The wheels of change are turning in college athletics right now. Conferences are expanding, schools are searching for new homes, and the end result will be several so-called "super conferences" with a number of potentially worthy schools being left in the dust.
Texas A&M and the SEC fired the first official shot in the newest wave of conference realignment that saw Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah all move on to greener pastures in the last wave. Over the past weekend, Syracuse and Pittsburgh fired the second by applying and being accepted as the newest members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, though when they’ll actually be joining the conference is another story. Syracuse’s decision in particular is the biggest sign that major changes are on the way. As a charter member of the Big East Conference, if they feel that the conference might no longer be a viable entity, that’s as damning an indictment as there can be.
With that in mind, the remaining schools and their university presidents and athletic directors are likely a very nervous bunch right now.
Despite its reputation as a mediocre (or worse) football conference, the Big East still provides direct access to the Bowl Championship Series and the money that comes with that access. So for schools like Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, and UConn, who 10 years ago were either not playing in a major conference or not playing FBS football at all, the current game of musical chairs could put them right back where they came from.
One school that is certainly not sitting around waiting for things to happen is UConn. It's been widely reported in the past few days that University president Susan Herbst has been burning up the phone lines in an attempt to get an offer to join the ACC.
Unfortunately for UConn, the ACC seems content for the time being with 14 members, though as conference commissioner John Swofford stated, the conference is not "philosophically opposed" to future expansion. One reason for the delay would seem to be the ACC’s willingness to hold a spot open for Notre Dame should they decide to surrender their football independence. If the Big East were to collapse, a new home would be needed for all of Notre Dame's non-football sports, and it's unlikely that another conference would provide the Irish with the sweetheart deal that the Big East did.
So, what happens to UConn then? The school has an elite basketball program, slightly above average football, strong non-revenue sports, and a good academic background (beyond their student athletes at least). Those factors would seem to indicate that they would make a solid addition to most conferences.
Unfortunately, we know that so much of this conference realignment talk centers around opening up new television markets, and with it, the ability for conferences to negotiate bigger television contracts. This is where UConn’s value to a conference begins to diminish. They play in a small market between two larger ones that are now or were already spoken for in the conference (New York, Boston), and wouldn’t bring in many new viewers (Fiesta Bowl ratings were 20% from the previous year).
UConn, despite being a top 100 academic institution according to US News & World Report, is also not doing itself any favors when it comes to its academic reputation with student athletes. The most obvious example is that UConn’s APR score in basketball has been among the worst in the country over the past few years, and under the new guidelines, would have made them ineligible for post-season play this past season (and thus ineligible to win their national championship). Recent sanctions against the program and coach Jim Calhoun are also not helping their cause. In a conference that includes schools like North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, and BC, academics are actually a real focal point.
One other aspect to consider is that UConn has burned a lot of bridges in the last decade following the original defection of Big East schools to the ACC. The infamous lawsuit that was filed on behalf of a number of the remaining Big East schools in 2003 emanated from former Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and forced Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to spend a significant amount of money to litigate it before a settlement was reached. Afterwards, Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo famously decreed that the Eagles would NEVER compete with UConn in either of the two main revenue sports as long as he remained at the school.
Why does that matter?
Admission into the ACC isn’t decided arbitrarily by commissioner John Swofford. Admission is decided by a vote of university Presidents and requires a certain percentage in order for acceptance. I have to imagine that at the very least Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami would resoundingly vote no on UConn and would pressure others to vote the same way if they aren’t already doing so.
Rather than wait around and try to navigate the potential minefields in order to join the ACC, the school would be better served with helping to broker the survival of the Big East in some fashion. With TCU already in the fold for next season, the precedent has been set for the conference to expand beyond its East Coast base of operations. With Texas and Oklahoma currently brokering the destruction of the Big 12 by attempting to move west and joining what would, I assume, become known as the Pac-16, the remaining schools will need a home.
A potential football conference that includes a preliminary roster of the Huskies, South Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Kansas, Kansas St., Iowa St., Baylor, TCU and Missouri would be at least as good as what the Big East has had recently if not better. When you look at this potential conference from a basketball standpoint, it looks even better.
This potential group would still need to add a few more schools in order to add a lucrative conference championship game, but with Conference USA full of schools like Memphis, Houston, East Carolina, and Central Florida looking to move into an automatic qualifying conference, it wouldn’t be a hard sell. Even the addition of a soon to be FBS program UMass would seem to make sense for a revamped version of the Big East.
Being proactive is the only way to guarantee survival and viability in the changing world of college athletics. If UConn waits and hopes for an invite to the ACC they might get left behind permanently. In order to guarantee their survival and ability to continue growing their football program, they should be focusing their energy on brokering a merger between themselves and the would-be remainder from the Big-12. After all, it’s much better to be in control of your own future rather than allowing someone else to control it.