Imagine working at a job where you compete for clients or territory. The CEO calls an impromptu meeting. Everyone files into the conference room as leadership explains that everyone’s favorite former employee will be returning to the company after a seven-year sabbAACtical.
You know this new/old employee. You have a tremendous amount of respect, but you kind of like life with them gone. Perhaps you were even invited to a few more office parties.
That’s how Big East coaches feel about the UConn men’s basketball team returning home to the conference they helped build into a national power. Some schools were even making recruiting gains on UConn during this time period.
Fabled slogan ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is how many Big East coaches viewed the American Athletic Conference with UConn in it.
“I can’t tell recruits ‘you know what it’s like to play at Tulane, East Carolina and those places?’ That won’t work anymore.”
That’s Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, from October. Willard has already felt the Huskies’ presence on the recruiting trail, as Akok Akok and Richie Springs both chose the Huskies over the Pirates.
But Ed Cooley is definitely the angriest. With UConn gone, his team won the conference tournament in 2014 and made the NCAA Tournament five years in a row.
All it took was UConn, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Louisville leaving, but the Friars were really doing it! They even won one (1) NCAA Tournament game, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 1997!
“I think we gave Connecticut new life. We gave their fan base new life,” Cooley said. “I think they finally came to the conclusion that they are a basketball-centric school. They were pouring all their money into football and, in my opinion, it was going into a hole.”
That’s how Providence head coach Ed Cooley feels about UConn’s return to its old stomping grounds; definitely not mad about the renewed regional rivalry.
While there are no lies in his statement technically, it’s clear the last time the Huskies and Friars met is also still bothering Cooley:
“We had won seven out of eight down the stretch,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “Had we won that game, I thought we would have got into the NCAA Tournament. I can remember like it was yesterday. Kris Dunn had a shot that he passed up, threw it to LaDontae Henton that got blocked on the baseline [by DeAndre Daniels].”
That was UConn’s last game in the old Big East, a season where despite a postseason ban, Kevin Ollie’s squad scrapped together 20 wins and sent the likes of the Friars and Syracuse away with a bad taste of UConn in their mouth. Now is also a good time to point out that UConn leads the all-time series vs. the Friars, 44-28, going 24-13 after 1990.
Cooley —always a class act despite his penchant for snapping clipboards with his knee — was in that same article eventually gracious about ceding Providence’s place as a regional rival to UConn:
“It will go right along with what our league is doing. It’s another sellout, when we go there and when they come here. I just think [UConn] brings great camaraderie and great unity to the region, especially during these tough times of social unrest. It’s really a perfect time for it.”
It’s hard to think of a sceanrio that’s comparable to what the UConn athletic program just went through over the last seven years. So while coaches like Willard and Cooley can deliver carefully crafted soundbytes welcoming UConn back with open arms, their real sentiment is probably more aligned with Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing: “It is what it is. They’re here and they’re here to stay . . . We have to deal with it.”
Asbury Park Press reporter Jerry Carino said Ewing “looked like he ate a bad oyster as he talked about it.”
And that, folks, is what real rivalry is all about.