Where Do UConn, Cincinnati, USF Turn After Loss of Catholic Seven?Posted by Will Tucker on December 24th, 2012
Last week, the Catholic Seven quashed any hopes that the Big East could reconstitute in the image of its former self. In a final stroke of tragedy, that group seems to have absconded with the lucrative television deal that evaded Mike Aresco for months. All of the sudden USF, Cincinnati and Connecticut look to be the only programs in the current Big East standings that won’t head for greener pastures in 2014-15. So how do these Big East incumbents position themselves in the new conference landscape? Do they control their own fate, or are they destined to wait patiently in the widow’s walk for their own realignment lifeboat to reach their shores?
Memphis, UCF, SMU, Houston, and Temple are scheduled to fully integrate their athletic departments into the Big East next summer. Boise State and San Diego State already grace next season’s conference football schedules, but it now appears the Mountain West Conference has convinced them to steal a page from the TCU book of cold feet.
Leadership at UConn and Cincinnati are still licking their wounds from their latest unsuccessful attempts to escape Big East entropy. Cincinnati is taking proactive measures already to make itself a more attractive candidate in the next round of conference expansion. Athletic Director Whit Babcock poached football coach Tommy Tuberbville from a decent Big 12 program and announced plans to update Nippert Stadium. Emails between administrative leaders illustrated a coordinated effort to flank Louisville and UConn for the most recent opening in the ACC, and UC had briefly flirted with the Big 12 the previous year. Cincinnati is only interested in the Big East insofar as it maintains an environment that will facilitate its exit as soon as possible: Namely, one that provides acceptable strength of schedule in basketball and football, and some enticing names on the home slate to attract a very fickle local fan base to attend games.
UConn might be in the best position to survive this latest cataclysm after stumbling in its ACC audition. It’s got the media market, the academics, the basketball brand, the serendipitous location. What it lacks in commitment to pigskin it makes up for with hardwood pedigree. But even that is vulnerable right now. AD Warde Manuel needs to give Kevin Ollie a contract, and fast. The players want it to happen. Fans want it to happen. Recruits want to know for whom they’ll be playing. The program needs continuity in a year of great upheaval, lest it join the ranks of successful upstarts that faded into obscurity after their architects left or retired. Stuck in a crumbling conference whose membership changes daily, the last thing Connecticut’s leadership should want is for uncertainty to infect its internal operations. By dragging his feet for as long as he has during Ollie’s protracted audition, that’s exactly what Manuel has done. Fortunately for Huskies fans, there’s conjecture that a new deal might materialize by New Year’s Day.
South Florida, for its part, has unique assets to shop around to the ACC or Big 12 should an opening present itself. The Bulls play basketball in a newly renovated arena in a huge media market, within one of the country’s most fertile recruiting hotbeds, with a prodigal son returning to reinvigorate its flagging football program. But despite the basketball team’s landmark season last year, Stan Heath’s program is still somewhat of unknown quantity, with none of the fan support or storied history of Connecticut or Cincinnati. As a result, USF is the most co-dependent of the three Big East holdovers, and should be motivated to make the conference habitable for itself, the Huskies and the Bearcats while it can cultivate its fledgling athletic department.
Leave: While they wait for the next round of realignment musical chairs, the three remaining Big East schools could emigrate to the Mountain West Conference. As crazy as it sounds, MW leadership has taken advantage of the latest round of Big East defections to flip the tables on the BCS conference that was poised to plunder its membership. Pete Thamel reported last week that the MW, in addition to persuading Boise and SDSU to stick around and thereby thwarting any Big East courtship of UNLV and Fresno State, has gone on the offensive and “reached out to at least one non-Western Big East school” (presumably Connecticut, Cincinnati or USF). If all three were to entertain an audience with the Mountain West, there’s no way the conference would turn down the opportunity to synthesize the best all-sports league outside of the “Big Five” and deal a fatal blow to its biggest competition in the process. Although the logistics would be complicated (especially for non-revenue sports) it would be the simplest formula for ensuring access to postseason opportunities in football and basketball in the coming playoff era.
Stay: If UConn, Cincinnati and USF shy away from a partnership with the MW and decide to close ranks with their future Big East colleagues, they should abandon any misguided fantasies of expanding west, because they don’t have much bargaining leverage and the Mountain West has resolved to protect its turf. The Big East incumbents need to put pressure on Aresco to prioritize athletic quality over quantity, limit the scope of his search to the East Coast in securing replacement programs, and forget incidental considerations like arbitrary US News academic rankings. While the new Big East should avoid perpetuating the dichotomous model that got the league into this mess in the first place, there aren’t any home runs left on the board that can get the conference to a serviceable all-sports membership of 10 teams. One plan that could benefit USF, UConn and Cincinnati might be for the league to keep East Carolina in the fold for football, expedite the entry of Tulane, and invite VCU as a basketball-only member (before the Catholic Seven scoops up the Rams). ECU adds an enthusiastic football program; Tulane –– like Houston –– grants access to a cornucopia of talented recruits; and VCU adds a burgeoning basketball powerhouse in an East Coast city, led by a rising star of a coach. A Big East headlined by VCU, Memphis, UConn, Cincinnati, and Temple would replenish some of the depth it has lost in Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette. That lineup would boast four Final Fours in the past five seasons, secure multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament each year, and promise a consistently respectable cumulative RPI. Sadly, even recruiting VCU is no longer a sure bet, with television networks seemingly bent on razing any vestige of the Big East, and the three FBS holdovers eyeing the exits. Luring VCU would require Mike Aresco to bring some solid television revenue projections to the negotiating table.
Whatever measures the three Big East survivors take to ensure their individual well-being going forward, their coaches and fans need to adapt to an entirely new scheduling philosophy and a loss of access entitlement. Non-conference scheduling could become the centerpiece of both basketball and football seasons, with a couple early games dictating the course of the year. One or two stumbles in December could ruin a season for three teams that have always had opportunities to redeem themselves with a resurgence after the New Year. For perspective, ask any Memphis fan if they’d prefer this year’s Big East schedule to their current one. Although fans and coaches often lament the grueling Big East schedule, the rigors of the league have always promised opportunities for a team to control its own fate down the stretch leading to March. For UConn, USF and Cincinnati, that’s a luxury they’ll likely have to soon live without.