The woes of a program that has won four national championships since 1999 won’t elicit much pity from the average college basketball fan, but it’s still fair to say that it’s been a rough few years for UConn men’s basketball. The Huskies were probably overdue for a week like the one they just had.
Without context, the events in question don’t seem to be cause for much celebration.
Last Thursday, UConn officially announced that it was leaving a conference (the AAC) with a $7 million TV deal for another one (the Big East) with a $4 million TV deal. The school is also saddled with a $10 million exit fee and no home or plan for its football program. On Tuesday, the NCAA ruled that the UConn men’s basketball program had committed multiple Level III violations, and hit the program with sanctions that included a vacation of records and a three-year show cause penalty for the program’s former head coach.
Yes, this was the best week David Benedict’s athletic program has enjoyed in quite some time.
You can’t go back to a conference you’ve never been in, but the prodigal son air surrounding UConn’s move from the American Athletic to the Big East is understandable. The Huskies won’t be resuming conference rivalries with Syraucse and Pittsburgh, but they will be reuniting with the brand that accompanied their meteoric rise from national irrelevance to perennial powerhouse in both men’s and women’s basketball.
Even over the last six years, UConn has remained one of the first programs that comes to mind when the words “Big East basketball” are uttered. With all due respect to the quadruple OT thriller that the Huskies played against Cincinnati in the 2016 AAC tournament quarterfinals, the images of Ray Allen going toe-to-toe with Allen Iverson and Kemba Walker breaking the ankles of poor Gary McGhee still resonate more strongly with a larger segment of the American sports populace.
Since day one, UConn playing in the AAC has always felt a little like Joe Montana playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. It felt wrong. It was almost unsettling. A year from now, order will be restored.
Unsurprisingly, UConn fans seem to be nearly unanimous in their support of the move. The Big East represents familiarity, the return of longtime rivals like Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova, and an umbrella under which the Huskies won a total of 136 conference championships across seven sports.
And the finances?
It’s true that the current television contracts mean that UConn is technically leaving for less money (the rarest of rarities in the world of conference realignment), but there’s also money to be made for the Huskies in the move. For starters, the unconventional geography of the AAC resulted in UConn spending $7,320,041 on travel costs in 2018. In the Big East, the school expects that number to be trimmed by about $2 million.
In the AAC, UConn’s attendance dipped to historically low numbers across multiple sports. In men’s basketball, the 2017-18 season saw the lowest home attendance in 30 years, with an average of just 7,829 making it out to games at Gampel Pavilion or the XL Center. With a fiery new coach in Danny Hurley coupled with the move to the Big East, momentum appears to be headed back in a more familiar direction.
Sources: Since UConn's official re-entry to the Big East, Huskies have sold a combined 3,003 men's and women's basketball season tickets. 966 new in total.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) June 28, 2019
As far as football is concerned, that was always going to be more of a secondary concern at UConn than it would be at 99 percent of FBS schools. Sure, the Huskies beat Notre Dame one time and played in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, but that’s where the program’s history begins and ends.
Three of the four lowest attended UConn home games since 2010 came last season, when the Huskies barely averaged more than 10,000 fans per home game. The team has been below average more times than not since it made the jump to FBS at the turn of the century, and a healthy chunk of the fan base hasn’t seemed to care. That’s unlikely to change whether the Huskies make the move to another conference, play as an independent, or hops back down to the FCS level.
Like every other member of the Big East, hoops drives the conversation at UConn. The fact that the Huskies play football at the FBS level is the only major departure from the rest of the league, but it’s not a departure so defined that it keeps the move from making sense.
Let’s get to the NCAA punishments, which shockingly, are even easier to spin as a win for UConn athletics.
To begin with, the rule-breaking in question would be considered minor at just about any point in modern history. It seems especially trivial when juxtaposed with some of the details that have emerged across the sport over the course of the past couple of years. We’re talking about having too many organized pickup games, a video coordinator performing what is considered a coaching duty, and recruits talking to Ray Allen (who is technically considered a school booster) on the phone.
The result of these crimes against duty and humanity are that UConn loses a scholarship for next season, gets hit with some recruiting limitations, and perhaps most notably, will have to vacate all its records from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Understandably, Husky fans have been overly eager to part ways with the records from both campaigns. UConn finished below .500 in both seasons, produced a combined record of 30-35, and played in zero postseason tournaments outside of the AAC tournament.
The NCAA has decided to vacate this pic.twitter.com/GhE6xAg96O— Russell Steinberg (@Russ_Steinberg) July 2, 2019
The most significant punishment handed out by the AAC was a three-year show cause penalty leveled against former head coach Kevin Ollie. The punishment wasn’t the result of the transgressions in question, it came about because NCAA officers determined that Ollie wasn’t entirely forthcoming with them, and then denied their requests to interview him a second time.
None of this would be pertinent to UConn’s interests anymore, except for the fact that the school and Ollie are in the midst of an ongoing legal battle.
Ollie has sued the school, claiming it owes him the remaining $10 million that was on his contract when he was fired in 2018. He is also seeking additional money for damages he claims were made to his reputation by the school. UConn has countered by saying that it fired Ollie for cause and that it doesn’t owe him the money remaining on his contract because he broke said contract in part by breaking multiple NCAA rules. With this being the case, it’s not hard to spin the NCAA’s ruling against UConn as a win for the school.
To sum up, UConn gets to erase two of the most embarrassing seasons in program history from the record books forever because of minor violations, it received serious leverage in a high-profile legal battle against its former head coach, and it’s “re-joining” a conference that had always felt like its true home even when the pair were separated.
Don’t let anyone tell you the only good news for college programs in the summer is no news.