For far too long, UConn’s leadership has been reactive to the ever-changing landscape in college athletics. Round after round of conference realignment came and went and with it, television partners and conferences dictated the Huskies future. We sat and saw rival members of the Big East find greener pastures elsewhere, with the Big XII (West Virginia), Big Ten (Rutgers) and ACC (Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame) all poaching the rivals fans actually cared about competing against. The match-ups meant something and it was snatched away from us like the rug underneath our feet.
Rather than looking like the dominant athletic force UConn had become for the better part of the last 25-years, the Huskies were left holding the scraps and trying to piece together a future. For those in Connecticut, fans, alumni, the administration, it was hard to comprehend in the midst of it all. After all, from a performance standpoint, UConn was performing at top-ten levels nationally as an athletic department when things went down. National Championships? You bet and they didn’t stop even when the AAC was formed. The Huskies hold more titles in the big-three sports of football and men’s & women’s basketball (4) since 2013 by themselves, than the Big Ten, Big XII & Pac-12 have combined (2). The SEC only has (3) such titles in that same time frame. With athletic success, came rises in academic rankings. Investments were made and results were seen. Today, UConn ranks 22nd nationally among public institutions.
And then football. Randy Edsall was hired in 1999 and oversaw a meteoric rise to respectability at the FBS level. The Huskies earned 29-wins over Power-5 programs under Edsall’s leadership through 2010-11 (just 7 in the 8 seasons since), including victories over Notre Dame and South Carolina, two Big East Championships and even a New Year’s Day bowl berth against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
But this isn’t a story about an athletic department that is going to always have to look backwards for their glory. With the report that broke on Friday night, the UConn administration took control of their own destiny for a change; finally. TV and ESPN? We’ve waited long enough. The latest ESPN AAC deal was seemingly the final straw. Already being bought on discount by the AAC, the UConn brand was about to forcibly be put predominantly on ESPN+, an online, paid streaming service that would prevent an average UConn fan from tuning in to games on a regular basis without coughing up extra money.
Now, there is news that the Big East presidents have voted this Monday to approve UConn as the 11th member of the Big East Conference. No, this isn’t the Big East of old, but the Big East of today, but it’s better than the prior state of the AAC. For basketball and the Huskies Olympic sports, it’s hard not to envision a better scenario in the current conference environment sans an ACC partnership. Recruiting will take a massive jump. Fan interest will immediately return. Ticket sales will jump back with yearly conference contests against Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Marquette, all bringing nostalgia for the ‘good ole days’, plus the additions of Butler, Xavier and Creighton, each entertaining match-ups against annually ranked programs. The travel nightmare has ended, with just Creighton the furthest outlier of the group. A new broadcast partnership will emerge with FS1 and the voices of Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson will return. And then there’s that tournament back at MSG in March. It will be heaven for UConn Basketball nation.
But what about football? The answer needs to be independence. The AAC has already leaked that UConn would not be welcomed as a football-only member. The MAC, Conference USA or Sun Belt should be non-starters. Nothing against #MACtion, but we’ve had enough of cheesy hashtags with zero substance like #P6. Independence is the right path forward. I’ve seen the reaction from fans, national media and other pundits on social media proclaiming this move ‘kills the football program’ or ‘sets them back.’ The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Scheduling will be paramount and it can be done. As Andy Katz mentioned, there will be buy-games, big ones. Think Clemson in 2021 big and that will become a norm. UConn will continue to be able to generate home-and-home series with mid-to-lower tier Power-5 programs like Indiana, Duke, Syracuse and Illinois. Utilize connections with New York for a yearly game with a national brand to pull an upper-echelon P5 closer to this region and drive further interest and publicity.
For television, SNY will likely control all home games at The Rent. Road games will be featured on the opponents’ conference television network. But the one thing that needs to happen more than anything else? Just win. As much as things have gone entirely south for the football program in recent years, the current staff has things moving again. Recruiting has picked up. New uniforms were just revealed. The new locker rooms, the fresh $1M upgrade puts the Huskies digs at the top of college football. The weight room also got a makeover. All of that helps with recruiting.
No longer will the program play the likes of Tulsa, Tulane and SMU, who no offense, are a trio of schools that no one here in Connecticut, who are used to top-end, professional sports, care about or had any interest in seeing. With the freedom to schedule a full slate of 12-games, regional match-ups should return.
This is now UConn vs the world on the football front and the new mantra should be anyone, anyplace, anytime. People’s opinions of you will not change unless you give them a reason to. Could the Huskies have become competitive in the AAC? Of course, but what pinnacle would that ultimately get them to? UCF went undefeated for almost 2 seasons and they didn’t get a sniff at the College Football Playoff. Start winning the mid-to-low tier P5 games and respectability will return. Win a few of those buy-games and UConn would start to turn people’s heads.
This move puts UConn in control of their own destiny at a time, where the current college sports landscape isn’t going to be what it is forever. A pre-requisite to a P5 league or whatever model the top-end of college athletics becomes has never stated a membership in the AAC is required. The Big East gives UConn the ability to bring their basketball program back to premier status, while also reinvigorating the fanbase. Football independence, if done properly, can prove all of the naysayers wrong. Do both and UConn improves their odds of further selection to the top level of college sports at a time when further realignment is coming in just a handful of years.
On top of all this, one thing does need addressing and it’s a crucial one for the future. Over the last several years, social media showcased a rift that had developed between the UConn basketball fans, who blamed the football program for the current conference mess and those that also support football. Think a Republican vs Democrat type beef, except in this case UConn Nation was cannibalizing each other. Now that basketball is in a more stable situation, football needs all the support they can get.
Keep in mind, this may not be the final destination for UConn athletics, but there were two paths forward in front of the administration. Continue an uphill battle in the AAC or start to create your own destiny by making things happen on our own. They chose the latter and they chose right.