What Does Maryland Countersuit Mean For UConn?

Patrick McDermott

In the short term, nothing, but there were some interesting tidbits that suggest that conference realignment may not be dead just yet.

A couple of days ago, news broke that Maryland has filed a countersuit against the ACC seeking $157 million in damages, alleging that the conference tried to punish the school for leaving even as its members attempted to recruit two unnamed members of the Big Ten.

The $157 million figure is triple the $52 million exit fee sought by the ACC, and Maryland's main argument is that the ACC "took steps designed to deny Maryland athletic, academic, and financial benefits that Maryland expected to derive from joining the Big Ten, and to penalize Maryland for its decision to leave the ACC, with the goal of impeding Maryland and deterring other members from leaving the conference." Put more simply, Maryland is accusing the ACC of anti-competitive practices and blatant hypocrisy.

So what does this have to do with UConn? Well on the surface, nothing. This has been a long and messy divorce between the two parties, but the ACC has already moved on and is set to welcome Louisville into its loving arms later this year. UConn had its shot, but missed out, and now the school is likely going to spend at least the next few years in the newly rebranded American Athletic Conference.

But what is interesting to me is that before inviting Louisville, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh apparently reached out to two Big Ten schools and tried to lure them to the ACC.

Hmm.

Up until now, the narrative has generally been that the Big Ten has been one of the "alpha dog" conferences preying on its financially weaker competition. The conference poached Nebraska from the Big 12, Rutgers from the Big East and Maryland from the ACC, and you always got the sense that they wanted more. Specifically, more from the ACC. Plus, with its huge media rights contract and the revenue expected to flow in through the Big Ten Network over the next few years, why would any Big Ten school ever want to leave?

Then, of course, there is the whole grant of rights agreement thing.

As I'm sure most of you remember, the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 all have grant of rights agreements, which basically places each member's media rights in the hands of the conference, and even if a school were to jump to another conference, their media rights would stay with the original conference.

The thinking is that since conference realignment is primarily driven by television revenue, a grant of rights agreement would theoretically make any school within those conferences worthless to another conference, and also provides a huge incentive for schools to stay put.

After Maryland announced its decision to leave the conference, rumors started running rampant that other schools like Virginia, Georgia Tech and UNC may be on the verge of leaving as well. To defend itself, the ACC decided to implement its own grant of rights agreement, which would be more effective than an exit fee and it would supposedly slam the breaks on conference realignment once and for all. There would be stability, prosperity, everyone would move forward and that would be that.

Well, if that's really the case, then why would Pitt and Wake Forest have even bothered to try reaching out to two Big Ten schools? Wouldn't they have been "off-limits" too?

Maybe the schools don't think the grant of rights agreements are as ironclad as we've been led to expect?

Look, regardless of what's happened so far, I don't expect any big moves to happen until after the Maryland/ACC lawsuit reaches its conclusion. In all likelihood the two parties will eventually reach a settlement and move on with their lives, but once that happens... well, as the great Francis Underwood once said, let the butchery begin.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany strikes me as an ambitious, bold, and maybe somewhat vindictive guy, and I don't believe for a second that he's going to give up on his conference's eastward expansion just because the ACC implemented a grant of rights agreement. What if Delany hears that the ACC tried to poach two of his schools, gets angry and makes a Godfather offer to UNC and Virginia?

Or what if the ACC pulls a bold move of its own and actually does convince a Big Ten school or two to leave? What happens then? All out conference war?

My point is this, it's still a few years away, but there is going to come a time when the college sports landscape shifts again. I don't know when it will happen or who will make the first move, but by nature the people who run these conferences are always looking for a way to gain a leg up on their competition, and there's no better way to do that than by cutting your opponent's legs out from underneath them. The Big East learned that lesson the hard way on several occasions.

When that time comes, UConn needs to be ready, and the good news is I think this time they will be.

Things have changed a lot since the 2010-11 period when all of this began. Jeff Hathaway is no longer athletic director, and Warde Manuel and Susan Herbst have both had time to settle into their roles and establish a presence in the college athletics landscape. Equally important, Gene DeFilippo is no longer athletic director at BC, and his successor Brad Bates reportedly gets along very well with Manuel and probably wouldn't be as likely to object to UConn over "turf."

As far as facilities go, UConn's could use some work, but an ambitious new plan could be in the works as UConn drafts its new master plan for the entire university. If that plan includes upgrades/replacements for Gampel Pavilion and maybe a seating expansion at Rentschler Field, that would be a significant bullet point in UConn's prospective sales pitch.

In terms of football, Bob Diaco is an immediate upgrade at head coach compared to the moribund regime of Paul Pasqualoni. He's young, he's enthusiastic, he's well respected within the game and his presence alone sends a message that UConn is serious about big time football.

Lastly, we have to acknowledge that as great as Jim Calhoun was, he's never been the most lovable guy and he made a lot of enemies over the years. Kevin Ollie is a worthy successor and comes without all the baggage that Calhoun had by the end.

If UConn can win and demonstrate that it's on an upwards trajectory these next few years, then the school will be in a perfect position to grab a seat when the next round of conference realignment inevitably comes. Because either the ACC and the Big Ten are going to raid each other, leaving the other with holes that UConn could potentially fill, or they're going to try their hardest, realize the grant of rights isn't worth the trouble, and turn to the much more accessible UConn instead.

Either way, the next couple of years are going to be huge for UConn. All we can do at this point is build ourselves up, put ourselves in the best possible position and then let the chips fall as they may.

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