It was very good week for the University of Connecticut. First, the undefeated UConn women’s basketball team polished off a solid University of South Florida team, 77-51, Monday night in its conference tournament. Then came the men. On Friday afternoon, the Huskies won a thrilling four-overtime game against Cincinnati in a quarterfinal tournament game that included a remarkable three-quarter-length buzzer beater by Jalen Adams to send the game into the fourth overtime. They followed that game with victories over Temple and Memphis to win the tournament. A bubble team coming into its conference tournament, the UConn men landed a ninth seed for the N.C.A.A. tournament.
The problem — and it’s a significant one for UConn — is that it plays in the American Athletic Conference, which was formed three years ago in the aftermath of the conference realignment that took place between 2010 and 2013. Today, the conferences known as the Power 5 — the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference, the Pacific-12 and the Big 12 — consist, in basketball, of 65 universities. These are the conferences with the nine-figure television deals. Their teams get to play in the lucrative College Football Playoff.
They get the bulk of national exposure, which not only brings in money but makes it easier to recruit.
The A.A.C., by contrast, is a motley collection of universities, some of which (UConn, Houston, Cincinnati) desperately want to be in the Power 5 and some of which (Tulane, East Carolina) see the A.A.C. as a step up.
The financial gap between a Power 5 program and one in the A.A.C. is enormous. Last year, the Southeastern Conference distributed $31.2 million to its member universities. The A.A.C. distributes $1.5 million to its members.
There is also a perception gap. For instance, the second A.A.C. semifinal game on Saturday, between Tulane and Memphis, was so insignificant to ESPN that it didn’t even bother to track the updated scores on its website — even though ESPN2 was televising it.
The better programs in the A.A.C. feel slighted, unfairly left standing in the game of musical chairs that is conference realignment. This is especially true for UConn, whose athletic pedigree exceeds those of every other program in the A.A.C. — and many in the Power 5, for that matter. Under Coach Geno Auriemma, the UConn women have become a dynasty, winning 10 national titles, including the last three. The men have won four titles in the last 20 years, more than anyone else in that period. UConn has also won national championships in field hockey and men’s soccer.
UConn was once a proud member of the Big East, the greatest basketball conference ever. Today, eight of the old Big East universities are in the Power 5, including Syracuse, UConn’s former Big East rival, and Rutgers, which mainly competes for the title of America’s worst-run athletic program.
But UConn lacks the thing that the Power 5 conferences care most about: big-time football. Its curse is to be a great basketball university in a football-centric world. As Len DeLuca, a former television sports executive, put it, “All discretionary action in college sports is football-related.”
There is no mystery about why football is the only sport that matters to the men who run College Sports Inc. Football is where the money is. This has been true since 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled that the N.C.A.A.’s control of college football television rights was an antitrust violation and forced the association to return those rights to the universities.
It wasn’t long before football was generating revenue as nothing else in college sports ever had. With the N.C.A.A. no longer able to hold them back, the conferences and the universities grabbed for the gold. To enhance its football appeal, the Big Ten grabbed the perennial football power Penn State in 1990. That same year, Notre Dame betrayed an association of football programs it had helped found, signing a deal with NBC for $38 million over four years. After creating the first conference championship game, the SEC signed a five-year, $85 million contract with CBS in 1994.
Dave Gavitt, the former Providence College coach, founded the Big East as a basketball conference in 1979, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. But by the early 1990s, as football reigned, the Big East was in danger of being left behind. To shore up its football, the Big East added Miami, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and West Virginia. When the Bowl Championship Series was set up in 1998, the Big East was included.
Inevitably, UConn wanted in. It 2002, it decided to upgrade its football program to Division I status from Division I-AA, as it was then called.
This was not a wise decision, but the desire to play in high-profile bowl games like its rivals was irresistible. The Connecticut Legislature spent $92 million building a football stadium in East Hartford. UConn raised an additional $45 million to build an indoor practice facility.
The Huskies’ timing could not have been worse. In the conference realignment that took place in 2004 and 2005, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted to the A.C.C. The Big East was especially furious about the defection of the Eagles, an original conference member. Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who is now Connecticut’s senior senator, sued Boston College, along with its athletic director, Gene DeFilippo, on behalf of several of the universities. That turned out to be a bad mistake.
It is extraordinarily difficult for a Johnny-come-lately to become a football power. With no football tradition to speak of, and a lack of big-time recruits in New England, UConn was fighting uphill. It had some moderate success in 2009 and 2010, years when it played in back-to-back bowl games. But it lost money on its Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2011, and the coach, Randy Edsall, didn’t even bother to fly back to Connecticut with the team, instead becoming the head coach at Maryland. (The Terrapins fired him in 2015.) On the heels of those bowl appearances came the next round of conference realignment. The Big Ten poached Nebraska from the Big 12 — for football reasons, obviously. Then the A.C.C. invited two more universities, bringing its total to 14. It was no surprise that Syracuse was one of them. The shocker was that despite the A.C.C.’s storied basketball tradition, it picked Pitt over UConn.
Why? Boston College had blackballed UConn. “We didn’t want them in,” DeFilippo told The Boston Globe in 2011. “It was a matter of turf. We wanted to be the New England team.”
(When I spoke to him last week, DeFilippo denied doing any such thing. “I didn’t like being sued,” he said, “but it’s the university presidents who vote, not the A.D.s.”)
When the Big Ten, which had formed the first all-conference television network in 2007, decided it could increase revenue by breaking into the New York media market, it chose woeful Rutgers over UConn. That is because the Big Ten universities pride themselves on being members of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious, if anachronistic, organization of top research institutions.
Rutgers was in the A.A.U., UConn wasn’t — and that was that.
The biggest blow, though, came in late 2012, when the A.C.C., needing to replace Maryland after it had also departed for the Big Ten, picked Louisville instead of UConn. Most of the A.C.C.’s presidents wanted UConn, which has a much higher U.S. News ranking than Louisville. But two of the A.C.C.’s most important football programs, Florida State and Clemson, insisted on Louisville, whose football team was ranked 13th that year. Fearing that the two universities might leave the A.C.C., and thus diminish the value of its television contracts, the conference reluctantly opted for Louisville.
It’s fair to say that the Huskies have never really recovered from the rejection they experienced during the conference realignment. For a university that viewed itself as among the athletic elite, the sense of being on the outside looking in is painful. UConn fans — and the entire state, for that matter — feel diminished and underappreciated. They miss those great Big East rivalries. For the women’s basketball team, the A.A.C. competition is a joke. The A.A.C. men’s teams play at a higher level, but the fans still don’t get excited over a UConn-Houston game the way they once did when UConn played, say, Georgetown. Although UConn officials say that being in the A.A.C. hasn’t hurt recruiting, it will eventually.
In addition, the UConn athletic department faces a big financial hole.
As a member of the Big East, the department was more or less self-sufficient. Now it loses around $20 million a year on $70 million in revenue. In effect, the athletic department funds its teams as if they were in a Power 5 conference, but without Power 5 revenue sources.
Susan Herbst, UConn’s president, understands the importance of the Huskies to the state and believes in sports as an important component of university life. But the state of Connecticut is facing a $900 million budget deficit, and there is a real question about how long Herbst will be able to subsidize the athletic department out of the university’s general budget. It won’t be forever.
One solution — indeed, the most practical solution — would be for UConn to de-emphasize or drop football and rejoin the Big East, which has been reconstituted as a basketball league and includes old Huskies rivals like Georgetown and St. John’s. When it was reformulated, the Big East signed a 12-year, $500 million television contract with Fox. Without the expense of football, UConn athletics could well be back in the black.
But UConn officials resist that idea. The state and a handful of donors have spent a lot of money on football, and they fear angering important constituencies. And they still believe they have a chance of getting into a Power 5 conference, which is what their fans yearn for. In truth, so do they.
Although most of the Power 5 conferences have no expansion plans, the Big 12, which has 10 teams, is very likely to add two more this summer; a 12-team league would make it easier to hold a football championship game, which it doesn’t have. Houston and Cincinnati are openly lobbying to be those teams. More quietly, so is Connecticut. Two years ago, Herbst hired Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner, to help lay the groundwork.
Although she has been careful not to denigrate the A.A.C., Herbst has met with several Big 12 presidents. If the Big 12 decides to form its own television network — a complicated bit of business, because it would have to persuade Texas to roll up its Longhorn network — UConn’s proximity to New York would be a plus. On the other hand, Ames, Iowa, is 1,200 miles from the UConn campus in Storrs. Austin, Tex., is almost 1,900 miles away. Road games for Big 12 athletes would become grueling ordeals, which doesn’t exactly foster the image of college sports being about the “student-athlete.” Then again, nothing about conference realignment does.
A few weeks ago, Herbst introduced a new athletic director, David Benedict, who had been the chief operating officer for Auburn’s athletic department. At his introductory news conference, Benedict was asked three questions. All three were about UConn’s chances of getting into a Power 5 conference. Benedict ducked the questions, of course. But the message was clear: Even more than winning another national championship in the coming weeks, UConn and its fans desperately want to be on the inside looking out, instead of the other way around.