BRIDGEPORT – It’s been in the works for a long time, and now it’s a fact. UConn men, as well as the women, will play basketball in Bridgeport – against Eastern Washington on Dec. 28 at 1 p.m.
“It’s a wonderful moment for our program,” coach Kevin Ollie said, as he appeared at Webster Bank Arena. “We look forward to coming to Bridgeport. My mother-in-law lives here, my wife went to Kolbe-Cathedral. My ties here are very long, and when the athletic department announced this, I got a lot of ticket requests.”
Ollie’s father-in-law, who passed away last week, was also a long-time Bridgeport resident.
“His spirit is right here,” Ollie said. “He loves Bridgeport he loves the community here. It’s just unfortunate he’s not going to be here to see this game … but I know he’s going to be here.”
UConn hasn’t played games “downstate” since the 1980s, when they occasionally played a home game at the New Haven Coliseum. In those days, holding on to state players and generating interest were huge priorities for a program stepping up in class. Today, UConn is a national program, but re-connecting, maintaining and strengthening ties in the far corners of a market that is large in population, though small in area, still seems like a good idea.
“That’s what we want to do, respecting our team, respecting our game and also respecting these great, great fans in the State of Connecticut,” Ollie said. “… We just want to bring our spirit and also thank them for the support. Some of the people can’t drive up to Storrs, can’t drive to Hartford, and to have it here right around the corner, they can come here and see the Husky spirit, see our fans integrate themselves into Husky Pride.”
Back in the pre-Calhoun era, UConn lost Charles Smith, from Bridgeport, who went to Pitt, Harold Jensen, from Trumbull, who went to Villanova, among others from this area. Later, they got Chris Smith, from Kolbe, and Calhoun still points to him – as the first major in-state player – as a significant part of the successful era. Chris Smith now coaches at Kolbe, and Ollie did mention the importance, to recruiting, of being a presence in this southwestern corner of the state.
The main advantage here, though, is galvanizing the fan base. A game played during the semester break, UConn-Eastern Washington was not going to create unusual buzz in Hartford or Storrs, but figures to be a big deal in Bridgeport, and fill the 8,500-seat arena. A “win-win,” as Warde Manuel called it.
A few other tidbits heard at the Monday morning presser … UConn is planning to resume its series with Texas next year. The schools were to play four games, two in each place, in a six-years window, and they played in 2009-10 and 2010-11. They put it on hold for a year or two, but the Longhorns, tentatively, will come to Connecticut during 2014-15, and the Huskies will go to Austin the following year. … UConn is talking to some of the former Big East rivals about playing non-conference games in the future, so you could see a UConn-Syracuse or UConn-Georgetown game down the road, as UConn looks to beef up its non-conference schedule. … UConn would be interested in continuing with Florida, which starts a home-and-home series at Gampel on Dec.2. The schools have similar scheduling needs and philosophies. … Manuel said UConn has no “long-term plan” to play more games in Bridgeport. “We’re going to see how this goes,” he said.