UConn looks to 'mend fences' with angry donor
Football coach flap: University looks to salvage relationship with an angry donor
In the big business that is college athletics -- where the generosity of boosters can transform a football program from an afterthought at a basketball school into a Bowl Championship Series contender -- the University of Connecticut is calling a Hail Mary play.
"I really hope to try to mend fences and move forward," said McHugh, who lives in Middletown. "The Burtons have been very supportive of the University of Connecticut and we would like that to continue."
Burton, upset over lack of involvement in the school's coaching search, no longer wants his family's name on the football complex at UConn that he helped fund.
The 72-year-old corporate raider from Greenwich grabbed national headlines with his recent demand for a refund of $3 million he donated to the facility and the program.
Feeling snubbed by UConn, which hired former Syracuse University coach Paul Pasqualoni to replace the departed Randy Edsall, Burton sent a scathing letter to Athletic Director Jeffrey Hathaway severing ties with the school.
Messages seeking comment from Burton, who insisted in his letter that he wasn't looking to pick the coach but rather be kept in the loop, were left at his home and office Wednesday.
McHugh declined to go into specific details about his conversation with Burton, but said he hopes to sit down with him in the near future to discuss the matter. The two have never met.
"I would say, the conversation, I was pleased with it," McHugh said.
Right next door to the Burton Family Football Complex, which opened five years ago and houses an academic resource center, team meeting rooms, a team locker room, a state-of-the-art sports medicine area, video facilities, a team dining hall, a student-athlete lounge and an equipment room, is the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion.
Never in his right mind would the namesake of the University of Connecticut's vaunted on-campus basketball arena have threatened to yank his name from the building, according to one of his daughters.
A $1 million gift from Gampel, a UConn alumnus who made his fortune in the steel business and real estate development before his death in 2003 at the age of 83, provided the seed money for Gampel Pavilion, the 10,027-seat arena.
"I'm sure there were some conditions. I'm sure one of the conditions was not that he could pick the coach," said Margo Absher, 62, one of Gampel's four daughters and a 1970 UConn graduate.
Absher said she doesn't know Burton, whose corporate domain includes a hedge fund in Greenwich and a $2 billion printing company in Stamford.
"It would seem reasonable to me that the university would have the final say," Absher said. "I also don't know what his contract said with UConn."
In stark contrast to the falling-out, Absher cherishes her family's long-standing association with UConn athletics.
"I certainly couldn't be prouder to have our name on the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion," said Absher, who lives in Aventura, Fla. "We're proud to be there. We're proud to support the university. I think it's wonderful when you are able to do something like that."
Gampel's support of both men's and women's basketball teams at UConn coincided with the transformation of both programs into national powerhouses.
"He was so proud of them," Absher said. "He was so pleased that he could be part of it."
The subject of Burton's run-in with the school's athletic administration surprisingly did not come up during a the Board of Trustees' regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday, according to both McHugh and another participant in the proceedings.
"People are donating a lot of money to the university, then the university should be interested in what they have to say," said Adam Scianna, 26, a UConn civil engineering post-grad from Norwalk who is one of two student members of the Board of Trustees.
Scianna had no further comment on the matter, other than to say that he does not know the Burton family.
UConn Sports Information Director Mike Enright had no further comment beyond a statement issued on Tuesday thanking Burton for his generosity to the university, which said it did take his views into account during the coaching search.
Absher said that her father relished the access to the school's basketball programs but realized his influence only went so far.
"Not in picking the coach," Absher said. "He loved knowing what was going on."
Pasqualoni was clearly not the top choice of Burton, whose youngest son Joe played for the coach at Syracuse from 1997 to 2001.
Latroy Oliver, 31, a former Syracuse cornerback who played with Burton under Pasqualoni, said he never saw any outward signs of a rift between coach and player, as has widely been speculated on Internet message boards.
"I felt like him and coach P had a pretty good relationship," said Oliver, who lives in South Windsor and works for the state Department of Social Services.
A popular theory -- one that Oliver was highly skeptical of -- is that Burton was mad his son did not make captain during his senior year in 2001.
"He never felt like any animosity toward the situation," said Oliver, who saw the younger Burton at the Pinstripe Bowl between Syracuse and Kansas State at Yankee Stadium back in December.
UConn representatives acknowledged that Burton's letter has caused quite the storm.
"I think there are lot of people who have voiced their concern, one way or another on it," McHugh said.
Staff writer Neil Vigdor can be reached at email@example.com or 203-625-4436.