8:06 PM EDT, March 29, 2013
No living person could explain what happened to the sports programs of the University of Connecticut in the last six months. It would take John Milton, who was so good with rebel angels being "hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky / With hideous ruin and combustion, down / To bottomless perdition; there to dwell / In adamantine chains and penal fire."
Maybe things are not quite so bad as that. Being in a nameless conference with Central Florida, Tulsa and East Carolina is not the same as "rolling in a fiery gulf" with a "horrid crew."
Let us review. The trouble started 10 years ago when Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East. Pretty soon everybody else wanted to depart. Recently, Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers all left. So, eventually, did the Catholic 7, which sounds like either a list of sacraments or a trial involving the Berrigan brothers but which is actually a bunch of basketball-minded colleges that bolted to form their own league. In the divorce, they got the Big East name. We got the dog.
UConn found itself in one of those "Left Behind" novels in which all the good souls are raptured up to heaven and the nonbelievers remain on earth to do battle with South Florida, Memphis and the Antichrist. We're in a peculiar conference that, for some reason, has not been able to name itself, exposing it to additional ridicule as people call it things like the WTA (We'll Take Anybody).
UConn could not have made its own intentions to bolt more clear if Susan Herbst started showing up for press conferences in a jetpack. But nobody wanted us. Why?
I actually don't know. It's some combination of the following.
Jim Calhoun. The New York Times ran a piece earlier this month quoting unnamed sources who said Calhoun's recruiting violations, lousy graduation rate and loud criticisms of other departing programs poisoned the waters
Richard Blumenthal. The former attorney general tied up Boston College, Miami and the ACC in lawsuits and depositions back in 2003. There were multiple visits to a courthouse in Rockville, a place every Gene Pitney fan should visit once but ideally voluntarily. There were lawyers charging their clients $350 an hour. This is not a way to build bridges … except to Rockville.
Football. UConn is awesome at basketball. In the early days of this century, we were told we had to do big time football too, no matter how much it cost. If we didn't, we would wind up a second-rate sports power, unable to maintain our position in elite conferences with high paying TV contracts. So we spent over $100 million to … hey wait a minute!
Yes, from a certain bleak perspective, we seem to have spent vast sums on football in order to cripple our once-proud basketball program. If we hadn't done that, we could change the university's name to St. Geno's-on-the-Cow-Pastures and join the cool basketball conference. But the story is far from over, right? I mean the whole UConn-University of Houston rivalry could turn out to be huge.
What can be learned from this?
I say: beware of chasing the big money in college athletics. It's not really there. This is a very hard thing to study, but sports at UConn don't really pay for themselves. It takes an additional $15 million in student fees and university funds to balance the books, and that still doesn't count costs carried elsewhere. Like the $90 million for the stadium. Overall tickets sales dropped from $13.3 million in 2006 to $10.6 million in 2011. TV rights and licensing shot way up in the same time period. Division I football costs way more than anything else and, as UConn learned in 2011, you can lose $1.6 million by making it to a bowl game.
There are intangible benefits. Unweighable heaps of allure and prestige which nonetheless must be weighed.
Still, a university should teach something. So let us remember Ezra Pound who said "What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross." And the Talking Heads who rephrased it: "Never for money, always for love. Cover up and say good night."
Good night. Maybe this was all a bad dream.
Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/. He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.
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