EAST HARTFORD — He said he is sick and tired of talking about what the UConn football coaching search is going to be. Sick and tired of watching game after game to keep track of how potential candidates are performing.
"I want to see somebody's face," Warde Manuel said. "I'm ready to talk to candidates."
Between an appearance on WTIC and a press conference, the UConn athletic director must have used the word "ramp up" five times Saturday before the Huskies routed Memphis 45-10 in the final game of its 3-9 season.
Yes, the most important coaching search of Manuel's career is going to ramp up Sunday. Interviews. Decisions. Offers. It's no longer future tense. It's present tense. This whole thing has to go from 0-to-60 quicker than a 2002 Lingenfelter Chevrolet Corvette, yet at the same time it can't spin out of control and end up in another ditch named Pasqualoni.
Manuel was honorable. Out of respect to the 14 seniors who patched together three successive victories to end what had been a humiliating 0-9 start, out of respect to other schools with their own designs, Manuel kept his word. He didn't undercut interim coach T.J. Weist after firing Paul Pasqualoni on Sept. 30 by running his search before the final whistle. He wasn't caught interviewing anybody 15 miles south of South Bend in October or 30 miles east of East Lansing in November. Manuel allowed a program to regain its sense of dignity, allowed a team that caught offensive fire with redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Cochran to regain its competitive ballast.
Manuel also has demonstrated that he is willing to play the big boy's game. The list of candidates we are hearing heading into Sunday is a strong one. … You already know about Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson, Ball State coach Pete Lembo and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Add Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Towson's Rob Ambrose and UConn interim coach T.J. Weist also fit into the equation in some form.
That is not an official list. Manuel wouldn't go anywhere near the names. Another candidate or two always could surface. So many names have been floated out there, and already we've established that Lane Kiffin, Houston Nutt, Don Brown, Noel Mazzone, Ron Prince, Karl Dorell, Turner Gill and Jeff Tedford have been ruled out. Add Eric Mangini, Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn and Toledo coach Matt Campbell to that list. If Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen were to be fired — not expected to happen — he would certainly be most seriously considered.
Despite direct reports that Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster was set to interview, however, I'm told he is not on the list of candidates.
Did you see Clawson's Bowling Green team rip undefeated Northern Illinois for the MAC title Friday night? Clawson, a Williams grad, was a ball of intellectual energy on the sidelines. On Saturday night, Narduzzi coached the No. 1 defense in the nation against Herman's No. 3 offense in the nation. There are some exciting possibilities.
If Wake Forest or another school beats Manuel out on a candidate, if somebody doesn't think highly enough of the American, if a coach gets a payday to stay at his school, the pool of candidates still looks deep enough to withstand it. Manuel doesn't have to get all of them, folks. Only one.
Clearly, the pool is superior to the search that Jeff Hathaway put together when Randy Edsall deserted UConn. Look, a coach's resume and his football IQ are not the same thing as being the right fit. Pasqualoni is a strong football mind, yet one whose time also had past as a big-time college head coach. By contrast, Garrick McGee, the one wild card in Hathaway's search, might have been a hotshot Arkansas offensive coordinator, but he has proved as UA head coach not to be ready.
Too late? Too soon? That's not good enough. To get the right coach at the peak of his game means you've got to get into the fight.
"Look, I'm well aware of the jobs that are open, well aware of other places people might be interested in that are in my pool of candidates," Manuel said. "When I sit down, I'm not interested in playing back and forth with people. I don't play games. You make a choice. This is what UConn has to offer and people make the decisions they make. I'm so pleased with where we are in the pool of candidates that if one or two are not available it is what it is at that point."
Manuel said he is not putting a timetable on the decision, although obviously he wants to get it done faster than not. This could happen in a week. If it drags on more than three weeks, Houston Nutt, we've have a problem. Not because of recruiting, there's a dead period between Dec. 16 and Jan. 15. A long delay means that Manuel is not hearing the magic word — yes — from the right guy.
We can thank Jim Grobe's resignation from Wake Forest for ramping this quickly to full throttle. Wake is looking at many of the same names as UConn and already has begun the interview process.
There will be cloak-and-dagger stuff in the days ahead, negotiating ploys — there always is. A big reason Manuel was hired, UConn President Susan Herbst once said, is that he's big enough and smart enough not to be intimidated by anything in major college athletics. Now is his time to show how big.
A program needs to establish itself as the best at something. And although scoring points is a hoot and certainly I cranked on Edsall for his three yards and his cloud of vanilla, winning boring is eminently preferable over always losing exciting. Through the years, UConn has prided itself on its defense and put a good number of those players in the NFL. Then again, major colleges have overwhelmingly hired offensive minds for the head job in recent years. It might not be the worst idea in the world to hire a current defensive coordinator as the new head coach, keep Weist and Shane Day around and get out of their way on that side of the ball. Fresno State, Arizona State and Louisville have done that with success.
"I think I saw 27 of 31 open jobs last year went to coaches with offensive experience," said Manuel, who played on the defensive line at Michigan. "I'm equal opportunity, with the exception of special teams coordinator. No offense to special teams coordinators. But I'm open to both sides of the ball. Both Turner and Jeff [his hires at Buffalo] came from the offensive side, but that is no indication I'm an offensive-minded AD."
Wake Forest vs. UConn will be fascinating comparison in how UConn stands in the realm of college football. Wake's a small private school in a Power 5 conference vs. a large state university out of the Power 5 loop. The ACC obviously has significant advantages. Yet if a coach wants to coach at, say, Notre Dame or Michigan one day, if you got to Wake and lose for five years, the next job isn't South Bend. The next job might be I-AA. On the other hand, if a guy wins a couple of American titles, he might get a big call in five years.
As far as money, UConn will pay. Lembo and Clawson are earning in the $375,000-$400,000 range. The new UConn coach figures to sign a five-year deal in the $10 million range. Not Nick Saban numbers, as Manuel said. Not MAC numbers, either.
Only 22,163 fans showed last week against Rutgers and only 17,086, the smallest crowd in the 11-year history of the Rent, arrived for Memphis. This must change. Yes, football is the gold mine. But there is a flip side. Look at Temple. It cut seven sports the other day. If you don't draw, don't pull in the revenue, those 85 scholarships can be a drain.
Manuel, UConn football needs to stand up and make a statement.
Weist and the UConn coaching staff clearly wanted to make one to Manuel to remember them. Only three weeks ago, folks were arguing whether UConn was the worst team in the nation. Granted, Memphis is not strong, but the Huskies smoked them. Casey Cochran set the school record with 461 yards passing and Geremy Davis set the UConn record with 15 catches. Asked how badly he wanted to be the coach at UConn, Weist answered, "I couldn't want it anything more in my life besides my family."
Let's see if some of those big names off a strong list of candidates will say the same.