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Did You See That?!: A Call for Division I Lacrosse at Connecticut

There are five schools in Connecticut that play Division I lacrosse. None of them are the University of Connecticut.

Michael Heiman

Do you read this site's fancy pants links post every day -- "Lacrosse the Internet"? You should; it's kind of the most important thing ever written on the Internet. There are all kinds of good stuff in that daily piece, and rather than watch it exist on the periphery, I'm going to make it even more important than it already is: Every day I'll pull out a story from the links post and expand a little upon it. It's called "Did You See That?!" and it'll happen as long as I remember to write it.

Link Post: June 17, 2013
Story: "In changing conference landscape, UConn lacrosse would be asset," Connecticut Post

Connecticut is a weird place, especially when it comes to its relationship with lacrosse. I grew up in the southeastern part of the state and now work in the southwestern end, two experiences that couldn't be any more disparate. My roots are in an area that still focuses much on agriculture and barely keeping up with contemporary society (the 4-H cult is still an exciting thing to do out east) while the fancy pants gold coast has numerous places to buy Aston Martins because reasons. The biggest difference between the two ends of the state is its relationship to lacrosse: Fairfield County has a long history with the game, producing talent all over the place and generally dominating interscholastic lacrosse in Connecticut; New London, Tolland, and Windham County are slowly coming around to the sport but dragging -- on the whole -- behind their peers (at least at the public school level). That's the important backdrop to addressing the issue surrounding the University of Connecticut not sponsoring Division I men's lacrosse: The state, itself, is a lacrosse schizophrenic, and with a relatively small population of in-state players, UConn is stuck in a tough spot when it comes to making decisions around putting the game on its roll.

Kevin Duffy wrote a piece in the Connecticut Post recently, addressing the lack of Division I lacrosse at the state's flagship institution and wondering aloud what it would take for the school to step to the fore and provide a men's analogue to its burgeoning women's program. As it stands currently, not much appears to be happening on the lacrosse front in terms of the school offering the sport any time soon:

Today, Brameier [Darien High School head boy's lacrosse coach] has coached 70 All-Americans at Darien, among the nation's most accomplished high school programs. The game has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly in Connecticut.

And UConn still has a club team.

"It's a shame that we have over 80 high school varsity teams (in Connecticut) and we don't have a men's program at the No. 1 state school to go with it," Brameier said.

Most likely, it will remain a shame for the foreseeable future. A UConn athletic department spokesman said the school is "aware of the sport's popularity at the collegiate level and the state level," but plans to institute varsity men's lacrosse "are not on the front burner."

Duffy meanders a bit from here, positing the potential for UConn to enter the men's lacrosse medium should the Big Ten offer the school a spot on the conference's roster, but the meat of Duffy's piece lies in the potential for UConn to do big things on the lacrosse field if the athletic department signs off on the program. This is the problem for UConn with respect to men's lacrosse: Everything is built on if. If isn't necessarily a reason to avoid an opportunity, but it does guide the discussion:

  • If UConn can keep its best in-state players home. The in-state tuition that UConn can provide lessens the blow of handing outpartial scholarships (or even having to give scholarships to in-state players), but it's not like UConn is Princeton or Yale or Virginia. Connecticut has a long tradition of exporting players to some of the best schools in the country, and UConn would need to totally change that culture. It's unclear how in-state tuition changes that formula (hypothetically it's a boon), but when competitors provide some of the best educations in the nation (not to knock a UConn education, but it's not Duke or Harvard), it doesn't totally change the game.
  • If UConn can find a lacrosse home. The AAC doesn't look like it's going to sponsor men's lacrosse any time soon, so that means UConn is going to need to find an associated membership somewhere unless the school ends up in the Big Ten or ACC or any other permutation you can think of (that calamity is a primary concern with important secondary items, both of which I'm ignoring). Does UConn want to make the investment lacrosse will need to play as an associate member in the Big East (if the Catholic schools will let them play), NEC, a gutted ECAC (if it still exists), or the MAAC? Those are tough decisions to make, and entering a league as a fresh program usually carries with it growing pains. A sense of place for Connecticut is more important than simply having happy thoughts; it matters, especially for a new program trying to cut a path in an area of the nation with established programs. I'm sure UConn would be attractive for many conferences, but are these conferences UConn wants (and needs) to be in?
  • If UConn can raise the funds to make this happen.Let's face it: Basketball comes first at Connecticut -- men's and women's -- and football likely slides in behind. That's where dollars are going first. Then, UConn is likely going to throw cash at some of its more prominent teams -- soccer, ice hockey (which will be entering Hockey East and require a significant investment), baseball, etc. -- before lacrosse has its budget looked at. All are supposedly even, but some are more even than others (if that makes sense). Will club alumni come to the front to help? Can UConn tap into the money truck that is Fairfield County to get things up and running? That's a big, big if, and donations itself -- seeing Boston College as a template -- doesn't necessarily get a program high on an athletic director's "Should we add?" agenda (but it does help). This is an investment in every sense of the word, and it's the intended "forever" kind rather than a short to make a quick buck.

These are tough hurdles to overcome, and unlike some other schools that have sponsored Division I lacrosse in the recent past -- Marquette, Richmond, etc. -- UConn isn't necessarily looking for secondary benefits for sponsoring men's lacrosse -- increased name recognition, entrance into potential student applicant pools from the northeast, trying to cut out a niche to find athletic success, coming into equivalence with peer schools in athletic offerings, etc. UConn is what it is, and that kind of entrenched athletic behavior makes the ifs for UConn difficult barriers in the near future.

UConn does, however, have a lot of things going in their favor if they choose to pursue this: The game is growing rapidly in the state; as a big state school, UConn could be an attractive destination for the right coach; an in-state pipeline of talent could evolve fairly rapidly if the resources are there; the school would have five in-state competitors to play -- Fairfield, Hartford, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, and Yale -- as well as regionally-relevant teams -- Bryant, Brown, Providence, Massachusetts, Harvard, UMass-Lowell, Boston University, and Holy Cross -- to keep costs down and travel budgets in check; there is plenty of local summer showcases in the region to assist with leveling recruiting budgets; and people in Connecticut generally care about UConn (the unaffiliateds, anyway). There is opportunity -- I'm not sure it's a three-to-five year curve as Duffy notes, but UConn could have its self in good shape in a decade -- but the trail to Division I men's lacrosse in Storrs isn't an easy grade.

It's an interesting case, on one hand rolling with the notion of "We'd be stupid not to do this!" and on the other "Let's keep pumping the brakes." Division I men's lacrosse makes sense at UConn, but I'm not sure it makes the most sense right now.