Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A reader takes over the Runway (for the day)

For the last four years, I've offered to give up the blog for a day to the winner of my weekly picks contest. Lo and behold, someone finally took me up on it.

Ryan Phalen of Torrington, aka Governor Phalen, beat out 21 other participants to take home the 2009 Runway Challenge title. Ryan, 24, is a 2006 UConn grad now working as a financial analyst in Avon and a UConn football season ticket holder. He's also a certified basketball referee in Litchfield County and enjoys nothing more than slapping technical fouls on smart-mouthed little know-it-alls. (Whoops. I was recalling my own brief career as a basketball ref. Sorry about that.) He says he became known as "The Governor" in high school because he knew everyone, and everyone knew him.

Here are Ryan's thoughts on UConn and supporting Husky nation:

Growing up in Connecticut, I always found myself torn between multiple fan bases. My grandparents were Yankee fans while my aunts and uncles were Red Sox fans and my parents held no particular allegiance to either team. My dad loved pro football, but didn’t really have a favorite team so my aunts and uncles tried to sway me towards the Jets, Giants, Patriots, Cowboys and Bears. There were only two sports where most all of my family agreed: hockey and college basketball. The Hartford Whalers and Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies became my teams.

Before I had even been to a Whalers game there had been significant buzz about their imminent departure. I still remember my best friend Derek going around school trying to raise money to keep the Whalers in Hartford. The team was in limbo for two years until negotiations on a new stadium collapsed and they decided to move without even having determined to which city they were going to relocate. The idea that team owners could hold loyal fans hostage left a bad taste in my mouth and turned me off professional hockey entirely.

Then in 1998 my interest in professional sports was rekindled when state development dollars for Adriaen's Landing attracted the interest of the NFL’s New England Patriots. The possibility of seeing the Patriots play only 40 minutes from my house, coupled with the fact that my friend Derek is a lifelong Patriots fan, made the Pats my NFL team. In December of that year, legislation was approved to authorize the funding of a 70,000-seat open-air stadium, which the Patriots would share with the fledgling UConn football program, right on the Connecticut River. However, in April 1999, just days after I’d watched Jim Calhoun cut down the nets in St. Petersburg on CBS, the Patriots withdrew their proposal to relocate to Hartford, dashing the hopes of creating a centerpiece of Hartford’s revitalization project. My brief love affair with the Patriots ended. It also left my then-role model Governor John Rowland out in the cold after he had spent significant political energy only to watch Kraft use his own funds (with the help of the NFL and $70 million of infrastructure improvements from Massachusetts) to build a new stadium adjacent to the existing Foxboro Stadium. My interest in professional sports has never been the same, as yet another team had spat in the face of Connecticut.

At that point, I decided that UConn men’s basketball would be the only team I would ever attach myself to. After transferring to UConn my second semester of college, I witnessed just how much sport can bring a large group of people together. I got to meet some of the most dedicated fans whose passion for the game and knowledge of the team was aligned with my own at every single game, no matter who I sat next to. Going to the Sweet Sixteen in 2004 with the team and seeing the thousands of Connecticut fans that made the trek to Phoenix and the pride in their eyes as our Huskies cut down the nets will forever be what I think of when the men’s basketball team comes to mind.

In my senior year, my brother joined me at UConn. Our mom bought us football season tickets as a graduation present. While I had been to a few games at Memorial Stadium in high school, I was a bit skeptical at first, as I had never really gotten into college football and had never been to a live major football event. My UConn friends and I tailgated with some family friends, Mike and Melissa Conway, who were gracious hosts to eight hungry college students at every home game. To this day they still hold the title of best tailgaters in my book. If the Conways alone didn’t seal my loyalty for the football team, that first game did. As the score crept upwards, the students in front of us eventually made their way to the exits. With every wave of people going out the door, our group got closer and closer to the action. With 10 minutes left in the game, we were in the front row of the student section. I saw the same pride and enthusiasm from Connecticut fans in a 52-7 blowout of URI as I saw when the nets were being cut down in Phoenix.

Since that fateful day, UConn football has become a love affair for me. Not only has it instilled a huge sense of pride in the football program, it has instilled a larger sense of pride in the university and the state of Connecticut. UConn, and specifically UConn football, defines all that is good about Connecticut- class, education, camaraderie and hard work towards a common goal. Only when the credit is shared equally and every player realizes that they are not the only one responsible for their own success can the whole team succeed. Our coaches and our university do a phenomenal job of not only developing top-notch athletes, but of developing top-notch young men and women. Everywhere I travel I make sure that I have my UConn gear on full display while making sure that I conform to what my image of a good Connecticut fan is; being a good sport whether we’ve won or lost. When I’m on business trips and people ask me where I’m from I say with great pride that I’m from Connecticut.

After all the professional heartbreak our state has endured and all the UConn memories I have, I’ve realized that no one will ever take UConn away from me. Yes, players will graduate or leave for the pros and our coaches will eventually leave, but the owner of this team would never move them because they demanded a new stadium and were denied, or because attendance dropped. The owner of this team understands what the team means to me. The owner of this team understands how dedicated its fans are. And while the owner of this team will always put its own interests first, those interests align with those of the team. The state of Connecticut has dedicated billions of dollars to the University of Connecticut over the last decade, making it one of the premier state universities in the country. But the state can only help so much. The university and our state have the potential to attract great talent, both academic and athletic, that 15 years ago seemed unattainable. Our university and our state need its graduates and fans to give Connecticut a better reputation.

I’m not asking people to donate- I’m asking people to be better graduates and better fans. Every one of us was overjoyed to learn that we were going to play Notre Dame and got a home-and-away with Vanderbilt, Michigan and Tennessee. UConn football is now joining the big boys and I’m asking a few small things of people:

Be in your seats before the game and stay until the end. The players and coaches work hard and deserve to run out of and back into the tunnel with a full stadium, not one that gradually fills up through the first quarter and starts emptying at the end of the third quarter. Those who went to Notre Dame may not have noticed, but the only section that wasn’t completely full before the game and during halftime was UConn’s. Notre Dame is in a league of its own because its fans know how to treat their program.

Become the 12th man when the defense needs you. Teams fear going into certain stadiums not just because of the size of the crowd but the sheer volume of noise that their fans create. Stop being basketball fans. Stand up and make some noise as soon as second down is over to make the opposing offense work harder on third down. The result of the previous play should be announced as soon as a pass falls incomplete or when a play is stopped short of a first down and be immediately followed by “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Crazy Train” to try and get fans louder.

Travel to the close games. Rutgers and Syracuse away game tickets should almost be included in season ticket packages. It should be a given that our fan base should attend any trip within a few hours drive. When West Virginia rolls into town, everyone knows it because there are busloads of Mountaineer fans. They spend at least 16 hours round trip on a bus for a three-and-a-half hour game, so why can’t we spend five to six hours round trip on a bus? When the Mountaineers come to the Rent, the band alone takes up two whole sections. The WVU fans occupy eight more. While Pittsburgh, arguably the number two team in the Big East, is wondering why they were passed over for the Gator Bowl this year, West Virginia and their fan base get to travel to Jacksonville to play FSU. Speaking of which:

Travel to bowl games. You want better bowl games? Travel. Attending bowl games in Charlotte, Toronto and Birmingham after going to Syracuse and Rutgers goes a long way toward putting UConn in a top-tier bowl (again, see WVU) instead of the International or St. Petersburg Bowls.

I realize that travel isn’t always cheap and the school’s travel packages aren’t always exactly affordable. To counter that, I’ve put significant efforts in this year that were geared towards to keeping costs lower for UConn fans on a budget, putting together a bus trip and group hotel rate for the Notre Dame game ($150 bus, $165/room for the hotel) and a group hotel rate for our bowl game in Birmingham ($61/night). I plan on putting together another bus trip and group hotel rate for the Michigan game in September and buses to Syracuse and Rutgers. But it takes more than just setting up the bus and hotel to get people to join us in the stadiums.

I’m not asking for all of this overnight. But until our fans follow through and become better fans we can’t realistically expect Notre Dame to play in East Hartford and we can’t expect to land in a top-tier bowl when we don’t win the Big East championship outright.

-- Ryan Phalen, Torrington


Anonymous Sean O said...

I hate the "be in your seats prior to kickoff and stay to the end" junk.

I think a lot of people at the Rent are in the stadium prior to kick but arent in their seats...you can see the field just fine from the open space by scoreboard. And stay to the end? I'm not staying to watch UConn beat up Texas Southern by 50 or get smoked by West Virginia by 40.

I agree on all the other points though. But I think UConn has done a really good job of traveling to the bowls...we took over Charlotte in 2007 and there were way more fans in Toronto than I expected.

December 29, 2009 1:46 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no excuse to leave before a collegiate game is over...the best part of any college football game occurs at the end of the game, and that would be the alma mater......
great programs obey this commandment..

great post governor

December 30, 2009 12:43 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the problems we have is that the same 5,000 people are the same key donors/season ticket buyers that are doing most of the heavy lifting. It is hard to be in multiple places at once. There are basketball fans that will get pissed off that there are empty seats in the donor sections while the donors are at the bowl game.

The unfortunate reality is this: The UCONN basketball program is one of the top 10 programs in the country, and the fan behavior is not representative of how important a program it is (meaning that it should be IMPOSSIBLE to get a ticket, yet I can't get people to take my unused season tickets for free...everyone only wants to go to the same 5 games).

I don't expect that the football crowd will ever approach what the big schools have because our fanbase (outside of a core group)just doesn't care that much.

I'm writing this as I'm waiting for my flight to Birmingham to go to the bowl game...

January 01, 2010 12:08 PM 

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