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UConn football’s come-to-Jesus moment

An assistant coach is hired to make religion part of the state university's football program.

Ernest T. Jones
Ernest T. Jones

Ernest T. Jones

In an effort to rescue its decade-old Division I-A football team from deep mediocrity, the University of Connecticut football team last month hired Notre Dame defensive coach Bob Diaco. A week ago Diaco announced his coaching staff, which includes former Alcorn State head coach Ernest T. Jones, who will not only work with running backs but also serve as director of “player engagement,” a job he did for the past two years in South Bend as well.

So what is player engagement? “We develop them socially, intellectually, spiritually, physically,” Jones explained in an appearance with Diaco on the Geno Auriemma radio show. “That’s what we’re going to do for these young people and Coach Diaco has allowed me to oversee the social and spiritual part of the development. I mean, this is big. This is a big part of our program.”

And how does that “spiritual” part go? “Just because you come to the University of Connecticut doesn’t mean you won’t have the opportunity to pursue your faith,” Jones said. “No, you’re going to be able to come here and love the God that you love. So we provide opportunities for them to grow spiritually in our community. So I’ll get out and meet some people in the community so when this young man, for example, says, ‘I’m a Seventh Day Adventist or I’m a Catholic or I’m a Baptist or I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,’ well, OK, here you go.”

While Jones’ list does not exactly box the compass of religion in 21st-century America, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to acquaint arriving Huskies with the spiritual options available to them in greater Storrs, CT. But then there’s this:

“And we’re going to do things in our building, fellowship, non-denominational type things, players, coaches. We’re going to make sure they understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that’s something that is important. If you want to be successful and you want to win, get championships then you better understand that this didn’t happen because of you. This happened because of our Lord and Savior. That’s going to be something said by Bob Diaco. That’s something that’s going to be said by Ernest Jones. That’s who we are.”

Uh-oh. It may be that no one objected to having Jesus at the center of the huddle at Notre Dame or Alcorn State, the historically African-American university in southwestern Mississippi. But here in Connecticut we’re a bit sensitive to constitutional niceties like not hiring state employees to teach state university students that Jesus is on the team.

As for Jones, there’s some evidence that he may need a little social development himself. In 2008, after spending just a year as head coach at Alcorn State, his alma mater, he was fired for “malfeasance and contumacious conduct.” He sued the university to protest the firing, but last August the suit was dismissed by the Mississippi Court of Appeals, whose presiding judge said the university had followed proper procedures and had substantial evidence to support its decision.

Update: And UConn president nixes Jesus huddle.

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