Herbst Battles To Get UConn Into Big East Tournament

NEW YORK — Susan Herbst says she isn't giving up.

As the UConn basketball team made final preparations Tuesday night for the second half of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader against No. 25 North Carolina State, the school's president had another trip to Madison Square Garden circled this season.

And, no, we're not talking about the Feb. 6 game against St. John's at MSG.

Although it's a decided long shot at this point, Herbst is not giving up on getting UConn into the Big East Tournament.

Within hours Monday of Jim Calhoun's telling Michael Kay of YES that he "would never say never" when asked if he'd rule out a return to coaching, Herbst said she's doing everything in her power to get the Big East to rule in a return to the Garden in March.

"As everyone knows, we do not agree with the retroactive punishment of the current team," Herbst said. "Our APR [Academic Progress Rate] is fabulous now. In 2010-2011 it was 978. The 2011-2012 APR doesn't get announced until June, but it's going to be right in that same area. Obviously, we've turned the program around. Our current kids, as with our national championship team in 2011, are not an issue. They've done what they needed to do academically. They didn't cause the problem."

"We definitely feel we should be in the Big East Tournament. Not only have our students earned it, we think it's a great moment for camaraderie and solidarity for the Big East. We've taken our losses. We're moving on. We want to build a strong conference. UConn has been vital to it since the start. We want to make that tournament a success and I think we're needed there."

On March 7, the Big East presidents agreed conceptually that any team in any sport that was ruled ineligible for NCAA postseason play would likewise not be able to play in conference championships. The policy was voted on and adopted at the annual presidents meeting Nov. 13 in Chicago. UConn, of course, was punished for failing to meet NCAA academic standards from 2009 to 2011.

"The NCAA has left it up to conferences to decide about postseason play," Herbst said. "It's our decision. Conferences have made decisions on matters, but there's no precedent that I know of on the application of this new APR rule [adopted in 2011]. This is new territory."

"We think the conference should show solidarity and collegiality and needs to support its members. They should all re-examine it. We made our appeals. We made great arguments. We've made them regardless of conference realignment, but with our losses to the Big East we need all hands on deck. Show we're a great conference. I've been stating this case all along. It's taking on urgency now."

On one level, UConn deserved the sanctions it got. No matter how much national flag blue you bleed, the 826 APR in 2009-2010 was horrible. UConn has argued that by implementing its new policy in 2011, the NCAA unfairly punished schools retroactively. You can go round and round on that point.

I have supported UConn steadfastly on this one point: The best and latest available data should be used — it is the fairest data — and by that standard, UConn would have remained eligible. The NCAA Committee on Academic Performance ultimately ruled that with so many schools in so many sports using different marking periods, it could not able to process the scores from the 2011-2012 academic year for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

With few schools to consider, wouldn't the Big East be in position to do that? Wouldn't its presidents want to make the fairest possible ruling? Or would those presidents, at this point, be afraid that it would appear to be giving in to UConn so it won't leave the conference? Those are fair questions.

In the meantime, it's also fair to wonder why Calhoun would say, "I would never say never," when asked by Kay if he'd return to coaching. "It would have to be the right situation," Calhoun added.

When asked later by our Dom Amore, Calhoun said, "Do I think I will be coaching somewhere next year? I don't think my wife would let me. … But you know me, I have no filter."

Does that mean he had no filter when he said never say never or when he said he didn't think he'd be coaching next season? Calhoun is often beloved and often not believed in Connecticut. Most folks don't think that Calhoun will coach again, but people outside our borders — including Big East presidents — don't understand the unpredictable games that Calhoun plays. Hell, the truth is, none of us do totally.

Although Calhoun is retired, it seems as if he never tires of the attention. It's almost Steinbrenneresque. Isn't the hero's goodbye press conference enough? Isn't retiring only days after $1.3 million were put in his pocket enough? Isn't $2.74 million not to coach this season enough? Isn't the additional $1 million March walkaway, if he wants to leave as coach emeritus, enough? Isn't retiring only weeks before the season to ensure your hand-picked successor gets the job for at least seven months enough?

Calhoun should be issuing a statement that he has zero intention of returning as UConn coach. Just to make sure it doesn't look like he's undermining Ollie or trying to pressure Manuel into immediately giving Ollie a contract. If Calhoun wants to coach the Heat or volunteer as a youth coach, that's his business. If he has caused even a speck of confusion about the UConn job, that's Connecticut's business.

Calhoun is the one who stuck Manuel with his retirement at the last minute. Manuel wanted to see how Ollie handles adversity, gets his team through a semester academically, handles the day-to-day rigors in public and behind locker room doors. He is clearing every hurdle. Maybe telling his mentor when to back off should be part of the test.

Of course, there is going to be some short-term recruiting collateral damage in this situation. Yet Calhoun telling our Dom Amore two months after Ollie got the job that he is increasingly concerned about the negative impact on recruiting due to Ollie's short-term contract strikes me as a little self-serving. How about all the months that Calhoun left everyone hanging on whether he was gong to retire? How about the academic problems on his watch that led to the sanctions? Didn't they hurt recruiting, too?

Giving KO a five-year contract today isn't suddenly going to persuade Jim Delany to give UConn an invitation to the Big Ten or convince John Swofford to throw out Louisville of the ACC in favor of UConn. Giving KO a five-year contract today isn't going to make Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins commit to UConn.

By creating uncertainty — Eammon Brennan of ESPN.com used the word chaotic Tuesday to describe UConn — Calhoun puts Manuel into an increasingly difficult situation. From everything I have heard, Manuel has loved what he has seen of Ollie and would likely give him a contact before the end of the season, anyway. By design or just with loose lips, Calhoun makes Manuel look weak if he signs Ollie too soon. And if words in the national media like "chaotic" are being used, what do Big East presidents think when Herbst is trying hard to get these current Huskies into a Big East Tournament where they do deserve to be?