Fiesta Bowl bid a win for former UConn players too
Dan Orlovsky is an NFL quarterback. He plays a tough position in a tough league, and as a result, needs to be equally tough on his own.
But he has a softer side, too. And when his former college team, the UConn Huskies, clinched their first-ever BCS berth last week, well, that side surfaced.
''When he made that kick, a wave of emotion came over me, like tears,'' said Orlovsky, now a backup with the Houston Texans. ''I definitely teared up and just started sending text messages out to guys and coaches that were there.''
Indeed, Huskies football has that affect on its players, past and present. And when Dave Teggart hit the 52-yard field goal last week that clinched a win over South Florida, and a BCS bowl berth for the Huskies, it was the coming of age for a program that many never gave a chance.
Orlovsky was Connecticut's first big recruit just 10 years ago, after the program decided to make the move from Division I-AA to Division I. He was there when UConn went 2-9 in 2001, playing in the 16,000-seat Memorial Stadium, where the locker rooms were in a small brick building marked ''Facilities,'' and trailers were used for coaches' offices.
He was there when the team opened the 40,000-seat Rentschler Field in East Hartford with a win over Indiana in 2003. And he was the MVP of the Huskies' first-ever bowl game, a 39-10 win over Toledo in the 2004 Motor City Bowl.
And though he never led the program to a BCS berth - that probably wasn't even a thought back then - just watching the Huskies win their way into the Fiesta Bowl indeed felt like an arrival after a decade-long journey.
''It was,'' he said, ''really neat.''
Linebacker Alfred Fincher, who played with Orlovsky on those D-I teams before his own four-year NFL career, doesn't think most fans realize just how far the Huskies have come over the past decade. Until 2006, when the team built its $50-million indoor training facility, players had to help shovel snow, so the team could use its practice fields in December.
''It wasn't easy back then,'' he said, to envision the state-of-the-art facilities, the championships and bowl games that coach Randy Edsall promised would eventually come.
''Everything that Randy was preaching,'' Fincher said, looking back, ''has just happened.''
And then some. After all, the Fiesta will be UConn's fifth bowl since 2004, and they have a 3-1 mark in those games so far. Last season, they pounded a quality SEC opponent, South Carolina, 20-7, in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, and in 2009, they blasted Buffalo, 38-20, in the International Bowl.
Indianapolis Colts tailback Donald Brown was the engine behind that International Bowl win. In his last game with the Huskies, he rushed for 261 yards and polished up his NFL resume.
Looking back on it now, Brown said he decided on Connecticut because of what he saw the program do for players such as Orlovsky and Fincher. Brown, UConn's all-time leading rusher, helped the Huskies to a share of their first Big East championship in 2007, starting a string of four consecutive bowl appearances.
''Coach Edsall had a great vision, and I think that is what is important about that program,'' Brown said. ''Guys believe in Coach Edsall, and I think that is why they have been so successful.''
The players, of course, bristle when they read that Connecticut doesn't belong in a major bowl game, or hear descriptions of the team as a bunch of upstarts from a Northeast basketball school.
''Oklahoma and these other schools have decades of history; we have 10 years,'' Fincher said. ''So, what we're doing is way better than what they're doing. Give us a 100 years of history, and we might have seven national titles.''
Tailback Jordan Todman - who has taken the torch from Brown admirably, having just been named the Big East Offensive Player of the Year - said the Huskies know that when they go to Arizona, they won't just be playing for themselves. They'll be playing for Orlovsky, Fincher, Brown and everyone else who believed way back when.
''They're just as much a part of this team as they were before,'' Todman said. ''We're definitely standing on their shoulders and following in their footsteps.''