By JEFF OTTERBEIN, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
8:52 PM EST, December 22, 2012
In April 2011, UConn was on top of the college sports world.
The men's basketball team, led by Kemba Walker, had just won an improbable national title, the third for coach Jim Calhoun. Geno Auriemma's women's team had made it to the Final Four yet again. Even the football team got into the act that January, reaching a major bowl for the first time, the Fiesta Bowl, even if it did get blown out by Oklahoma.
By September 2011, things were unraveling, and UConn looks around now and doesn't recognize anything. Of the original members of the Big East, a conference formed in 1979, the Huskies are the last school left, and not by design. Everyone left or is leaving.
UConn, once a big winner with 10 national basketball titles between two programs, is now among the single biggest losers as conference realignment has transformed college athletics.
"It makes no sense. There is no logical explanation to all this," former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said last week from Florida. ... "I feel particularly bad for Connecticut. Dee Rowe is like a father to me ... Jimmy Calhoun ... Geno."
Dee Rowe coached men's basketball before the days of the Big East, before Calhoun and Auriemma became legends.
And Tranghese knows as well as anyone that what matters most is football and money, not basketball. When the Big East started in 1979, it was a basketball conference. There wasn't a Big East football conference until 1991.
Tranghese believes, as many do, that realignment is not done, that there will be super conferences down the road, thus another shot for UConn to land somewhere.
For now, the Huskies must hope that something restarts the merry-go-round.
"UConn, Cincinnati and South Florida appear to be the biggest losers in realignment," said Tim DeSchriver, an associate professor in the sports management program at the University of Delaware's Lerner College of Business and Economics. "These schools made substantial investments in their FBS programs over the last decade with the belief they would be competing in a BSC level conference. Obviously, realignment has put that strategy in question. However, this may change in the future if realignment is not over.
"If the Big 10, Big 12, or SEC raid the ACC to reach 16 teams, then I would expect the ACC to reach out to UConn to backfill the teams they have lost. However, I do not see any leagues except the ACC reaching out to UConn."
Much has been written about the ACC's choice to add Louisville. It was purely a football decision. Louisville has been better on the field recently and is seen to have more upside. That is what mattered to the ACC, fearing defections if it did not improve its football situation.
Football drives the big TV dollars.
It is why Big East teams that played BCS football kept on leaving: Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004, Boston College in 2005, West Virginia in 2012. Syracuse and Pitt are out in 2013, Louisville and Rutgers in 2014, Notre Dame in 2015.
It is why in 1992 UConn athletic director Lew Perkins started his plea that UConn needed to upgrade its football program, build a stadium, play in the Big East at the BCS level. Doing that, the reasoning went, would keep UConn in the major conference structure, a theory that was all well and good until the system went haywire.
Perkins spoke to The Courant in 1992 about the Division I-A football issue amid the feeling that UConn sports was getting too big: "People say, `How can we ever do that?' Well, I don't know if we can do it or not. But we've got to look at it. Look at John Toner. He made the decision to go into the Big East. Thank God. And I bet the same people that are telling us we're too big are the same people that were saying not to go Big East basketball."
Toner's decision in 1979 to have the Huskies join the Big East launched them into the big time from the regional Yankee Conference. It proved to be a stroke of genius, and the conference certainly had a good run. But on Dec. 16, Catholic schools DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova got up and left, too. Like-minded institutions that do not play big-time football, they were tired of football driving everything, including the league into the ground, and figured they would be better off forming a conference built on basketball..
Perkins' decision, too, to keep pushing for the highest level of football was what kept UConn in the game and still might. When Rentschler Field opened in 2003, it ended a long battle by Perkins and many others to get a stadium built.
Until now things had worked pretty well for UConn, so how did it get to this point? Cincinnati men's basketball coach Mick Cronin has an explanation. Like UConn, Cincy was left behind in the Big East.
"My take is it's a shame that football, one sport, has dictated all this," Cronin said to reporters after the decision of the Catholic schools to leave. "The money that one sport is swinging around is swaying universities to make decisions. Don't tell me that people care about student-athletes. It's all ridiculous. Let's call it what it is. ... It's all about money and money-grabbing."
And where there is money, there are other issues.
"One last item that I have found troubling within the entire realignment situation is the lack of transparency and honesty from university administrators and conference commissioners," DeSchriver said. "To see schools such as West Virginia and Pittsburgh pledge their allegiance to the Big East and then leave the conference within days is very troubling. A lot of these people have been far from honest in their statements on realignment and I find this quite troubling. These people are still part of a higher education system, which is supposed to teach moral and ethical behavior to its students. It seems as if some of these people are not practicing what their institutions preach to their students."
The First Exodus
It was a messy raid by the ACC. On April 16, 2003, Tranghese was not happy, saying that the ACC had approached Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Boston College as the league sought to expand to 12 teams. Tranghese said the ACC was trying to intimidate Big East teams, telling them their league was falling apart, and to come to safer ground.
"I am totally comfortable with the way our league conducts its business," said ACC commissioner John Swofford at the time. "And I feel like the relationship between the schools in the ACC and the Big East is good, which is why I find the comments from the Big East office on this issue unfortunate."
On June 24, 2003, the ACC by a 7-2 vote extended invitations to Miami and Virginia Tech. BC and Syracuse got shut out. Lawsuits were filed in Connecticut.
ACC Comes Calling Again
Before the BC-UConn football game Sept. 13, 2003, Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo was asked about hard feelings left over from the courtship of the Eagles that did not yield an ACC invitation. He said it was time to move on.
"Enough has been said, enough has been written," DeFilippo told The Courant. "It's past history. We are very, very happy and proud members of the Big East, and we're looking forward to helping to be a part of making this conference the very, very best it can be.''
On Oct. 12, 2003, one month later, BC officials needed less than four hours to accept an invitation to join the ACC, the first charter member to defect from the Big East.
Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel said he was "personally offended by the actions of the ACC" and "disappointed" in Boston College..
On Oct. 14, another lawsuit was filed by four Big East football schools (UConn, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Rutgers) alleging that Boston College and DeFilippo engaged in a "secret scheme'' with Miami and the ACC, "undertaken with the full knowledge and intent of severely weakening, if not destroying," the Big East.
Then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed the lawsuit in Superior Court in Rockville. BC, DeFilippo, Swofford and three ACC officers were added to the list of defendants, which already included Miami.
The suit, in hindsight, caused a major rift between BC and UConn. The suit ultimately was settled out of court with Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers and UConn each getting $1 million.
ACC, A Third Time
The defection of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC officially came on Sept. 18, 2011. The coast-to-coast realignment of conferences was moving at a dizzying rate, basically a freight train out of control.
"We're very comfortable with this 14," Swofford said at the time. "The only thing I would add to that is we are not philosophically opposed to 16. But for now we're very pleased with this 14. We think it's an excellent group."
Said Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor: "For Syracuse, this opportunity provides long-term conference stability in what is an uncertain, evolving, and rapidly shifting national landscape."
A landscape that once again had mowed down UConn and the Big East.
"Once Pitt and Syracuse left, I knew it was all over," Tranghese said.
So was there something Tranghese could have done years before? The Big East never had the strength in football of other conferences from the start and each raid depleted it.
"Gone out and gotten Alabama," he said with a laugh.
What, You Again?
This time the ACC got raided. When Maryland announced in November it was leaving for the Big 10, Swofford was forced to act. UConn immediately became the favorite, but soon Louisville was in the mix. The Big East got raided, too; but when does it not? The Big 10 also grabbed Rutgers.
Tranghese said he felt the Big 10 would have left the Big East alone, feeling that strong Eastern football only helped the overall college scene, but by this time it had no choice. It needed to act to protect itself.
So what would the ACC do this time? Could this be the Huskies' way out to some sanity? UConn fans sat and waited. UConn had the academic edge, and many felt that was going to be key among the ACC presidents. But football, just like those warning signs 20 years ago, was just too powerful once again. And Louisville has been better recently.
"We felt that what the ACC needed most was to add the most exciting sports programs that we could," said North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp, chairman of the ACC Council of Presidents.
And by that he meant more football buzz. UConn was stung again, the second time in 14 months that UConn was considered but bypassed by the ACC.
UConn President Susan Herbst could only speak to timing, helplessness.
"Conference realignment has so many pieces that are out of the control of us and most individual universities," Herbst said. "The only thing we can control is to try to put ourselves in the best place academically and athletically."
Where Do We Go From Here?
DeSchriver sounds a similar chord to Herbst. Many things are out of the control of the individual institution.
"I am not really sure what UConn could have done to make itself more attractive to other conferences," DeSchriver said. "The one area where, in hindsight, UConn may have regrets is its aggressive fight against the ACC a decade ago when Miami, Virginia Tech, and BC left the Big East. I must believe that there are still some negative feelings toward UConn by some in the ACC due to the previous lawsuits."
At some point the ACC might have no choice but to go to UConn. Superconferences might be the way of the college world sooner rather than later.
"Within 10 years, it is possible that we see five major conferences with 14, 16 teams," Deschriver said. "The next question beyond that is if these five conferences remain as part of the NCAA or do they break off to form their own association. By doing this, they would control their own destiny and increase their level of autonomy. Currently, they still are somewhat controlled by the NCAA and [NCAA president Mark] Emmert.
"I am skeptical that the commissioners of the big five conferences really enjoy having this oversight by the NCAA. Also, I do not think the major Division I programs enjoy subsidizing the spending for Division II and Division III championships. Does Alabama or Ohio State really want to subsidize the costs associated with sending a Division III athlete at Trinity to compete in the NCAA track and field championship or any other sport?"
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