Jeff Jacobs: How UConn football coach Jim Mora helped get CIAC championships back to Rentschler Field

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Not only did Jim Mora manage to find a pulse in the UConn football program, he got it upright and bowl eligible in his first year.

Across the college football landscape, few, if any, have done a better job. Some would call him a miracle worker. Others have called him a candidate for national coach of the year.

Mora doesn’t need much hyping these days.

Still, what shouldn’t be lost among the building accolades is that early on Mora was the catalyst for bringing half of the CIAC state football championships back to Rentschler Field on Dec. 10. The other three games will be played at Central Connecticut.

“Coach Mora, when he first got here, was making the rounds to all the high school coaches,” said Paul Mounds, Gov. Lamont’s chief of staff. “Doing something the high school coaches were yearning for.

“And he kept hearing the same thing: ‘We would like to be able to have our high school championship games played in our college stadiums. It would be good for the kids. He asked me at that point if there was anything he could do. I said absolutely.”

Mounds, who played football at Trinity, was a member of the search committee that led to Mora’s hiring on Nov. 11, 2021.

“I’ll be honest, Rentschler wasn’t on my radar to that point,” Mounds said. “The big thing, this is Jim Mora.”

Mounds’ first call was to Mike Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Development Region Authority. The CRDA oversees Rentschler Field.

“I asked Mike for some background on why it hasn’t been at Rentschler in a while,” Mounds said. “He basically was saying what the CIAC was saying (publicly).”

The state finals were at the Rent from 2010-2012 before leaving for Central Connecticut. It was reported at the time that finances were the primary reason for the move. That the CIAC was losing $9,000 per game and would lose only half that at Central’s Arute Field.

Glenn Lungarini, who became CIAC executive director in 2018, said last December that Rentschler is also problematic because if there is significant snow you can’t simply put plows and snowblowers on it. He also pointed to notes left behind about a complaint the media wasn’t allowed on the field during the game.

So is the Rent off the board?

“We don’t take anything off the board,” Lungarini said at that point. “We consider anyone who is interested in having us. But you have to have a plan if it snows. Are you willing to clear snow off a grass field at Rentschler? Probably not.”

Those words were part of a column last December about how the state football championships need to be at better venues. Mora had already reached out to the governor’s office by that time on that exact point.

Mounds had a question for Freimuth.

“Would it be possible from a date standpoint to have it next year.”

“Yeah,” Freimuth said. “Sure.”

Mounds called the CIAC.

“The governor had told coach Mora anyway if he can be helpful to him and UConn football, he would be there,” Mound said. “He believes in him. And this was a big way in terms of having all these high school students being able to play at Rentschler Field or Central Connecticut.”

It’s not just about attendance figures and a few thousand bucks. The athletes dress in college locker rooms, run out the tunnel, relish the atmosphere. It is something they’ll never forget. 

The CRDA, Mounds said, reached out to the CIAC and started conversations. With the expansion of the playoffs to six divisions that meant more games on a grass field. That led to a conversion with Central AD Tom Pincince. Mounds said Joe Aresimowicz, former Speaker of the House, Berlin coach and CHSCA rep on the CIAC football committee, played a strong role in helping understand logistics and CIAC concerns about safety.

According to the terms of the Rentschler agreement, all non-UConn events must be revenue neutral or positive. They can’t further cost a building which already has run in the red.

Enter Mounds.

“If you look in the budget, I want to say there’s $50,000 for the CIAC in the state budget,” Mounds said. “That was able to take that issue off the table.”

We can go round and round and round on how the money flows through state government, state schools, and quasi-public agencies — essentially from one pocket to the other, or, conversely, passing along losses to another entity’s bottom line — but we won’t bore you today.

“I will say not only at cost,” Mounds said, “but this also is to start momentum for fundraising and sponsorships that the CIAC will be able to played there not only this year but in the future.”

This is a good year to return to college campuses for the first time since 2014. The finals have been at high school sites after two years at Central.

Victor Rosa, the 2021 Gatorade High School Player of the Year from Bristol Central, has made an immediate impact with the HuskiesJackson Mitchell, from Ridgefield, has been the star of the UConn defense. Connecticut quarterbacks Drew Pyne, Will Levis and Tyler Van Dyke all have made an impact nationally.

And, of course, UConn football itself, dead, buried, RIP, has jumped back to life faster than Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction." The Huskies, who started 1-4, can win their sixth of seven games in the season finale at Army.

“It is such a great time to have these games,” Mounds said. “There was a lot of team effort. The governor, myself, we’re happy the CIAC and the various partners were able to do this. It bolsters high school football in our state.

“Now imagine you’re a sophomore in high school at the state championship and you’re at (UConn quarterback) Zion Turner’s locker. That’s awesome.”

Pincince said Central was approached by the CIAC six to eight months ago about hosting three games.

“We were all for it, excited,” Pincince said. “It gets people to campus especially after the last couple of years not hosting events with the pandemic. The opportunity to have six teams here, their fan base, is a chance to showcase Central.” 

Lungarini last year voiced some concerns about colleges already “winterizing” their facilities by the time the state championships roll around. Pincince said Central played its final home game last week and will keep everything going. The school won’t turn off water, shut down locker rooms until after Dec. 10.

Pincince estimated the cost for three games to be around $15,000-$20,000. The CIAC essentially rents the facility.

“We’re not making money on this,” Pincince said. “It’s an opportunity to showcase and market Central. For us to do three games, it’s in the area of one regular game of ours. With the CIAC, we don’t pay the officials, or chain gang, etc.”

Snow removal, Pincince said, is the responsibility of the CIAC. He said postponed dates were not discussed. That is the CIAC’s call.

Mounds, who played in the same defensive backfield as UConn assistant John Marinelli at Trinity, envisions a scenario where Rentschler is an annual centerpiece for the state championships.

“And then there is a kind of rotation with Central, Trinity, maybe the Coast Guard, maybe the Yale Bowl for the other games,” he said. “It would be great to open these opportunities to these kids.”