The world is filled with amateur athletic directors.
It’s so easy for anyone following college sports to put on their leadership hat and profess to know what a school should do when faced with a major decision. Once a decision is made, there’s a fevered race to be the first person to proclaim it’s a mistake. Every subsequent piece of news is an opportunity for referendum on the previous decisions.
As most of you know, UConn spent most of its life as a small player on the college sports scene before joining the Big East and riding the wave of college basketball’s national rise in popularity with two groundbreaking programs.
As has been the case for schools like Notre Dame (who would be Butler if not for its historic football program), Boston College (see: The Flutie Effect), and more recently Alabama, who has made remarkable academic investments alongside Nick Saban’s outlandish reign of success, the University of Connecticut as a whole saw immense gains from getting really good at a nationally relevant sport.
Things were pretty Gucci until about 2012, when a Big East conference that was slowly eroding finally collapsed. The ensuing game of musical chairs put UConn’s leadership in a tough spot, with no clear correct decision.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they chose to stay in the husk of the old Big East and become part of the AAC with hopes of it serving as a temporary home. It was heart-wrenching from the jump, but a defensible decision at the time.
Even then, there were calls to plop football in the MAC, FCS, or wherever, and save our precious basketball. While that seemed like a prudent move, it limited UConn’s upward mobility.
Today, that potential for upward mobility is questionable, at least more so than before, and UConn’s leadership needs to make some changes soon because this current path is becoming increasingly unsustainable, as recent reports from the Hartford Courant on the state of UConn’s finances are making clear.
UConn itself acknowledges this severe financial problem.
“It is not sustainable and the Division of Athletics is continually working to identify savings and drive up revenue in order to help close this gap,” a spokesperson told The Courant.
So what changed?
The way things were going, it seemed further conference realignment was inevitable. In actuality, conference movement has frozen, the TV money gravy train slowed down, and “power conference” membership is more likely to sit still, shuffle among themselves, or even get smaller.
In 2012, UConn was gunning to be part of the ACC or Big Ten. They don’t seem to be taking applications for new members any time soon. Even if they were, a football program sucking in the AAC while the school’s most valuable programs are declining does not make for a very attractive offering.
An assumption we made in 2012 was that the AAC was the best place for UConn football to continue to grow. It does have pretty good competition, after all.
Basketball be damned, we’re trying to get invited by the big boys to play football! We can worry about hoops once we’re in the Big Ten/ACC! ... it didn’t sound so stupid back then, I swear.
But some things matter more than the average football rating or the total metro-area population of a conference’s schools— people have to care about beating those teams. Recruits in your immediate area and other recruiting zones need to want to play where you are and in the places you’ll visit. With multiple solid schools in each of Florida and Texas, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where UConn rises to the top of the AAC in football.
There are components to the formula for successful college sports beyond putting two decent teams on a field, calling them rivals, and televising it. UConn’s fanbase is learning that lesson firsthand. Hopefully UConn’s administration is taking note.
In 2015 when an undefeated, top-15 Houston football team came to Rentschler Field with bowl eligibility on the line for the Huskies, the game wasn’t sold out. If Pittsburgh was that visiting top-15 team, it would be. SMU basketball was a consistently top-30 team from 2014-2017, but when the Mustangs come to town, the arena isn’t nearly as packed and fight-y as a game against Syracuse, Providence, or heck even St. John’s, would be.
That’s the difference.
The most damning thing about UConn’s current state is that even the big games aren’t as big as they should be. In this new era, all the best games on the schedule, against the teams fans and alumni care about beating the most, come in non-conference play.
This is true for football as well as men’s and women’s basketball, and it’s killing the fanbase, who is often being blamed for “not getting” the awesomeness of UConn versus Tulsa on the reg.
Geno Auriemma won’t be here forever. Dan Hurley’s success isn’t a guarantee. UConn should be doing everything it can with its remaining basketball momentum to secure a more promising vision for those programs’ futures. Dropping power five aspirations may be an ego hit, and short-term costly, but losing basketball prestige would be devastating and long-term disastrous.
In 2019, UConn needs to do whatever it can to stay alive, and that should mean placing greater emphasis on protecting the value of its amazingly successful basketball programs.
The feasibility of moving football out of the AAC and joining the Big East for all other sports, or dropping football down to FCS, or going FBS independent, etc. etc. will depend on the outcomes of closed door meetings with corporate and broadcast partners. Nobody can know for sure what specific actions UConn should take, but in 2019, versus 2012, the priorities have clearly shifted. Any alternative to the current state should be on the table.
At this point, UConn attempting to get good enough at football to garner the interest of the powers that be in the upper tier of college sports seems like a fools errand. How much longer should student fees subsidize the pursuit of a P5 invite? UConn football can and should survive in some state, but the impact of AAC membership on Husky basketball is too profound. It’s time for a change.