Off to its worst start since 1991, the winless University of Connecticut football team made a unique move Monday, firing head coach Paul Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone after just four games.
Changing coaching personnel isn’t new in collegiate athletics. Changing them after just four games is unusual. The University of Southern California fired Lane Kiffin after five games on Sunday.
Pasqualoni was under pressure from the start this season. His Huskies went 5-7 the past two years and as conference realignment swept through the nation the past few years, Connecticut was one of the schools left on the sideline by the major conferences. Why? It’s hard to say.
But most of the conference realignment was done with football in mind and the Huskies haven’t been that attractive a candidate the past two seasons. And an 0-4 start this season with a 33-18 loss to Division I-AA Towson University in the opener and a lifeless 41-12 loss to Buffalo on Saturday has not helped.
UConn announced Monday that T.J. Weist will serve as interim head football coach for the remainder of the season. Weist is in his first year as a member of the Husky coaching staff as offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. Weist has been coaching for 25 years, most recently as the wide receivers coach at Cincinnati. He has also coached on staffs at Michigan (1990-93) and Alabama (1988-89). He played at Alabama from 1985-87.
“The timing of change is never perfect, but change was necessary,” said Warde Manuel, UConn’s athletic director. “I’m changing now because we have to have different leadership to get different results.”
Susan Herbst, UConn’s president, praised the effort of the UConn players and urged fans to support the players.
“What cannot be lost here is how incredibly proud we are of our student-athletes. They are outstanding young men in the midst of a very tough season,” Herbst said. “Being a Division I athlete and a student is an enormous challenge, and we know how hard they are working and how deeply they care about succeeding for their university.”
She then addressed the fans. “What this team needs now as much as anything is the support of Husky fans everywhere. As we saw at our last home game (against Michigan), the amazing energy and highly-charged spirit of our fans breathes life into this team and that must continue and be repeated again and again. There is no substitute. Support from fans lifts players up and keeps a team going,” Herbst said.
Still, Weist can’t go out and pick up some new personnel off the waiver wire. He must try to get the Huskies back on the winning track using the personnel currently on the roster. UConn has one of the worst offenses in the nation, ranked 119th out of 123 FBS schools. The Huskies are averaging 272.5 yards a game. Their running game is the worst in the country at 45.8 yards a game.
And Manuel isn’t looking for any moral victories. He is looking for improvement and wins.
“I told the team, and I want to make sure everybody understands that I’m not throwing in the towel on this season,” Manuel said. “To the contrary, I want this team to wake up, play hard, and play tough, exciting football that we’ve come to know. We have players on this team that can play, that can win, but we must return to the fundamentals that have led to our success.
“I believe the talent is here. We’ve played in spurts this year,” Manuel said. “In the Maryland game, I thought we played very well in the first half. In the Michigan game, we played very well the whole game. I believe in Coach Weist, coming in with a different style and looking at different things, to change up the perspective and change the focus and get this season back on the right track.”
Manuel did say that Weist could be a candidate for the permanent job if he can win ballgames. The Huskies have eight games left beginning with a home game against South Florida on Oct. 12 at Rentschler Field.
“The numbers will speak for themselves, and at that time we’ll see what goes on,” Manuel said. “He has to win. If he wants any shot at the job he has to win.”
The athletic director said this decision to change coaches wasn’t driven by conference realignment. “Our fans want to win, the team wants to win,” Manuel said. “This is being done because the time for change is now. I didn’t sit back and think well we need to do this for conference realignment purposes. We don’t think that way at UConn. We want success and to be exceptional in everything we do.”
“We’ll take this week to refine our fundamentals, get back to playing solid football,” Weist said. “Get back to coming across the line and hitting an opponent right in the mouth. And doing it play after play and playing tough football that executes. I can stand up and be as fired up as I want to be, I can be enthusiastic and I can go crazy every single day, I can bring energy every day. But if we don’t win, if we don’t execute, it doesn’t matter what style I have.
“Warde said it exactly right, it’s about production, it’s about execution, it’s about the score at the end of the game. I think we played with great passion against Michigan, and sometimes it’s easy to get up for those games. We have to approach every game like that,” Weist said.
According his employment contract, Pasqualoni will receive from UConn a $750,000 payment in full satisfaction of all financial obligations of his contract.
Pasqualoni was in his third year leading the Huskies and his collegiate coaching record is 151-93-1 with previous stops at Western Connecticut State, Syracuse and UConn. He was 10-18 with the Huskies.
He led Syracuse to 107 wins, four Big East titles and nine bowl games. He spent five seasons in the NFL with Dallas (2006-07, 2010) and Miami (2008-09) before coming to UConn in 2011. He is the all-time leader in Big East conference wins at 67 and is one of two Big East coaches to win four league titles.