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Jeff Jacobs: The State Of State U. Sports

Jeff Jacobs: Best UConn sports memories Of 2015

The tweet went out at 8 a.m. and within minutes my faithful tweeps had answers. Best UConn memories of 2015? Ryan Boatright's buzzer-beater against Cincinnati, the women beating Notre Dame for their 10th national title, the win over Houston and being relevant in football again, hockey making noise at the XL Center.

The biggest changes needed in 2016? Get into a Power 5 conference. Renovation of the XL Center. More offense in football.

Less than 24 hours earlier, I asked UConn athletic director Warde Manuel a number of questions in a state of State U conversation. When Manuel pointed me in the direction of Capital Region Development Authority Executive Director Michael Freimuth, I did that for questions on the XL Center.

Top priorities for 2016?

Manuel: "They remain to have success in the classroom and on the field of play. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished in both areas in 2015. National championship with women's basketball. Field hockey went to the national semifinals. Women's soccer went to the round of 16. Men's soccer won their first round in the NCAA Tournament. You look at what football did in elevating their success and getting to a bowl game for the first time in five years. Academically with the success of our kids with APR in the classroom, very pleased with '15 and look forward to '16 being even better."

As far as implementing cost of attendance for the athletes, where does that stand with UConn and the AAC?

Manuel: "We've already fully implemented it for all our sports. It's around $800,000 that we've committed. In-state it's $2,400 per scholarship and $3,200 out of state. We don't break it out [as to what percentage comes from student fees], we never have. We have different resources that come into the department, and student fees are one of them, but there's no state money that goes to cover it. And my sense is, no, it doesn't come from student fees.

"Half of the conference has fully done it in the first year. Some are phasing it in over a two-year period. Everybody is committed to it."

Although the AAC struggled in the bowls, the conference did have three football teams ranked in the Top 25 when none was ranked preseason. Vindication?

Manuel: "I don't think of it in terms of vindication. From the beginning, we thought we could be a better league. We each are committed. The support to having success is definitely there. I think you might see different teams rise and ebb and flow with different classes. My expectation is very good football for years to come and that this year is not an anomaly. Given where we are right now, I think [the Huskies] will be better next year. And my belief [is] our fans will be even more supportive."

Immediately after the 16-10 St. Petersburg Bowl loss to Marshall, coach Bob Diaco said he wants more points and more yards next season. Do you have conversations with Bob specifically about the offense?

Manuel: "We've talked about it in our conversations, but, look, there's nobody who knows we need more points than coach Diaco. I don't need to tell him that. I know it's on his mind. We talk about it in general terms. I don't give him any offensive advice or tell him what to run. I played defense. If I told him what to run, it would be Bo Schembechler-type 3 yards and a cloud of dust."

The billion-dollar question. For the love of God and state when is UConn going to get into the ACC, the Big Ten or the Big 12?

Manuel: "As far as realignment, we're going to be Connecticut. We've shown in the past, shown this year and will show in the future we can have success across the board. Great academic institution. With New York, our state, Boston, you've got 11 million television households. It's a strong place. We will continue to be great at what we do. If that [realignment] conversation wants to happen, it will. If not, we'll continue to represent the American in a very strong fashion."

When Kevin Ollie signed his new deal in 2014, one stipulation is if either you or President Susan Herbst leaves, Ollie, after one year, has the right to terminate the contract without paying any buyout fee. That's interesting given the speculation about you being one of the candidates for the Michigan AD job.

Manuel: "Kevin and I have a great relationship. The way I took it is he wanted to be able to tie himself to Susan and me as it related to believing in us and our leadership, and in a way protecting himself if one of us did leave. Neither Susan or I had a problem with his desire of having that comfort level."

Do you expect us to be having this same conversation next Dec. 30? Will you still be here?

Manuel: "I don't know. I can tell you I'm very happy here. While all the rumors and speculation are out there, it's just that at this point. If I'm here next Dec. 30, I'm going to be a happy person, as happy as I am now. I don't put too much worry about the future. I focus on doing a great job as best I can and making people in Connecticut happy with what we're doing. That's what's most important to me."

New facilities. First, where are you on a new campus hockey arena? A few of your projects seem to have stalled.

Manuel: "We're going to look at what it takes to renovate Freitas [Ice Forum] and bring it up to Hockey East standards. I wouldn't say any projects have stalled. They are sort of in their natural phase of being developed. What's the cost? What are we going to do? By April, we should have a good sense of what it will take to renovate Freitas.

"I'll lump soccer, baseball, softball together. We have designs and cost estimates on what those facilities will cost individually, and development of fundraising plans. Baseball has $1.5 million in commitment. That project has been on the books for a while. We're looking at how we'll develop that side of the campus. Soccer is longer down the road with the [$8 million] gift from Tony Rizza. So if anything breaks out first in terms of phases of the project it would be soccer."

Which brings us to the $250 million question: What about the XL Center?

Manuel: "We have a memorandum of understanding on what we'd like to do with XL long term if there's a renovation. I'm pleased where we are on that."

From there Manuel said Freimuth is the man to talk about XL. So what's the latest Mike?

Freimuth: "We're moving on three fronts. One is the memorandum of understanding with UConn we signed a few weeks ago. Two, is getting the budget numbers tightened up and the design crews have been working on that. They're not construction drawings, but they've given us some parameters that are more comfortable than the first time around, outlining options. Three, we've had a half-dozen discussions on the acquisition of the properties by Northland.

"They aren't simple lines. We share areas. There are outright ownership lines that cut right through the arena itself. We have to sort all that from an engineering and design perspective as well as dollar perspective. We've had an appraiser trying to value it."

So where does the process of approval stand?

Freimuth: "The governor has to sign off on it. He has been supportive and wants to see it come together, but he needs to see all the pieces. On the assumption he is comfortable, we would present it in the new year to the legislature.

"We don't honestly think they'll drop money on us and have us build a building tomorrow. That's not in anybody's forecast. Ideally we'd like to get some dollars to take the design to the next level and get some funds to control the land, which is justifiable whether we build a new building or not. There are operational conflicts with Northland from who's responsible for escalators to who clears the garbage. It's a crazy situation. The public thinks the state/city owns the XL Center atrium. We don't."

So we're looking at this happening in pieces over time?

Freimuth: "Ideally we would spread the construction costs over multiple state budgets without a massive collision in one year. [It's] a multi-year budgetary exercise that has to be explained and laid out. Look, we're doing it in the context of the state tidying up its capital budget and general operation budget issues. We're not looking to go through there right now in one big sweep like it is Christmas. It has to be over time for operation and economic reasons.

"We are caught in the second of the two-year legislative calendar. At best [in 2016] we probably could get a budgetary adjustment related to the XL Center but not so much tied to a future XL. A year from now when we start a new legislative session we'd expect to get, if we're successful, to get the commitment to go hard on the full build over a period of years."

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