When it comes to recruiting, fan base, support, won-lost record, facilities, bowl experience, high-profile coaches and connections in the Southern-states athletic world, the odds all favored Louisville, despite UConn's superior academic reputation.
Most important, Louisville has been better at football — in a region with rich recruitment opportunities — at the right time, when shifting alliances within the conferences have created opportunities. That was the tipping point for the conference, especially because the basketball programs at each school are both high profile.
"Louisville fans are passionate," ACC commissioner John Swofford said after the decision was made. "And that starts with the football and basketball programs, which enjoy excellent support."
How far the UConn football program can go is uncertain. There are significant differences between Southern football schools and New England, where the fan base is divided by multiple professional teams, the high school football culture isn't as dominant and much of the university's resources still will be devoted to maintaining its academic success.
"UConn faces challenges with a lack of local talent, interest in professional sports regionally, a more popular game [basketball] on its own campus ... so wherever the Huskies end up, there will be challenges no matter what," said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for Fox Sports Net.
To achieve what Louisville and others have, UConn needs to get more top high school players in the country each year, which in turn should lead to more wins. It is a simple formula, yet difficult to achieve with 120 schools playing football at UConn's level. Still, nothing will put more people in the seats than a winning team.
Much of the passion of Louisville fans can be traced to the success of athletic director Tom Jurich, who after 15 years at Louisville is considered one of the most powerful athletic administrators in the country. Jurich has clout with administrators, especially at Southern football schools, and he consistently sold Louisville as an attractive program over the past decade to coaches, fellow athletic directors, TV executives, anyone who mattered.
So, when Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten and the pundits predicted that UConn — academically ranked as one of the top 25 public universities in the country — would be the school to get the ACC invitation, Jurich worked the people he knew. After he won, he said, "We were definitely the underdogs. People had UConn not penciled in, but penned in."
Football was the deciding factor because administrators feared that the league's football powerhouse schools, Florida State and Clemson, might leave for another conference if they were unhappy with whichever school the ACC chose. Choosing Louisville simply meant better football within the conference.
The Cardinals won their first nine games this past season and will play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 before a large national TV audience. On the other hand, UConn is home for the holidays, having completed its second losing season in a row. It remains in the Big East, a conference in flux.
A report this week said that the Big East's next television/media contract could net far less revenue than expected — CBSSports.com reported that the deal could be for $60 million to $80 million a year, below the $100 million or more expected by the conference. That's significantly less lucrative than the ACC, where the teams will get about four times what each team does in the Big East.
Starting The Same, Ending Differently
It's been about 15 years since UConn and Louisville both began to focus on expanding and improving their football programs. The goals were the same — create football programs that would thrive in the changing world of college athletics.
By the late 1990s, as Connecticut finished making plans for a new stadium, Louisville was moving into its new stadium, in 1998, after playing in a minor league baseball stadium.
Louisville fans do not have the same distractions as fans in Connecticut, where there are 12 pro teams in Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL. Given that competition, UConn has done well with its fans, although not as well as Louisville.
Louisville expanded its stadium from a capacity of 42,000 to 55,000 in 2010 and built an indoor practice facility in 2006, the same year that UConn opened its indoor facility. But as a consequence of the slower-growing fan base at UConn, Rentschler Field still only seats 40,000 although it was designed, optimistically, to be expanded by another 10,000 seats.
"[Expansion is] going to depend on the consistency of our fan base and what the needs are," said UConn athletic director Warde Manuel. "I would love to, because of interest and support, to be able to add 10,000 more seats. As our program improves and gets better and we strengthen the schedule like we're doing ... then we'll look to add additional seats."
UConn attendance averaged 34,672 this year, 36,668 in 2011 and 38,248 in 2010. At Louisville, attendance has been strong in recent years: 49,991 this year, 48,538 in 2011 and 50,648 in 2010.
Louisville also has a strong season ticket base of 43,432 this year, up from 41,291 in 2010. UConn's season ticket base was 22,500 this year, the lowest since Rentschler Field opened in 2003 and down from the high of 32,000 in 2005.
That level of support is a prominent reason that Louisville was attractive to the ACC, which has traditionally been a basketball conference. In fact, Louisville's college basketball ratings on ESPN were the highest in the country last season and have traditionally been among the highest of any market in the past 10 years. The men's basketball program is reportedly the most profitable of any basketball program in the country, with Forbes.com reporting that the Cardinals revenue was $23.2 million last season as the program attracted $20 million in donor contributions and has grown 39 percent since the KFC Yum! Center opened in 2010.
In the end, though, it's about more than where the team practices and where the games are held.
As Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino said a few weeks ago, fans in his market have a far deeper interest in college sports than fans in the Northeast. Louisville is a smaller TV market than Hartford/New Haven, and UConn provides an entry into the New York market through alumni in Fairfield Country and the school's relationship with SNY. That market is attractive to advertisers. But Louisville has the reputation as a college sports hotbed, which might explain the contrasting numbers when each school went to a BCS bowl game.
UConn's football program garnered some negative national publicity when the school sold only about 4,000 of its allotted 17,500 tickets for the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. The last time that Louisville earned a BCS bowl bid, the program sold all 17,000 allotted tickets and reportedly brought about 30,000 fans to the game.
Former Louisville coach and Louisville native Howard Schnellenberger, the man credited with saving the program in the 1980s, feels strongly that the school is in football territory. And that's the opinion reportedly shared by folks in the ACC, even though Louisville has historically been more of a college basketball market.
"People in the state of Kentucky and in particular Louisville always loved football," Schnellenberger told The Courant. "Nobody had ever given them anything to be proud of except the basketball team, so they migrated more toward basketball than football. But these are blue-collar workers, farmers and mechanics and the people in that area. … These are more football people. Their lifestyle, their psyche is more football than it is basketball. Still is."
Conversely, UConn is viewed nationally as a basketball school with a relatively new football program. Sandwiched between two of the largest professional sports markets in the country, fans in Connecticut embraced UConn basketball decades ago, but their attention can be scattered. Even basketball attendance has dipped.
"We have to do a better job engaging [fans]," said Manuel, who was hired in February. "We're going to reach out to them and engage them differently as we move forward. I don't have all the answers right now, but the staff is working on trying to be better and engage our fans so that the in-game experience improves."
Winning Wouldn't Hurt
The Huskies just completed their second 5-7 season in a row. Manuel said Tuesday that second-year coach Paul Pasqualoni will remain in charge, although there clearly was a message sent that the team must improve on the field.
A source with knowledge of the meeting also said that Manuel suggested someone other than offensive coordinator George DeLeone call the plays next year. UConn's offense was ranked 109 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total offense this season.
Louisville's coach, Charlie Strong, was nearly lured away to Tennessee, but he decided to stay. His opportunity to move to a high-profile job is an indication of just how far the Louisville program has come.
It wasn't that long ago that Louisville was considering downgrading its program to Division I-AA, the level that UConn competed at before 2000. Before Schnellenberger arrived in 1985, Louisville had a run of six consecutive losing seasons and attendance was sparse, with a season ticket base of fewer than 10,000. By the time he left for Oklahoma in 1994, there was a movement to build a stadium. By the time Jurich arrived in 1997, construction of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium was underway. Jurich continued the commitment to the football program, hiring the right coaches (John L. Smith, Bobby Petrino, Strong).
At UConn, the Huskies began a two-year transition to Division I-A in 2000 and joined the Big East Conference in 2004. Louisville, a I-A program since 1912, joined the Big East from Conference USA in 2005. Lew Perkins, UConn's athletic director at the time, hired Randy Edsall in 1998 to build UConn's program, but he left for Maryland two years ago and athletic director Jeff Hathaway hired Pasqualoni, whose coaching has produced unrest among fans.
UConn also is still in its Division I-A infancy. Louisville, despite joining a BCS conference only seven years ago, did have a long history to cultivate its program, with 16 bowl appearances before this year.
And Louisville's highly profitable basketball program enables it to invest in overall athletics — its $84 million athletic budget is $19 million more than UConn's. As Louisville's program has improved on and off the field, the recruiting net has widened — quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate next year, came to Louisville from Miami.
Under Strong, an Arkansas native who coached at Florida and South Carolina before Louisville, the Cardinals have done well recruiting players in Southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.
According to Rivals.com, Louisville has finished ahead of UConn in recruiting class rankings in all but one year from 2005 to 2012. In 2009, UConn had the 75th-rated class while Louisville was at 76. Rivals ranks the quality of each incoming player and then grades the entire class.
The biggest gap was in 2011, when Louisville had the 29th-rated class in the country and UConn had the 101st. In 2012, Louisville was 42nd and UConn was 77th.
A move to the ACC will only boost Louisville's recruiting. Likewise, it won't be helpful to UConn at a time when it needs the boost to get better players into its program.
But Manuel points to what UConn can offer, including its facilities. And there is an effort to bolster the out-of-conference schedule — Michigan and Maryland are coming to Rentschler next season, Tennessee is visiting in 2015 and Virginia will be in East Hartford in 2016.
"Recruiting is about really busting your butt and working at it," Manuel said. "We have to sell ourselves, we have to be better at selling what we have and what we're going to be and what we want to be and what we have been. And the greatness of the academics."
For now, UConn is "stuck in the middle," said Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN senior coordinator of recruiting. "They've watched some teams that are similar caliber, foundation-wise, make that leap to the ACC and it's got to be frustrating."
A move to the ACC could only help UConn with recruiting.
"We all know the Northeast isn't a huge destination spot for blue-chip recruits," Crabtree said. "If you have that opportunity to play in bigger games and carry a larger conference banner, it certainly does resonate with kids and open up new territories. It would certainly help the Huskies coaching staff to walk into high schools in Florida or in the Carolinas or in Ohio or in Texas with some conference stability, and the opportunity to sell that they're part of something that's larger than the Big East is right now."