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How UConn ended up back in the Big East

The Huskies officially joined the Big East on Wednesday.

Dan Hurley Mark Mirko/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

After a seven-year sentence in the American Athletic Conference, UConn is finally back where it belongs. When the clock struck midnight on July 1, 2020, the Huskies officially became members of the Big East Conference. UConn is now in a conference that puts basketball first, has geography that makes sense, and gives fans rivals they care about.

It’s been just over a year since news of the move became public. In that time, the Huskies finished their last season in the AAC, figured out what to do with the football program and started building up excitement for a new era of UConn athletics.

Here’s a look back on how we got here:

When the last round of conference realignment happened, UConn was left out in the cold. First in 2011, Syracuse and Pitt bolted for the ACC. West Virginia left for the Big 12. The next year, Rutgers got a Big 10 invite while Louisville landed the coveted final spot in the ACC over the Huskies. We didn’t know it then, but the power five window closed that day.

In response, the Big East recruited from Conference USA to fill the void, with a focus on football and large markets. Because this sacrificed its standard of quality for hoops, the Catholic Seven — a plucky group of basketball-only schools — jumped ship and created their own league, adding two new members who also fit the profile in Butler, Creighton and Xavier. They purchased the Big East’s name and records and the old conference became the AAC.

This left UConn, the only remaining original member of the Big East (1979-2013), with a bunch of brand new “rivals” in a conference centered on football with a geographic center in the midwest.

Despite early success — men’s basketball won the national title in 2014 and women’s basketball cut down the nets in 2014, 2015 and 2016 — UConn and AAC were not destined to last long. As we learned during the Big 12’s flirtation with expansion, every single school was looking for a way out.

It was around that time, in 2017, the rumblings began. Jon Rothstein reported that UConn and the Big East had discussions. UConn didn’t want to close the door on the possibility of leaving if the Big Ten or AAC came calling, per Hearst CT’s Dave Borges.

But UConn slowly came to the realization that the “power five” invite wasn’t coming. It saw the fanbases’ indifference to AAC opponents, and the recruiting footprint was experiencing a similar lack of excitement. In the winter of 2018-19, talks started up again and began to progress.

In March of 2019, the AAC signed a new 12-year media deal with ESPN which would put “the majority of basketball games and about half of the football games” on ESPN+, an online subscription streaming service.

In a surprising move, UConn publicly stated its unhappiness with the deal — citing the move away from linear television along with the likely end of the school’s relationship with SNY. While David Benedict has been adamant that the deal wasn’t the reason UConn left the conference, it’s hard to argue it didn’t play a factor in the decision. For years, the school publicly expressed faith and confidence in the American. This statement marked the first time UConn voiced public frustration.

From there, things mostly went quiet. The Husky basketball teams finished out their respective seasons while the baseball team nearly made a run to Super Regionals in the NCAA Tournament.

Then in late June, all hell broke loose.

June 21, 2019, 11:03 pm — It was Friday of the Travelers’ Championship weekend in Connecticut. Late that night, Digital Sports Desk — a publication run by Terry Lyons, a former men’s basketball player at St. John’s who used to work in PR for the NBA — broke the news:

Note: The link to the original story no longer works but it can still be viewed here.

The story spread like wildfire overnight, but many cast an eye on the credibility of the report considering it didn’t come from a local reporter or national publication. However, the next morning at 10:21 am, the Hartford Courant’s Mike Anthony confirmed it:

The initial news said that UConn was joining the Big East in all sports — but that’s about as much information as we got at the time. It was obvious the basketball teams were the biggest winners, but the question of what to do with football loomed large.

That afternoon, we recorded an emergency podcast with our uncut reaction to the shocking news. In the days after, we also broke down what the decision meant for the men’s basketball team, women’s basketball team as well as the football program. We also looked at what both national and local media were saying about the move.

However, the Big East presidents and UConn’s Board of Trustees still needed to give it the green light to become official. Between the initial news breaking and the official announcement, Geno Auriemma — who was reportedly a driving force behind the move — discussed it at his annual golf tournament while Randy Edsall sent a text message to local reporters where he expressed his support of the school’s decision despite the uncertainty it created for his football program.

Finally, on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, UConn’s Board of Trustees officially accepted an invitation to the Big East, which the conference’s presidents unanimously approved the day prior. With then learned some of the specifics of the deal, such as the $3.5 million entrance fee, an high exit fee early on that eventually drops to $10 million and no grant of rights.

The next day, UConn and the Big East made the news official with a press conference at Madison Square Garden.

“Long-term... this is the best thing for our university, our student-athletes, and our athletic programs,” Benedict said.

While the combination of the entrance fee along with the unannounced AAC exited fee was going to be high, then-UConn president Susan Herbst downplayed the price by calling it “an investment more than a cost,” and estimated that the school would save “a couple of million dollars per year” on travel in addition to the money brought in from an increase in ticket sales and alumni donations.

However, while the Huskies were in, they still had details to iron out, namely UConn’s entrance date into the conference and the AAC exit fee.

All that information finally came out a month later. UConn would join the Big East on July 1, 2020. While the AAC required a 27-month waiting period to leave the conference, Benedict negotiated an early exit by agreeing to pay a $17 million exit fee — $11 million of which would come from withheld money from the AAC media contract and $6 million of which UConn would pay directly out of pocket. (Note: As of now, it’s unclear if the cancellations caused by COVID-19 will affected this agreement.)

The deal also contained a stipulation for four home-and-home series between UConn men’s or women’s basketball and the AAC in the future, though none of those games have been announced.

UConn also answered the big question about its football program: The school announced that it will become independent. Though that provided some clarity, there were still plenty of questions about how the Huskies could build a 12-game schedule in such a short time frame, if it could find a TV home for the program and whether or not there would be a bowl tie-in.

As the summer wound down and another awful football season began, the future began to look a little brighter. While the 2020 schedule was still up in the air, Benedict worked on locking up some future series, first with Maryland for games in 2024 and 2026 and then with ConFLiCT rival UCF for 2021. Prior to the UCF news, Edsall noted that former AAC opponents may stay on the schedule for years to come.

Then in October, Benedict unveiled the first part of the 2020 schedule, releasing the Huskies’ first nine games in their return to FBS independence. While it was reassuring (and impressive) to see that most of the schedule was in place just four months after the Big East news broke, the news also included multi-year series with Army, San Jose State and Liberty, providing more stability for the future. The full schedule would be released almost exactly a month later.

With the 2020 schedule locked in, Benedict didn’t stop there, securing three more future opponents in Ball State, Fresno State and Middle Tennessee for 2021 and 2022. Six weeks later, the Huskies landed a lucrative buy game against Michigan in 2023 and a home-and-home with North Carolina. They followed that up with another big money buy game against Ohio State for 2025. Those two football games alone represent nearly $4 million in revenue for the athletic department.

In February, there was still no info on football’s TV deal, but SNY announced a deal with Fox Sports to carry a select amount of women’s basketball games for years to come. Based on SNY’s ties with UConn, many thought the network had an inside track to landing the football deal.

Then things went silent again, probably at least partially due to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. But sure enough, on May 12, UConn announced a TV deal for football — not with SNY, but CBS Sports. The news was a little surprising, it was the exact type of contract the Huskies were looking for: The deal runs through 2023 and could be worth as much as $2 million, all while putting UConn football on linear television in millions of homes.

It’s truly hard to find a downside to this deal, but if there is one, it’s that there’s no bowl tie-in. That being said, the football team still has a ways to go before bowl games are even anything more than a pie-in-the-sky scenario. And ultimately, if UConn goes 6-6, it’s a good candidate to drive eyeballs to one of the many bowls ESPN owns, and could very likely set up some sort of individual deal.

With the TV deal secure, UConn was all set for 2020 and in good shape as independents for years to come. With some free time, Benedict and Edsall reflected on how they were able to put such a solid schedule together on short notice. Then, they locked up three more football series in Temple, Wyoming and FIU. While the on field results aren’t always great, the football team put itself in a position to not just survive as an independent, but make money doing so. Recruiting has picked up as well.

In May, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman told media during a conference call that UConn’s Big East move was still on track to be complete on July 1 — a positive sign amidst some truly sad and scary weeks.

After that, Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll leaked that the women’s basketball conference tournament would move to Mohegan Sun — a major boon for Huskies fans. Even in the American, the Huskies drew very well at the tournament at Mohegan, making it a no-brainer on the Big East’s part to capitalize on this opportunity.

Later on in June, with no end to the pandemic in sight, the conference announced its plans to reduce travel and virus exposure risk for fall sports by splitting teams into east and midwest divisions. So far, it’s unclear if those divisions will remain in place for basketball.

After being left on the sidelines during the last reshuffling of conferences, the Huskies took their destiny into their own hands. After seven years in the wilderness, it’s finally official: UConn is home again.