However unfair, much of outgoing UConn President Susan Herbst’s athletic legacy has to do with movement, and then lack thereof, in a complicated college sports power structure. Or, at least, that’s how her eight years in office will be remembered, for the change in landscape with which it coincided.
“The conference carousel,” Herbst calls it.
Now as Herbst prepares to leave, having announced she will step down when her contract expires next summer, UConn is on the outside of what became the Power Five, with the football team drawing record-low attendance numbers and the men’s basketball team struggling, in several ways, through a turbulent time.
“Look, I don't expect everybody to follow every twist and turn in this,” Herbst said of an effort to get UConn into a Power Five conference. “But one thing I can assure [fans]: me and the athletic directors we’ve had here have worked on this constantly, all the time, behind the scenes, in front of the scenes and around. If people think our situation has something to do with lack of trying, that would not be accurate. This stuff is very complicated. It is very sensitive. It's a lot of relationships. Nobody was asleep at the wheel. It's a structural problem.”
Herbst need not defend herself. She has long been an ally of the athletic department, its teams, its coaches and, therefore, its fans. She’s been responsive, supportive, interested. UConn athletics will be lucky if her successor is half as invested in the value of athletics to a university’s overall profile.
The Power Five pursuit has been a battle lost. But it was not Herbst’s doing, and earning a seat at the table of big-time football and lucrative TV deals takes more than being interested and proactive form the president’s office down. It takes the cooperation of numerous schools. It takes outside interest creating momentum UConn can latch onto.
“A lot of it has to do with football,” Herbst said. “I really think if you had to bring it down to a single factor it's that we were late coming into [FBS-level] football. If we had football 40 years ago, 50 years ago, and set it up in the way it is set up at the best places ...”
When Herbst took office, conference realignment was not the issue it would become. The academic struggle in men’s basketball topped Herbst’s athletic agenda. The Huskies had just won their third national championship under Jim Calhoun but a slide in APR scores would lead to the program being banned from the 2013 postseason. That embarrassed and angered Herbst, who dove into root causes and, with help from inside and outside the program, started fixing them – immediately.
She reorganized staffs and study habits. She demanded weekly academic progress reports on each member of the team and demanded that each “meet our standards.” She listened to what coaches and advisers needed and provided it. She essentially went through the problem much like she makes her way through campus, taking notes of what needs even minor improvement, like a flower bed.
The men’s basketball program is in fine academic shape because of Herbst’s attention, and UConn won another national championship under Kevin Ollie in 2014. That speaks to what Herbst has been about, to her legacy, one of an involved president who has pushed a university to new academic heights without sacrificing athletic excellence.
Ask UConn coaches about what should define Herbst as a president when it comes to athletics and what you hear most is: She gets it.
She gets the partnership with academics. She gets that UConn athletics isn’t a moneymaker but that its value exceeds anything financial. She gets the attention it draws, how success on the athletic front leads to a surge in applications and donations and more qualified professors. She gets what coaches need. Athletics, she understands, is the front porch to everything else she has built.
“It's a porch of a big, comprehensive research university,” Herbst said. “So my job has been to drag people off the porch and into the house. So that they can see we have an amazing education psychology program, a first-class philosophy department, terrific microbiology. Because we are not a sports entertainment complex. We are a research university. That, I think, is the job of a president ... all these people on the porch and they're all excited about UConn and we're glad about that and we want to win for them. But we want to show them why that porch exists, because it wouldn't exist without the house. And ours is a big house, with a huge academic medical center.”
It’s been a fascinating athletic journey. Among Herbst’s first significant moves was to initiate an examination of the athletic department – much of it tied to academics and compliance – that ultimately led to athletic director Jeff Hathaway’s departure in 2011. Herbst scored well in her two AD hires – Warde Manuel, who left to take over at Michigan, his alma mater, and David Benedict.
There are several projects still taking shape, such as the resurrection of the football program. There remains a portion of the public that suggests FBS football is a dream UConn should stop chasing, that the logical move is to lower the program to the FCS level.
“I don’t know why you'd do that,” Herbst said. “We've invested a lot in it. We like it. It's fun. We were there before. If we filled it before when the program was younger and the university was not as far along on so many other fronts, we can do it again. I fully expect, within the decade, if we do the right things, if we support Randy [Edsall] and give him a chance, I hope that we'll have to build that extra seating that we have room for [at Rentschler Field].
“We filled the stadium when Randy was building last time, Randy 1.0. And we will again. It's not a hypothetical question. We were there, empirically. … It has happened before and it can happen again.”
The Bob Diaco era unraveled with a disastrous 2016 season and Herbst, never afraid of a bold move, supported Benedict’s decision to fire Diaco at what amounted to a buyout cost of about $5 million.
“Cost of doing business,” she said. “We wanted to be in big-time football and there's a lot of risk and a lot of reward. … Clearly [Diaco] wasn't a fit.”
Neither was Kevin Ollie, who had consecutive losing seasons before being fired for cause in March. Ollie and the university are currently engaged in a legal battle over the $10 million remaining on his contract.
“I can’t say anything,” Herbst said.
Asked whether it would be in everyone’s interest to settle and end an ugly process, Herbst said, “I can't comment, but I will counsel patience in this and all things. … It will shake out. … Kevin had a great history here. He's a Husky forever and contributed tremendously.”
Herbst called Ollie’s replacement, Dan Hurley, “a guy who goes so incredibly well with UConn. … And we fought for him. It was worth it. He's a real match.”
Athletic donors have reached record numbers under Herbst, and one in particular highlights the athletic-academic partnership she has nurtured. Peter Werth, who funded the Werth Champions Center basketball practice facility, donated $22.5 million (the second-largest is school history) in December toward the creation of the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Werth’s love for UConn started with a love for UConn women’s basketball, continued with a love for UConn athletics as a whole and, ultimately, became a love for the entire university. It’s the path Herbst has taken, bolstering athletics knowing its success becomes an institution’s success.
“We try to get [coaches] what they need, and it's tough,” she said. “We have a lot of hungry parts of the university that are not funded to where they need to be. But we bring people here — whether they're faculty or coaches or students -- and we want them to be successful. So we take that part very seriously, and it's a challenging environment, primarily because of the state budget and also because the world has gotten more complex. … But I think of coaches just like I do our faculty, in that we want to set them up, whether it’s their laboratory or the field they need or the number of scholarships they have, so they can be successful. Otherwise, they'll go elsewhere.”
Herbst is going elsewhere next summer, down to UConn’s Stamford branch to teach political science. She leaves Storrs with UConn athletics, despite ongoing complications, in a much better place than it could be.