If the Big East football schools had shown a modicum of foresight over the years, if they had demonstrated any sense of committed leadership and the backbone to follow their own collective dream, we wouldn't be writing this in December 2012. But we are, and here it is:
It doesn't get any lower for the UConn brand. When Seton Hall, DePaul and Providence tell you to get lost, you know you're scraping the bottom of the conference realignment barrel.
Two years removed from a third national basketball championship … two years removed from a BCS Bowl appearance … three years removed from a seventh women's basketball national championship with the prospects of a couple more on the horizon … yet today it feels as if even the Patriot League would tell the Huskies 'thanks but no thanks.'
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UConn President Susan Herbst has to be smarting. Despite his calming words on WTIC, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel has to be hurting. Certainly, the UConn fan base is burning. When the likes of Seton Hall, DePaul and Providence commandeer the wheel of your athletic future, it is more than infuriating. It is humiliating.
Jonathan the Husky has his tail between his legs today. He's up for adoption at the local shelter. The ACC? Sorry. No home on Tobacco Road, not yet anyway. The Big Ten? So sorry. And now a handful of the charter members of the Big East have left Jonathan abandoned, begging for a warm, permanent home. Wait. Wait. He does have an owner. He does have a dog collar. And it reads, "Please return to Son of Conference USA."
When the sun had set Thursday, when the seven Catholic, non-FBS schools reportedly had decided to leave the Big East, UConn stood as the only remaining school from the original 1979-80 basketball season. The original eight-team football conference from 1991? All gone or leaving. In all, 17 schools have decided to abandon the Big East since all hell began to break loose nearly a decade ago.
Instead of a four-lane ride to Duke or Carolina, the Huskies have a Tulane to New Orleans. They will be part of a glorified USA Conference. And the view, to be honest, is lousy.
UConn is left with Cincinnati and South Florida in a fragmented football conference that has severely limited appeal for TV networks and is only as good as Boise State's word that it'll still show up in 2013. Geno Auriemma could win a national championship with a conference run out of his garage. Yet the men's basketball program, which has won as many NCAA titles as anyone in the past 20 years, is staring at a much less attractive amalgamation of teams that undoubtedly will call for a boffo nonconference schedule in order to attract top recruits and advance its RPI status.
Look, it makes for great romance to reminisce about Dave Gavitt's dream and the glory days of the '80s. Those days also are long gone. And you know who is less romantic and maudlin about those days than anybody? The seven basketball schools that have made new commissioner Mike Aresco appear as ineffectual as his predecessor John "Fredo" Marinatto.
There is no greater fib than the one that paints the Catholic basketball schools as victims in the Big East saga. Ha. Ha. Ha. LOL. Amen. In the midst of the Big East's getting eight, nine, 10, even 11 bids, DePaul hasn't made an NCAA Tournament since joining the league. St. John's? One NCAA since 2000. Providence? No NCAAs since 2004. Seton Hall? Six years without an NCAA appearance.
Catholic basketball schools made money they never would have been able to make elsewhere. Yes, conference realignment caused anxiety. No, it wasn't always fair that the basketball tail couldn't wag the football dog. But when your share of the media rights is $1.6 million annually and you compare it to $350,000 the Atlantic 10 schools got last year, well, that additional $1.25 million surely helped soothe the nerves. And let's face it. They got clout and cred in the NCAA they never would have gotten elsewhere.
Let's also face some more facts. As soon as the Catholic schools caught wind that the new deal Aresco has been working on wasn't the windfall they expected, or wanted, it didn't take too long to put a bullet in the head of their beloved Big East. UConn, like the other football schools, found out about the Catholic school meeting Sunday after the fact. Heartlessness, as Big East defections have shown, is a two-way street.
Remember last year when the Big East, led by Pittsburgh President Mark Nordenberg, turned down a nine-year, $1.17 billion deal, worth $130 million annually? That deal that would have earned football schools $13.8 million and the basketball schools $2.43 million a year. It would have kept Seton Hall, et al, satisfied. But when all the football defections led to projections of only $50 million to $80 million a year for a new Big East deal, well, it was time to pack up and head for homogeneity. Their big concerns today are whether to dissolve the league or break away. Their big concerns now are legal, exit fees, protecting their automatic NCAA bid, etc. Hey, if the Holy 7 can grab Xavier, St. Louis, Butler, etc., for a 12-team hoops league and get a nice buck out of it, God bless them.
The real Big East is already dead. It died the day Syracuse and Pittsburgh left. And in the end, there should be no hard feelings either way. They all did it for the loot. They all used each other. The Christians were no better or worse than the pagans. This divorce should have happened many years ago. Certainly UConn would be in a better place.
This day was coming for a long time. Everybody knew it. Everybody smelled it. Since the Big East presidents made the monumentally stupid decision to turn down a request from Penn State to join the Big East in 1989, the Naismith-centric schools made it clear where they stood. Guess who led the fight against Penn State? Georgetown. St. John's. Villanova. They gave in to allow football in 1991 to save the conference from splitting, yet there were the hoopsters again in 1994. It took a UConn-brokered compromise to get Rutgers and West Virginia, then football schools, in as full members. The vote was 7-3. Against it? Georgetown. Seton Hall. Providence. At that point the football schools had just signed a five-year, $65 million contract with CBS and were considering leaving.
Somewhere along the line those football schools should have said, we have the money, we have the power. Instead, they kept on giving in to a fragmented, antiquated Austo-Hungarian Empire of a sports league. They should have banded together and left. They should have gotten a commissioner who was fighting entirely for them. They didn't.
On July 9, 2003 in Newark the six remaining football schools went so far as to vote unanimously to accept a recommendation from their athletic directors that an eight- or nine-school all-sports conference be established. The minutes of that meeting show the following was drafted: "We as a group genuinely believe that the breakup of the Big East Conference is inevitable and probably the best overall scenario for all parties concerned." Bingo. They even talked about approaching Penn State again. Miami and Virginia Tech were gone to the ACC. Boston College was still in the room and Father Leahy later expressed consternation that he found out within a few weeks that other presidents were no longer committed to the plan. BC left. In came five schools, including DePaul and Marquette who tip the balance of power in 2012.
The football schools could have showed backbone. They could have forged ahead united, taken Louisville, Cincinnati, USF and when things got crazy in the BCS could have hunted down the likes of Boise State, Utah and TCU. Some of it would have worked. Some of it wouldn't. Some might disagree, but I submit they would have been just as strong as the ACC in football, kept a terrific basketball conference and girded for the changing landscape. They could have hired former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg instead of Marinatto. They could have fought together formidably. They didn't. Instead one by one, they chose to flee. Almost all of them can sit back today and laugh at the mess they left behind. Not UConn. The music stopped on what used to be the Big East. They are left standing. Alone. Humiliated.