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April 04, 2004

UConn Is Yukon No More

This essay was written by College Athletics Clips Editor Nick Infante, who has been a UConn Huskies fan—especially when they have good teams—for four decades.

I was born and bred in Connecticut, and I am a proud graduate of the University of Connecticut—fondly known as UConn.

After living in Connecticut until my late 20’s, I decided to move to California in the 80’s, seeking fame, fortune and California girls. I spent three years in California, living in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.

In conversation with Californians, I would mention that I went to UConn, and most of them got a blank look on their face. Then they would ask what it was like to go to college in Canada (as in the Yukon Territory).

I quickly learned that UConn had about a zero awareness factor west of the Rockies.

Fast forward two decades. I now reside in Northern New Jersey. We are about 150 miles from UConn.

A lot of kids around here wear UConn sports regalia. The Huskies are one of the most frequently picked nicknames in the local basketball leagues.

It amazes me that so many New Jersey kids are interested in attending UConn. No matter that New Jersey has a fine state university of its own—Rutgers University. Many parents are dismayed that they might be paying tens of thousands in out of state fees that would not be necessary if their kids stayed in state at Rutgers.

College admissions professionals claim that a school’s athletics success has no bearing on applications and admissions.

I don’t know about that.

What I do know is that in the past decade or so people have reacted far more positively when I say that I am a UConn graduate. Admittedly, much of the interest is associated with UConn’s hugely successful men’s and women’s basketball teams. However, I have also detected a definite perception that UConn’s overall academic pedigree has improved along with—or because of—the basketball successes. Go figure.

But UConn was not always a basketball powerhouse.

It wasn’t long ago, in the late 70’s, that UConn was chronically mediocre, suffering repeated beatings by Georgetown and Syracuse. Georgetown coach John Thompson and the scowling center Patrick Ewing became UConn’s arch enemies.

Now, UConn can’t beat Georgetown enough to please the Husky faithful.

It would be too easy to point to the new coaches—Jim Calhoun for the men and Geno Auriemma for the women—as the sources of UConn’s basketball success. They are the figureheads, but several other factors contributed: the birth of the Big East (with its attendant TV coverage), recruiting successes built on recruiting successes, the construction of the Hartford Civic Center--and Gampel Arena on the UConn campus, the demise of the Hartford Whalers and, most significantly, the rabid adoration of an entire state’s worth of basketball fans.

Now the UConn men and women are poised to win national championships in the same year.

If so, there will be no mistaking UConn for Yukon any more.