As CIAC title games return to Rentschler, UConn coach Jim Mora talks CT football: 'Hidden gem'


Three CIAC state football championships will be played at Rentschler Field in East Hartford Saturday, as the high school title games return to UConn’s home stadium for the first time in a decade.

How did it happen?

The idea began a year ago when Jim Mora was hired as UConn coach and began meeting state high school coaches. Mora, speaking Friday on GameTimeCT’s “The Meat Grinder HS football  podcast,” said coaches expressed a desire to play championship games at one or two central locations.

Mora contacted Paul Mounds, chief of staff for Gov. Ned Lamont, expressed his desire to make Rentschler a site for the state high school football's biggest stage ... and the rest is history.

“I think it'll help the high school, it will consolidate things,” Mora said he told Mounds. “It'll bring everyone to, you know, a central locations, it will be more exciting. It could potentially help us in recruiting. And it's really something that the players and the coaches deserve.

“They've worked for it, man. You got to do it. And Paul just took it from there. And I don't know what he did, but I know that he and Gov. Lamont got it done. I'm not a big political guy, but I’m going to tell you this: Everyone that’s going to The Rent or Central Connecticut State for a game, whether you're a player or a fan or a coach, you owe a big thank you to Paul Mounds and our governor, because they're the ones who made it happen. I just kind of got the ball rolling.”

Mora has led UConn to a 6-6 record and a bowl berth, as the Huskies will play Marshall in the Dec. 19 Myrtle Beach Bowl. He and his staff are also in the throes of recruiting season, so he may not be at Rentschler Saturday — Mora was invited to take part in the coin flip, but he’ll be occupied.

UConn is hosting “15 or 16 kids” this weekend, between high school recruits and players in the transfer portal. Mora said there were transfer targets on campus Thursday and Friday and more will arrive Monday, with high school targets also visiting.

“We're busy and it's fun and it's good energy,” Mora said.

Recruiting within the state is a component of hosting the games Saturday. Mora called it a “big deal” for teams to play at Rentscher. 

“It's a big deal to run out on that field and, you know, feel the energy and hopefully dream a plan there every home game someday,” Mora said.

Mora had never coached in the Northeast and began learning about Connecticut football when he attended Thanksgiving Day games not long after he was hired in 2021. He learned about the traditions and the history.

“Kind of a little hidden gem here in our nice little state,” Mora said. 

Mora inherited linebacker Jackson Mitchell, an impact player from Connecticut. Bristol’s Victor Rosa has contributed on offense and Mora has spoken highly of Norwalk’s Cam Edwards, who went to UConn as a defensive back but practiced as a running back this year.

Forging a relationship with state coaches was a priority for Mora, who hired former Greenwich High coach John Marinelli as his tight ends coach. Marinelli, a popular figure in the state, will help keep UConn in the conversation for Connecticut recruits.

But Mora said he is working to cultivate a strong bond with players at all levels, starting well before high school.

“We need to start, and hopefully we have started, a feeling with the younger kids in our state,” Mora said. “I'm talking like 8, 9 year olds, that they want to grow up, you know, with the desire to be a UConn Husky. Not a desire to go somewhere else and play. 

“And so if we can continue to have success on the field, you see more and more kids wearing UConn Husky football stuff or more kids or youth league kids at our games. When we’re doing our Husky Walks before a game, you know, there's always a few teams there with their jerseys or their sweatshirts. You got to make sure you give them a high-five and make it a great environment for them. 

“And then as they start to develop and they become young men that you think can fit into your culture and contribute to your program and be winners, you need to be involved with them. The best players in this state that fit what we want to do and who we want to be, we should be in the ballgame with them. I think we have to develop that over time. It does take some time, I think but we got to start with the youth. And, you know, I don't ever want to good football player that's from this state to get out of this state.”

Connecticut had three quarterbacks playing for FBS programs this fall: New Canaan’s Drew Pyne at Notre Dame, Madison’s Will Levis at Kentucky, Glastonbury Tyler Van Dyke at Miami. There are other state players sprinkled on rosters throughout the country.

Mora hopes those types of players will at least consider UConn in the future.

 “What's so important is that every coach in this state and every player in this state understands that, yes, UConn is interested,” Mora said. “We are going to evaluate you. We want to build a relationship with you. We want to support you. …  So you just really have to cultivate that that environment from an early age on and I think we started to do that but it's got to be ongoing.”

Mora talked about recruiting Rosa, who committed to UConn under Randy Edsall. Mora met Rosa and his family at a UConn basketball team and forged a strong relationship.

Rosa (561 yards, nine touchdowns) became a starter as UConn endured injuries this season, but he proved to be a productive running back.

“He's a worker. He's a grinder. He's a great kid. He's got an amazing family,” Mora said. “I mean, his mom and dad are just salt of the earth. Great people, fun to talk to, supportive, you know, just what you want. We want to populate our team with the best players from this area that — I hate always just saying the best player,  because just the best people, too,  the people that fit what we're trying to be. It's not easy, you know, we got a lot of competition out there. But we're going to fight for guys in this state.”

Connecticut head coach Jim Mora runs before an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Connecticut head coach Jim Mora runs before an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Paul Sancya/Associated Press