SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down his college football offseason rankings
At the outset of this decade, there was a deep belief among administrators at the schools most vulnerable in the conference realignment craze that building a strong, steady college football program would be the way to salvation.
Those who got left behind the first time — the University of Connecticut chief among them — were hopeful that mid-major purgatory wouldn’t last forever. UConn couldn’t do anything about its media market, or being unable to add fertile recruiting territory to a power conference or getting boxed out of the ACC by Boston College. But the thinking was it could at least position itself for the next round of dominoes by making football relevant in the American Athletic Conference.
This weekend, UConn admitted that it has failed.
The Huskies are expected to exit the AAC as soon as they formally receive a Big East invitation, two people with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The move, which is expected to be finalized within the next week, will allow UConn to rejoin some of its rivals from the previous iteration of the Big East, like Villanova, Georgetown, Providence and St. John’s.
It will be a big plus in recruiting for Dan Hurley’s attempt to rebuild a men’s basketball power in the Northeast. It will make women’s coach Geno Auriemma very happy. It will instantly reverse the apathy that had set in amongst UConn fans who had no interest in watching the likes of East Carolina and Tulane play in Gampel Pavilion.
It will be a disaster for UConn football.
Fewer than nine years after the Huskies played in the Fiesta Bowl, they’re waving the white flag on ever reaching such lofty heights again. They’re surrendering any hopes of eventually being invited to the ACC or the Big 12. They’re acknowledging that they have screwed up so bad the last half-decade in football that the only way they can save their athletic department is to cut and run from a conference that’s actually trying to compete with the big boys.
Oh, sure, UConn football will go on in some form. That’s all to be sorted out, just collateral damage in a decision that’s entirely about basketball. Maybe someone like the Mid-American Conference or Conference USA will allow UConn to park its football program as a one-off, although it’s hard to see what value the Huskies would bring at this point.
More likely, they’ll have to follow the UMass path as an independent, a dreary football existence that will leave them playing awful opponents in front of a few thousand people at home and collecting seven-figure checks for lopsided beatdowns on the road against schools they once dreamed of actually competing against.
Maybe it’s the right calculation. Maybe UConn’s moment really had passed. If the ACC or Big 12 were going to expand — and there’s no indication that’s in the works right now — it’s hard to imagine the Huskies being particularly high in the pecking order unless ESPN (whose headquarters are in Connecticut) absolutely demanded it.
When Randy Edsall came back to UConn in 2017 after back-to-back disastrous hires in Paul Pasqualoni and Bob Diaco, the idea was that he could make the program attractive enough to get back in those conversations. Instead, two years into Edsall’s second stint, it has gone backward and ended last season as the worst program in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Leaving the AAC means there’s no coming back.
UConn has decided, maybe correctly, that it is a basketball school and a basketball school only. And frankly, as much as UConn fans and administrators thought they were too good to be in the AAC, it’s not like the Huskies brought much of value in the first place.
Outside of its usual women’s basketball dominance and a fluky 2014 national title run led by Shabazz Napier and the since-fired Kevin Ollie, UConn basketball has finished fifth, sixth, fifth, eighth and ninth in the conference. UConn is still a brand in basketball, but it’s not the same program it was in the glory days under Jim Calhoun.
If anything, the AAC has a chance to upgrade in football — the sport where it’s trying to make the argument that it’s part of the so-called “Power Six.” And while there’s realistically a big gap between the real Power Five and the AAC, there’s also a big gap in terms of finances, exposure and ambition among the AAC and leagues like the Mountain West and Conference USA. The AAC will have plenty to consider here — including whether to replace UConn in basketball with a school like VCU that doesn’t have football — but there are options.
Not even a decade removed from having a very solid football program, UConn has apparently decided to cash in all of its possibilities.