A JERSEY GUY: UConn, A Tale Of Two Programs
In the basketball offices at UConn and via Zoom conference calls, a celebratory mood prevailed on the first day of July, which was also the first day of the 2021 fiscal year.
It was also UConn's first day back as a full time member--18 sports--of the Big East after a 7 year exile.
At the UConn football office and via Zoom logistical conference calls among players and staff, the atmosphere was much more muted.
Celebrations? Looking forward to the future?
Not so much.
The reason for this is both obvious and complicated.
UConn basketball now has a home, small, cozy, comfortable and in many instances, familiar.
There was a time in the not the so distant past when UConn basketball, both men and women ruled the world of the Big East, basketball and yes, even in football.
But when the Big East football league folded after the 2012 football season, UConn athetics had come to a cross roads.
Basketball and many other non-revenue sports were fine because the Big East was still thriving
The UConn women's basketball team under Geno Auriemma has remained a dynastic power through all of the changes, but the men's program has tumbled since 2013 when the Huskies won their last national championship and 2011 when they won their last national title as a member of the Big East.
But UConn football without the Big East was an orphan, which found a tempary home in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, which was a hybrid of Big East football and other schools.
The invitation to the AAC had a condition. UConn could come to the AAC as a full member only, not a football only member.
Since football has always been the primary revenue producing sport in college athletics, UConn administrators gambled with the AAC and left the Big East.
It never quite fit in Storrs.
Instead of traditional rivals such as St. John's, Providence, Villanova and Georgetown in basketball and Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh in football, UConn fans had to absorb opponents such as East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa and SMU, hardly traditional foes.
It didn't work for a variety of reasons, which is why the UConn administration acted quickly a year ago when the Big East, which reformed itself as a non-football group of 10 schools, issued a re-invitation to UConn.
UConn faced another dilemma about finding a home for football, since the AAC, quite correctly, was not willing to accept the Huskies as a football only member.
Which has left UConn football again looking for a home in what is very much a seller's market.
UConn football coach Randy Edsall, who took Huskie football to its pinnacle 10 years ago when the Huskies won a share of the Big East title and earned a BCS bid in the Fiesta Bowl, came back to the program three years ago, found a program that needed to be rebuilt.
It has been a difficult task with just 5 wins in three seasons, which was made all the more challenging in its new role as an independent, which is basically unworkable for all but a few schools such as Notre Dame, Army and perhaps BYU.
Edsall was back on campus this week, trying to prepare for a season which might never start, with more questions than answers in almost every area.
""I'm here,'' he said on Wednesday. ""Just waiting to see what happens next like everyone else.''
Unlike Edsall, who can not see a blue sky beyond the horizon, UConn's men's coach Danny Hurley can see and feel better days ahead.
Hurley talked to TMG's Tom Luicci a few weeks ago about the move back to the Big East and the immediate future.
“I would say the biggest thing I’ve noticed immediately is how it really re-energized our fan base,” said Hurley, a 1,000-point scorer at Seton Hall during his playing days. “The American Conference is a great league but from the standpoint of geography, history and renewing some old rivalries, getting back into the Big East has been a game-changer for us, especially for the fans.”
Basketball will again rise to the elite status, because when given the opportunity, UConn has succeeded.
""Every time UConn has had an opportunity to succeed, they have been successful,'' said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who watched closely as UConn made unsuccessful attempts to elevate to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12.
""Look at the Big 12, '' said Tranghese. ""They were focused on adding Louisville and then at the last minute West Virginia moved into the picture and bumped them out. If that hadn't happened, I don't think there is any way that the ACC takes West Virginia over UConn. And if that had happened it all would have been different.''
The harsh reality is that the call for UConn from the Power 5 conferences never came and now the Huskies are at another cross road in their athletic history.
Basketball and the other Big East sponsored sports will be fine, but for football, no matter what words of optimism come from their boosters or athletic department, the situation would appear to be dire at best, without the complications caused by the presence of of COVID-19.