UConn basketball fan Audrey Quinlan said she wasn’t expecting Geno Auriemma to be so personable.
The 68-year-old Glastonbury resident got to meet the Hall of Fame coach Thursday as he crisscrossed the state with men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley, football coach Randy Edsall and others on a three-day speaking tour dubbed the UConn Coaches Road Show.
“As briefly as I spoke to Geno __ I should really call him coach — he really had a sparkle in his eye,” Quinlan said.
The events, which include meet-and-greets, panel discussions and question-and-answer sessions, are designed to energize and engage the school’s fan base at a time when the athletic department is seeing declining attendance and has a $40 million deficit.
The tour, in just its second year, included stops this week in Mystic, Branford, Waterbury, Torrington, Hartford and Stamford.
Auriemma, who has led his program to 11 national championships, said he and the other coaches have come to understand that putting a winning product on the floor or field is no longer enough to ensure fan support.
“It’s just too easy today to sit home and watch on TV,” Auriemma said. “You just can’t sit back, like in the early 2000s and go, ‘Yeah, we’re going to sell out every game, we don’t have to do anything. We’ve got to work at it and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The idea for a tour was brought to the school by Athletic Director David Benedict, who was hired in 2016. Similar events have been popular in other parts of the country for years.
Men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley, who will be entering his second season in the fall, said it’s been important for him to preach in public that the revival of his program, which has not had a winning season since 2015-16, is under way.
“We have very smart fans,” Hurley said. “They know what good basketball looks like. They know where the program’s at. They know the distance we still have to cover to get to that point. They just want to see progress.”
Edsall, who is entering the third year of his second stint as football coach at the school, said he’s not sure that personal appearances will lead directly to increased ticket sales. Those who come to see him speak, he noted, are usually the hard-core supporters, who are already going to games, despite the program’s 28-69 record since UConn’s 2010 season and Fiesta Bowl appearance.
But it is important for him, as the leader of that program, to talk to fans and answer questions about what players are coming in, where the quarterback competition stands or what they can expect from the defensive line this season.
“They want to know we care,” he said. “You want to be human (with them). We understand. It’s a different day and age. You have to go out and you have to be visible.”