The never-ending game of conference musical chairs that has consistently left UConn standing and scorned since 2003 appears to be percolating again.
The latest rumblings link UConn with a potential opening in the “new” Big East while the American Athletic Conference is asking its members - some of which, like UConn, are looking for greener Power 5 pastures - for a longer-term commitment.
Casting a long shadow in all of this is the Huskies struggling football program, which some outspoken UConn fans on social media are ready to jettison to rejoin the Big East, which has proven to be much a much stronger basketball league than the AAC. Another shadow: the impending end of Susan Herbst’s tenure as UConn’s president.
Big East commissioner Val Ackerman created the initial waves last week. First, she signed a 10-year deal with Madison Square Garden to keep the league’s conference basketball tournament there, locking the Big Ten and ACC out of the world’s Most Famous Arena the week before the NCAA Tournament begins. Last year, the Big East tourney outdrew those of the Power 5 leagues.
Then, Ackerman suggested the 10-team, basketball-centric Big East could expand by one, giving the league the ability to adopt a 20-game conference schedule that other major conferences have or are considering. Ackerman tried to walk her comment back a bit on Sunday, saying “there is nothing cooking on that,” although the recent history of conference realignment belies that assertion.
In October, Ackerman raised the Big East’s profile another way by getting the Big 12 to enter into a scheduling deal with the Big East, which already has a cross-scheduling pact with the Big Ten.
All those moves - plus the fact that Villanova has won two of the last three NCAA titles to help cement the Big East’s status as a true “Power 6” basketball league - have some UConn men’s basketball fans chomping at the bit to ditch the American, where UConn and Temple are the only Northeast teams and the Huskies frequently go on 2,000-mile round trips. As of Monday, the Big East was ranked third and the AAC eighth in conference RPI.
Meanwhile, Sports Business Daily injected more ripples on Monday when it reported American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco wants AAC schools to agree to remain in the conference long-term (officially, signing on to what is called a Grant of Rights) with the lure being a TV contract worth as much as four times the league’s current 7-year, $126 million deal, a pittance compared to the Power 5 leagues. The AAC TV contract expires at the end of the 2019-20 academic year. Such a deal could earn schools $10 million-$15 million a year, still far behind the annual takes of Power 5 schools.
While the call for UConn to drop football slowly grows among a vocal minority on Husky social media, the school publicly shows no inclination to do so - even as the program became a national laughing stock this past 1-11 season, by far the worst of Huskies’ eight consecutive losing years. The skid has made UConn far less attractive than Central Florida, Cincinnati or Houston to potential Power 5 suitors.
Since June, athletic director David Benedict has signed deals to play national power Clemson, Tennessee of the SEC, and Purdue of the Big Ten in the next decade. Nonconference games are already set against Indiana and Illinois the next two seasons and, Boston College and North Carolina State in 2022 and ’23.
If UConn were to move back to the Big East and continue to play FBS football, it’s unclear where the program would land. Independence in the 21st century, with no TV contract or bowl tie-in, seems implausible.
These latest conference realignment rumbles come at an uncertain time for UConn, with Herbst set to leave in the summer of 2019.
The last UConn presidential transition coincided with massive conference shakeups. Herbst took over on June 1, 2011. Two months later, Jeff Hathaway was let go as athletic director. The next month, Syracuse and Pitt bolted for the ACC, part of an old-Big East-destroying earthquake that moved West Virginia to the Big 12, Louisville to the ACC (at UConn’s expense) and Rutgers to the Big Ten.
The “new” Big East is comprised of private, mostly Catholic schools, none of which play FBS football. The league includes old UConn rivals Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall and St. John’s along with Marquette and DePaul, which joined the “old” Big East in its latter stages.