HOUSTON — For all the grandeur of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, football is the engine of college athletics. And at the most crucial time in the history of college sports to be relevant in football, UConn was bad at it. Very, very, very bad.
When Dan Hurley arrived as the Huskies’ basketball coach in 2018, UConn had arguably been the biggest loser of the decade in conference realignment. From its once proud place in the original Big East, duking it out with Georgetown and Villanova and Providence and Seton Hall in a league where basketball mattered more than anything, here the Huskies were taking January road trips to Tulsa and Central Florida.
And they were doing it because football ambitions had led them to the American Athletic Conference, the landing spot for the remnants of the Big East after the so-called “Catholic Seven” decided they needed to control their own destiny and stop being disrupted by a sport they didn’t care about.
With no interest from the Big Ten or ACC, UConn was suddenly stuck in a league with no geographic attachments and no historic rivals. It’s not that the AAC was a bad conference, especially with some quality basketball schools like Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati. It just didn’t fit UConn.
“You have to be able to recruit,” Connecticut athletics director David Benedict said. “It’s a very competitive league, but in the northeast and particular in New England and the Tri-State area, that league did not resonate. And we had to be successful recruiting against the Big East and the ACC, and we were in the AAC and it just wasn’t working. It doesn’t mean it won’t work for other people, but it wasn’t working for us.”
As the UConn starters exited for the final time Monday in the final minute of a 76-59 national championship victory over San Diego State, Hurley pointed at Andre Jackson, Jr., turned to his team’s fan section at NRG Stadium and yelled, “This guy! This guy!”
This guy, a former top-50 recruit, committed to the Huskies on Oct. 2, 2019. That was three months after Connecticut’s administration made the decision that its jewel of a men’s basketball program couldn’t stay in the AAC any longer and joined the new Big East.
The following spring, big man Adama Sanogo chose UConn after a recruiting battle with Seton Hall and Maryland that got sweaty at the end. A few months later, sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins did the same.
Those three players formed the basis of a team that ran through this year’s NCAA tournament without much of a challenge, winning their six games by an average of 20 points.
Would any of this have happened if UConn had stayed the course, continuing to chase a football pipe dream at the expense of its basketball program? We’ll never know for sure. Last week, Hurley was adamant that “we would still be here” even without the Big East.
But in reality, the decision to leave the AAC likely saved UConn basketball.
“I just think there were so many natural rivalries in the Big East – St. John’s, Providence, Villanova, Georgetown — and for the most part our recruiting footprint is in the Northeast,” assistant coach Kimani Young said. “When you’re playing in the Big East, that’s easy for friends and family to get to see their kids play. They grow up watching those other programs. It helped attract some of those guys to us.”
As each year goes by, conference realignment seems to make less and less sense.
In a little more than a year, UCLA and Southern California are going to play nearly all of their road games in the Central and Eastern time zones when they join the Big Ten. Nebraska made a similar move in 2010, leaving behind the Big 12 and its Texas recruiting base, and has spent nearly every minute since chasing its tail. Maryland has gone from a foundational member of the ACC to an irrelevance in the Big Ten. Oklahoma and Texas are giving up the massive competitive advantages they have enjoyed for decades to fight it out with Alabama and Georgia. Best of luck to them.
At their core, all of those moves were about money. For UConn, going back to the Big East was about doubling down on what made an unlikely place important in the sport it was best at.
“There’s really no reason that it happened there but for the people that came before and created and built something,” Benedict said.
He is talking, of course, about Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun, who spent a quarter century building great women’s and men’s basketball programs out of nothing more than their stubbornness and will.
Calhoun’s three titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011 and the litany of players that stopped there on their way to the NBA put the UConn brand alongside Kentucky, Duke and Kansas. And when UConn won it in 2014 under Kevin Ollie — a complete surprise title for a team that finished tied for third in the AAC — there was perhaps some hope that it might continue.
But over the next four years as Ollie struggled and Hurley tried to rebuild it — not that successfully, in the beginning — you couldn’t blame UConn fans for wondering if the good days were ever coming back.
“We lost something with our fan base during that time,” Benedict said. “And as soon as we went back to the Big East, things began to change.”
It came at some cost, of course. Connecticut football, which had reached its pinnacle by making the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, was forced to go independent. That’s no easy road. Being in the AAC meant that UConn with the right coach could realistically have access to the College Football Playoff.
Without a conference, that’s over. UConn football will play a lot of road games to pay the bills and hope to cobble together enough wins against bad teams to make a minor bowl game.
But if that’s the cost of being in a league that fits the school, it was worth it — even before what happened Monday. Whereas most of college sports has spent the last decade chasing something that makes them richer financially but poorer competitively, UConn said that the most important thing was to be great at basketball. So it went to a league where that was possible.
“Of course it’s validation,” Benedict said. “This validates more what we’ve been doing over the last five years to get to this point, and the Big East without question was a huge part of it.”
As the college sports map gets crazier, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. Four years ago, UConn went back to its roots. Now it has a new trophy as its reward.