In realignment limbo (AAC), UConn brings some Big East to title game
UConn, unable to rate a power big league in realignment, got the AAC. Now, the Huskies carry its torch (and a flicker of the old Big East) into the national title game.
ARLINGTON, Texas – Grown men kissed Mike Aresco.
It got that strange and weird and wonderful in Section 136 on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium. There were hugs, shoulder slaps, handshakes and -- yes -- kisses for Aresco, a 63-year old former sports TV executive turned conference commissioner.
Not bad for a guy who has been on the job the same amount of time his conference has been in existence -- less than a year.
It's probably a dead heat between who you know less about after Saturday's national semifinals -- Aresco or his American Athletic Conference. They are part of this amazing UConn run as well.
The congratulations followed because Aresco was surrounded by fellow commissioners. These were men who he'd made millions for over the years as former executive vice president for programming at CBS Sports. They had gotten whole with rights fees he'd help negotiate in a previous life.
Now, there wasn't a jealous bone in the building.
New league, new commissioner with a new life, same old UConn.
The Huskies had to play somewhere when realignment left them behind. The powerful BCS leagues flexed their expansion muscles and UConn simply wasn't part of the plan. The AAC appeared out of thin air in 2013, taking in schools like SMU, Memphis and Cincinnati. Louisville stayed a year, but heads to the ACC next season. Tulsa arrives in 2014.
That's what was left when the Big East basketball-only schools decided to break off. That's when Aresco left as Big East commissioner (after less than a year) to take over the AAC.
The American Athletic, then -- born: July 1, 2013. Partied: All the way to Monday night, at least.
"What I'm worried about," Aresco said, "did we hit our high water mark in the first year?"
It's been that good for a league that is a nightmare distinguishing between its initials and the ACC's. Aresco's league sported three first-team All-Americans (UConn's Shabazz Napier, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, Louisville's Russ Smith.) Central Florida beat Big 12 champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Knights' quarterback, Blake Bortles, may be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
UConn may be the foundation of a conference that was more safe haven than future. But, also, no school has suffered more in conference realignment than Connecticut.
For more than 30 years it was a foundation of the mighty Big East. That eventually was its downfall. In a basketball league, perhaps it was too basketball. Football still delivers the most revenue. Despite a 2011 Fiesta Bowl, UConn in football has failed to be relevant.
"There's no greater league ever than the Big East," Jim Calhoun said, holding court Saturday in the UConn lockerroom. "I always think of whenever Alabama and Auburn played in the SEC. What they were in football, we were in basketball."
But in realignment you're either a market or a brand. Even with that, UConn wasn't strong enough to be either.
So along with the likes of fellow AAC member Cincinnati, UConn is the best athletic program not to be in a power conference. It doesn't hurt to chase a second basketball national championship in four years, but it looks like the Huskies are trapped in that athletic purgatory for the time being.
"I didn't have any thoughts about [realignment] happening," said AD Warde Manuel. "I didn't know it was potentially coming."
What he did have was basketball in his hip pocket. Manuel played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He took the job in February 2012, not having a clue about the coming turbulence. Manuel did have the sense to listen to Calhoun about the great coach's replacement.
"Go with my gut and go with a Hall of Famer [Calhoun] who knew him," Manuel said.
Kevin Ollie had played four years at UConn, 13 more in the NBA. In 2011 he was an assistant on the 2011 team that rode Kemba Walker all the way to a national championship. When Calhoun stepped down, Ollie was given a one-year contract.
That year the Huskies were banned from the NCAA Tournament because of a sub-standard APR rate. Safe to say, Ollie has earned some permanence.
Had it had made the cut, Connecticut would be splitting a $90 million check in a BCS conference (Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten) each season before a ball is snapped. That's also before getting the approximate $20 million annually in media rights fees.
Below the line in the AAC, the Huskies are in a league that splits $86.5 million annually with the MAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mountain West. ($17.3 million per conference) There's also some nice Big East exit fees to split over the years.
"It looks like realignment may well be over," Aresco said. "I think we're done worrying about that."
It seems incongruous that UConn started this run 24 days ago in Memphis at the AAC tournament. This is a team that lost to SMU twice. It was beaten by 33 at Louisville less than a month ago.
It was a Big East flagship that didn't let a conference define it in realignment.
"We had to do it the hard way," Aresco said amid the back slaps, "we had to earn it."
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