NORTHERN EXPOSURE: UConn Football Diagnosis? Terminal
The words and sound bites that you will read and hear over the next several months, from most people connected with UConn football, will be filled with cautious optimism.
They will tell you that life after the American Athletic Conference--which will officially end this season after UConn and AAC officials agreed on a $17 million buyout--can go on as a football independent. Or, perhaps, even a football only member in conferences such as the Mid-American Conference or Conference-USA.
It is wishful thinking at best.
It is also ironic that UConn becomes one of the few schools to leave a conference and have to pay a big buyout sum without any equal or better payout coming to them at their next stop.
The issue, as is usually the case in the high-speed world of FBS football, is money. To leave the AAC early (after this season) UConn must pay the AAC the sum of $17 million by the year 2026. To enter the Big East in most other sports other than football, UConn must pay the Big East $3.5 million.
That's $20.5 million in exit and entrance fees from a school which posted an athletic department deficit of more than $20.5 million.
The Big East will start getting money back as a full member of the Big East next season and their travel costs will be down because UConn teams no longer have to travel to the outer limits of the AAC in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, but will it be enough to offset the drop in football revenue?
Football always has been and always will be the biggest athletic money maker because of huge television contracts. It is a primary reason for the glut of conference reconfiguration over the past 15 years.
Big football, big money as schools from the Power 5 conferences of the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference will gladly acknowledge. Big Ten schools will be paid in excess of $50 million, the SEC is not far behind and the ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12 all will pay their members more than $30 million each year.
UConn, which had developed from an FCS level school to a FBS team good enough to win the Big East and get a Fiesta Bowl bid in 2010, has tried hard to get invited to the Power 5 party--and failed each time.
The Huskies climbed steadily in Coach Randy Edsall's first stint in Storrs. But when Edsall left for the University in Maryland in 2011, UConn FB had reached its zenith, although no one knew about it at that time.
With bad management decision and poor coaching selections, UConn football has not posted a winning record since Edsall left.
Looking for a rebirth of the magic, Edsall came back two years ago. But he came back to a program which was in almost worst shape than we started to build 20 years ago.
In their last season as an independent in 2003, UConn finished with a 9-3 season and acquired the security blanket of a Big East football membership the next season, which was regarded as a Power 6 conference, with the 5 big boys.
By the time Edsall left after the 2010 season, Big East football decimated by raids by the ACC, was in decline and folded a few years ago, which created the hybrid AAC.
For UConn, the problem with the AAC was that it offered no natural Big East playmates such as Boston College, Syracuse and PIttsburgh in football nor schools such as Providence, St. John's and Villanova in basketball and the other sports.
Costs rose, income, wins and interest dropped.
Going back to the Big East was a natural move for UConn, but begged the major question, "What to do about football?
The AAC wouldn't accept UConn as a FB member only, since the latest version of Huskie football has produced a total of 7 wins in the last three seasons.
The life vest could be a football membership only member in another conference, but that requires time and leadership, neither which was readily available for the Huskies.
The public comments you will hear in the next several weeks and months is that football can be salvaged.
It is possible to survive, if not thrive as an independent, if you are Notre Dame. You can survive with some creative scheduling if you are a school such as BYU or Army, who has name-brand recognition on a national level.
If you are a school such as UMass or soon to be UConn, good luck.
With Friday's announcement, UConn FB will compete in the Big East in basketball and most of its other sports, starting next September.
But it will function as an independent next season with only four of 12 games scheduled--UMass, Maine, Illinois and Indiana.
Getting 8 more will not be easy, nor will turning a profit any time soon. And even if the Huskies should have a turnaround from last season's 1-11 wipe out and post a winning record, a bowl bid is unlikely, since the bowls are basically all committed to conference teams or independents such as BYU and Notre Dame.
Matching scheduling with bigger payouts from road games against top tier FBS schools is tricky business.
Faced with multi million dollar deficits and small chance of making money, combined with fan disinterest, the UConn Board of Trustees is likely to make a bottom line decision--NO MORE FOOTBALL.
There will be cries of dismay from a small group of football loyalists among the student body and alumni, but it will fade quickly and the focus will be on UConn men's and women's basketball, who have proven they can compete on a national level and even thrive in the Big East.
The new facilities in football, plus a modern stadium (off campus in East Hartford) will be reconfigured.
Edsall has been asked about this future time and again and he merely shrugs ""It's out of my hands,''' he said. ""My job and the role of the players and everyone involved, will be to compete as hard as we can."
The only certainty that Edsall acknowledges is that the Huskies will meet Wagner on Oct. 29 at Rentschler Field on Aug. 29.
"We will be ready,'' said Edsall, "and we will compete in the AAC this season. After that, we'll see what happens.''