For the betterment of each other and college basketball, UConn and the Big East are getting back together
UConn went against its values when it chose football over basketball earlier this decade, but a return to prominence is possible
Aside from the obvious hope of winning a national championship, the greatest thing any UConn basketball fan rooted for in recent seasons (as a Connecticut resident myself this was quite clear) was the minor miracle of a reunion with the Big East.
That wish has been granted.
On Monday, Big East presidents formally voted to invite UConn. Wednesday brought acceptance from UConn's Board of Trustees. And Thursday was the official reintroduction of one of the most innate fits in college athletics: the Big East and the University of Connecticut.
It feels right, like the sports universe course-corrected.
The move figures to mightily benefit both entities. It was a mistake there was ever a sever to start, but that's what chasing football pipe dreams will do to almost any school. For UConn, its appeal and greatest chance for success, making money and reinforcing its brand power (hate the term or not, these things matter to the tune of millions of dollars) has always and will always be basketball. The Big East embraced this when the Catholic 7 split off from the conference, then purchased the rights to the league name and continued to thrive in the six years since the American Athletic Conference was formed in its wake.
For the past decade, conference expansion/realignment has mostly been done with football calling the shots. So, how refreshing to see a basketball-modeled move -- a no-brainer -- made in spite of it. The basketball arena, not the football stadium, is where UConn makes its hay. Success on the court is the greatest view. Going forward, UConn is all the way in on that ideal, as its.
Not only is UConn a basketball school, it's arguably the best basketball school. It unquestionably has the greatest women's program -- and oh by the way it has four national championships on the men's side in the past 20 years..
That's more than any other men's program in that span.
UConn will play the forthcoming season as a member of the American Athletic Conference, with July 1, 2020, the targeted date for the Huskies' leap to the Big East in 20 of its 21 sports (football being the vagabond).
For the Big East, the addition of UConn reinforces its northeast footmark and stokes the flames of rivalries on the wane. UConn was a founding member of the Big East of old, back in 1979. It played under that affiliation for 34 years. Kemba. Ray. Rip. Emeka. Khalid. Calhoun -- and so many more.
And Madison Square Garden! MSG and UConn fans combine for a concoction that's special, rowdy -- and really only rivaled by Syracuse's in-state faithful.
For Connecticut, this makes practical, geographical, philosophical, monetary and functional sense. UConn should be playing Providence, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's and Seton Hall annually, not Tulane, South Florida, East Carolina, Wichita State and Tulsa.
You can make an easy case that no school was more of an outcast, a misfit toy, amid the aftermath of conference realignment the way UConn was. Sure, it won the 2014 national title in men's basketball (as a No. 7 seed) and won three more -- expectedly -- in women's basketball since the American was formed in 2013, but the football program has lived in the cellar of the FBS and men's basketball was a four-year catastrophe between the 2014 title and the 2018 hiring of Dan Hurley.
The Huskies were victims of the vicissitudes that conference-shifting aftereffects can bring. There have been plenty of schools that chose unwisely. Fortunately for UConn, there was an escape hatch back to where it's supposed to be. Twenty years from now it will prove to be the rare university that was able to double back on an ill-advised defection decision.
More importantly for the Big East, Thursday served as the day the league made a move toward becoming, and perennially remaining, a top-shelf basketball conference. But a reminder: The conference never dramatically fell off. This is a reinforcement, not a rejuvenation. The Big East ranked second or third in KenPom.com's conference ratings in four of the six years it's been a 10-team union. On average, more than half the league (5.3 bids) earns an NCAA Tournament invite each year. Eight times teams have landed a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed. Villanova twice won the national championship.
Now comes UConn, which the minute it enters the league will be the most decorated school in the Big East. The conference was good-to-great every year since 2013. Going forward, it will compete with the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten for top billing in basketball.
Val Ackerman, who put the WNBA in position to be as successful as it is today, has done an incredible job as commissioner. She might be the best one going in college athletics.
"The opportunity to add a member who is a national basketball brand, that's in our geographic footprint, who has an outstanding fan base with proven support of our biggest annual event, and who brings the added bonus of having a deeply etched, shared history with us, intense rivalries with many of our schools," Ackerman said Thursday. "All of that taken together represented an opportunity that we simply couldn't pass up."
The Big East-UConn latching was as much about nodding to the past as it was pointing to the future. For the Big East, it's going to get richer. The Huskies add luster and millions of passionate fans. For UConn, it's going to try to (eventually) get out of the red. The state of Connecticut has seemingly never-ending budgetary crises. With UConn being a state school, it's attached to those predicaments. The athletic department was $40-million-plus in the hole in the 2018 fiscal year. Now comes a $10 million exit fee to the American, another $3.5 million needed to get into the Big East, and there's still the matter of potentially having to pay millions to ex-coach Kevin Ollie, who's been involved in litigation with his alma mater after his firing in March 2018.
"We do have deficit at our athletic department, as do most institutions in the country," outgoing UConn President Susan Herbst said Thursday. "I do see it as an investment instead of a deficit. We're always working on cutting costs. Initially we have more costs because we have to pay our entrance fee and some work to do with the American. This is about the long-term, our long-term future. Over the long-term, because of the travel changes, we're going to save a couple million dollars a year because the schools are easier to get to than they are in the American."
Herbst also said that season ticket sales have jumped in the past few days. Donations are pouring in, too. Eventually the bottom line could become manageable, but it's going to take years. It's also going to take successes. UConn's doing this and banking on the women's program remaining No. 1 in its sport indefinitely, while expecting Dan Hurley to return the Huskies to annual top-25 status sooner than later.
"It's about the long-term," Herbst said.
It's about making things right. When college presidents were scrambling six, seven, eight years ago amid the uncertainty of tectonic conference shifting, UConn was in the best-worst spot to be in at that point. A great basketball program, but a poor football one. It lost its identity and sunk tens of millions into a failing gridiron enterprise.
College basketball seldom wins over college football, but UConn and the Big East are located in the one region of the country where it's never even been close. The northeast is college basketball territory. On Thursday, UConn took its identity back, and in doing so set up the Big East for a full-fledged return to prominence.
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