If I’m being honest here, I don’t hold much love for Connecticut. As a native Massachusetts boy (masshole), the entire state of Connecticut occupies that strange, soulless, transition area between the brash arrogance of New York, and the coarse, blue collar sensibility of the Bay State. Perpetually congested with traffic and void of the natural beauty of states like New Hampshire or Maine, I doubt many would lose a wink of sleep if the Nutmeg State seceded from New England entirely. Already soured by other visits to Northeast schools, frankly, I had low expectations for a trip to UConn.
But as the College Football season dwindles into December, pickings become slim, and with a Saturday home game on the calendar, this would be a perfect opportunity to sample a game in Storrs, without having to sacrifice a pristine October weekend. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even get to visit Storrs, because UConn had made the brilliant decision to ship football games off campus into the barren wasteland of East Hartford – a half hour drive from the flagship campus. They are hardly an exception here; a similar mindset has infected a few schools in the Northeast, as Rutgers and UMass have made similar blunders with their respective programs.
To put it bluntly, the 2014 version of the UConn squad is hardly an attractive draw. Sporting a 2-9 record, the Huskies are a far cry from their 2010 glory year where they finished the regular season 8-4 and snuck into a Fiesta Bowl berth while a member of the now dismantled Big East conference. Led by first year head coach Bob Diaco, the former defensive coordinator of Notre Dame, the Huskies were hopeful for their third win on this weekend as the visiting SMU Mustangs sported the worst record in the FBS. Winless in their first 11 games, the Ponies had fired head coach June Jones, and interim coach Tom Mason would be manning the headset. If there was a single silver lining on the day, at least one team had to win.
My friend Tyler would be along for the adventure, and after joining me for the Oklahoma & TCU doubleheader earlier in the year, he was seasoned enough to lower expectations for UConn Football. The drive from his house in Suffield is a short one, and with tickets already secured ahead of time, we spend a few extra minutes “tailgating” inside his Ford Explorer with a bottle of whiskey and bag of Doritos while a steady drizzle turns the grass parking lot into a mud pit. As the clock winds down towards kickoff, we set off toward the grandstands of Rentschler Field, still getting frisked on the way in by inane security proceedings. Clearly, a scarcely attended football game on a rainy Saturday in December is a prime target for terrorist activity.
While the UConn basketball programs (both men’s and women’s) enjoy considerable fanfare, even on a national level, it’s obvious that the football program here gets a distant second billing at best. The grandstands are all but vacant on a grey, misty Saturday afternoon and half the concession stands are abandoned. We have our choice of seating options, and take shelter under an overhang during heavier bouts of rain.
Surveying the stands I, shockingly, cannot locate a single Mustangs fan that had made the sojourn from Dallas for this heated American Athletic conference rivalry tilt. It’s proof positive of the ridiculousness of conference realignments that pit teams with no historical or geographic nexus against one another. The same money grabbing, incongruent, logic which put Rutgers and Maryland into the Big 10. I’d also love to get a whiff of whatever paint can the bean counter at the turnstiles was huffing, because the official stated crowd of 22,921 has the comma in the wrong place.
On the field, the game proves to be an entertaining mess. The ball slick with rain, special teams errors abound – punters fumble with the ball, and kickers whiff on extra point attempts. All told, there are eight turnovers between the two squads, each of them doing their best to thwart victory. Fortunately for the few fans willing to brave the elements, UConn controls the first half. They punch in three touchdowns on a couple of sustained drives, and enter the locker rooms comfortably in command 20-6.
In the second half, however, the Huskies collapse. They cough the ball up three times in the second half alone, adding further misery to their woes with a botched field goal. On the other side of the ball, SMU dual threat quarterback Matt Davis explodes. He scrambles for 191 yards and a touchdown, while feeding rumbling rusher Prescott Line for another pair of touchdowns. The Ponies reel off 21 unanswered points to upend the Huskies, trotting away with the first win of their dismal season to end up at 1-11. In a fitting end to a sloppy game, however, SMU incurred not one but two procedural penalties while trying to line up in victory formation. With their last win dating back to November of 2013, evidently they were a little rusty…
After the game, we herd into Bears Smokehouse in Windsor for a post game feast. Founded by Kansas City native Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, the smokehouse is reputed to be one of the finest BBQ establishments in the state. Served cafeteria style, the menu features a standard array of barbecue offerings, along with a few novelty items like “Paw Paws Poutine” and “Moink Balls”. Perhaps the most interesting item on the board is the “Bears BBQ Sandwich Challenge”- an 8lb, $75, quivering mass of meat that comes free for the select few able to tackle it within the 45 minute time cap. For those daring enough, there’s also a $500 prize attached to the sandwich if you can “Beat the Bear” (McDonald himself) at quaffing the offering, no small feat considering he is one of the top ranked competitive eaters nationally.
I order a bit more restrained, opting instead for my usual humble combination of pork ribs and brisket (they were out of sausage). My request for slices off the brisket point (the fatty end) flummoxes the surly counter woman, however, and we spend the next few minutes debating the finer points of brisket butchery to accommodate my audacious request. Patiently enduring a few of her audible groans, the matter is finally settled and I slide on down the line. The food might be southern inspired here, but the hospitality is decidedly New England gruff. Unfazed, I add a massive beef rib to my burgeoning aluminum tray – a rare treat outside of Texas, and too tempting to pass up.
Retreating to a table, we dive into the carnivorous offering while Tyler’s kids provide entertainment by smearing mac and cheese all over their faces. Bites of brisket are well rendered with a pronounced black bark, but could use a bit more punch from the smoke (they use a gas fired Southern Pride). The massive beef rib falls effortlessly from the bone into strands of unctuous morsels. The texture is there, but, once again, the smoke is lacking. Regardless, this is decent barbecue that could do well anywhere, and by pedantic New England standards I’d call it excellent.
In the end the trip to UConn was exactly what I expected it to be, mostly mediocre. It’s never going to be a college football hotbed, and to think otherwise would be delusional. But spending a weekend with a lifelong friend is never a bad thing, and I’d gladly endure another miserable December game in East Hartford again if it means drinking whiskey in a muddy parking lot with a best friend.
Special thanks to my friend Tyler and his wife Kristy, as always, for their incredible hospitality and loyal following. Can’t wait to hit another road show with you next year!
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