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UConn becoming a football school, too

10/3/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Lawrence Wilson knows something about football-crazed towns.

Wilson grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He attended Paul W. Bryant High School.

When he arrived at Connecticut to play linebacker, he didn't get the sense around campus that football mattered. UConn was a basketball school, after all, with the men's and women's teams winning multiple national championships.

That's starting to change as the Huskies (5-0) keep winning.

"Before, when I first came here, you couldn't even get your classmates or other students to tell you, 'Good game,' or hear them say they were proud of the football team," said Wilson, a redshirt sophomore. "Now we get that all the time."

Saturday's game between Connecticut and North Carolina (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) would be a heck of a basketball matchup. But you don't need Tyler Hansbrough or Hasheem Thabeet to make this meeting interesting. The Huskies are ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25 and might just be the team to beat in the Big East after South Florida's loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday night. The 3-1 Tar Heels, in their second year under coach Butch Davis, won at Miami last weekend to stamp themselves as serious contenders in the ACC's Coastal Division.

This is the kind of intense game Wilson grew up watching. He was overlooked by SEC and ACC schools, drawing his only other scholarship offer from Memphis. He became UConn's first-ever signee from Alabama mainly because his father, Willie, grew up in Stamford, Conn., and still has family in the area.

The guy whom teammates call "Bama" made perhaps the biggest play of the Huskies' season so far last week at Louisville, picking off a Hunter Cantwell pass and returning it 45 yards for the winning touchdown with 2:45 left. In the days that followed, he found out how much the UConn football fan base had grown.

"I had a lot of people congratulating me," he said. "I have a whole lot of new friends on Facebook and MySpace.

"I feel like the fans here are great. They come to every game and they're pulling for us. It's just like a Southern school now."

Connecticut still won't be mistaken for the Crimson Tide, but it is cresting. The Huskies have played in Division I-A/FBS for just eight years and are now ranked for the second straight season. A win Saturday would qualify them for their second straight bowl game, a first in program history. Five-year old Rentschler Field is sold out for the next two home games against Cincinnati and West Virginia. Season ticket sales topped 28,000 this season, compared to around 4,000 in 2001.

"I notice a big difference, especially since my freshman year," fifth-year senior defensive tackle Rob Lunn said. "Even though we won the Motor City Bowl, we were still a basketball school. Now, the football team is starting to get a little bit of credit."

Credit and respect are still touchy issues around UConn football. Supporters of the program often feel the Huskies are ignored or unappreciated nationally. The players feed off their underdog status despite their ranking, their large contingent of in-state media and the fact that, by Saturday, they will have played on ESPN or ESPN2 for three straight weeks.

"I honestly don't think our guys really care about what ESPN or the rest of the media thinks," Lunn said. "We're a tight-knit group and we've been playing football here -- at least from my perspective -- for five years without the credit. So we're going to just keep on plugging away."

The interest and attention are increasing. It's up to the players to do the rest.

"It feels pretty good to get recognized now," Wilson said. "But it doesn't really mean anything if we don't go out and play well."