By JOHN F. SILVER
Special to ZAGSBLOG
STORRS, Conn. — Back in 1979 the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team was in no-man’s land.
A regional program unsure of where it was going.
That all changed when the Huskies became one of the charter members of a basketball conference called the Big East.
The Huskies used the Big East and its advantageous recruiting ties to big cities to become one of the top basketball programs in America. UConn has won three NCAA titles, made four Final Fours and have been one of the top programs in the nation for the last quarter century.
But nothing lasts forever and once again UConn is at a crossroads.
When seven Big East Catholic schools – Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, DePaul, Marquette, Providence and Seton Hall – voted to withdraw from the conference it put the Huskies right back to where they were in 1979.
UConn is the lone remaining of those charter schools with Boston College, Syracuse, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and St. John’s all leaving the conference at some point in the last decade. The league has lost all of its member from the 2003 season save for Connecticut, and the Huskies face a brave new world unsure of its place in it.
Barring an invitation to join the ACC — which UConn already openly campaigned for but did not get — or the Big Ten, the school is left to make do where it is.
“We have to be ready for our next step,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “We can’t sit back and have a pity-party…We have to continue to recruit, we have to continue to sell this program. It’s a great university and that’s what we continue to do.
“We are a great university, our brand is still strong and we are going forward and we got a great president, great AD, and a terrific coaching staff.”
The effect on UConn athletics will be profound as it tries to find its place in the college sports food chain. UConn upgraded its football team – the impetus behind all this conference shuffling – to the FBS in 2002 and joined the Big East as a football member in 2004.
The potential revenue and cost of playing football at the FBS level are so large that football ends up being the No. 1 concern for any school that plays the sport at the highest level. Connecticut is no different. The Huskies’ national brand is almost entirely in men’s and women’s basketball with football still in its infancy stages, though there are some strides having made five bowls games and even a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in its first decade at the top level.
There is sentiment to branch out with the Catholic 7, but the need for football-playing members, scheduling and television revenue requires that the Huskies stay where they are with the configuration of a New Big East with Temple, Cincinnati and Memphis forming the backbone of the league.
For the men’s basketball program, the separation of the Catholic schools couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Huskies are at a low point having had Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers exit the conference this fall just weeks after hall of fame coach Jim Calhoun retired. The Huskies are also facing an NCAA and Big East tournament ban as a penalty for poor academic progress. All of that that is done while Ollie works on a make-good seven-month contract that expires on April 1st.
Ollie’s contract status is pending and athletic director Warde Manuel hasn’t moved towards a long-term deal yet.
Ollie has UConn off to a 7-2 start heading into Monday’s game against Maryland Eastern-Shore. While he has had short-term success, there is a long-term problem for the program and recruiting.
UConn has two players signed for next season in Brooklyn guard Terrence Samuel and forward Kentan Facey from Glen Head, N.Y. While both will help the Huskies, the school is in desperate need of impact players that it isn’t getting. The staff recently lost out on hotly-contested recruit Brandon Austin to Providence and are not in play for any of the top remaining recruits for 2013. This comes on the heels of being decimated but scholarship limitations, exits to the NBA Draft and transfers associated with the tournament bans.
Going forward, how will Ollie’s contract situation and the loss of the Big East as one of the top basketball league’s in the nation effect recruiting? Ollie is giving recruits the positive outlook.
“I am going to be here for a lifetime. I am going to be here, not seven months but seven years or 27 years. That’s what I am telling them,” Ollie said. “That’s what I say because that’s what I believe. Until someone comes into my office and says the keys don’t work, I am going to be in my office… I wholeheartedly believe that I will have a lot of chapters at the University of Connecticut as head coach.”
The basketball will also be hurt by the entrance of of historically weak programs. Houston hasn’t be relevant nationally in hoops since the 1980s and Southern Methodist hasn’t been good though it is coached by NBA legend Larry Brown. The addition of Memphis and Temple will help break the fall of losing Georgetown and Villanova, but Central Florida, Tulane, Houston and SMU bring little to to the table from a basketball standpoint.
The new league won’t be nearly as powerful as what UConn has been accustomed too and the days of nine league teams getting NCAA bids, or like UConn in 2010, a ninth place team winning the national championship, are over.
Strength of schedule, recruiting, national exposure and ultimate ability to compete are at issue with whatever configuration the Big East has going forward.
The Huskies know where they want to go now. But like it was back in 1979, how they get there is the big unknown.