I was doing a good enough job, or doing a good enough job as head coach. Bringing a guy like Matt Brock in, I love his scheme, I love his intensity. It gives me a sense of comfort, knowing it’s in good hands.”

On offense, Gordon Sammis was moved up from line coach to coordinator, with Brad Robbins as quarterback coach. “Some new wrinkles there,” Mora said. “Gordie is a very, very, very intelligent guy. He has a great grasp of the run game, as we’ve seen, but he has a great understanding of what he wants to do in the passing game.”

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UConn opens the season at Maryland on Aug. 31 and for a couple of months, the state’s attention will be this football team’s to lose. There will always be an element of unrealistic expectations here. This is a state where we have seen men’s and women’s basketball programs rise from obscurity to perennial champions, and they’ve stayed at the top for well over 30 years. It’s not so easy to crack the glass ceiling and become a football blue blood. In fact, it’s probably impossible for UConn to rise that far.

But I’ve gone to the mat repeatedly, and will do so again, believing it’s possible to bring entertaining, relevant football to Connecticut, if goals are kept realistic, like beating Group of Five opponents more frequently, and resources are marshalled effectively. The lousy weather, the scant crowd and the currently murky path to a conference made that harder than usual to envision on Sunday. By all appearances, Mora still sees it and is still pushing.

“We need to be a consistent football team,” he said. “We know we’re going to be in some close games. When we’re in those close games we’ve got to be trained up to we can deliver in those moments.”