Big East Moving Day and UConn Football’s 20-Year Gamble

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Much can change in two decades — consider UConn athletics. At the beginning of the millennium, the Huskies were members of the Big East Conference. Now it’s 2020, and UConn is a member of…the Big East Conference.

OK, so that summary neglects 20 years of details that led UConn on a circuitous route back to its longtime home: a route that included two men’s basketball national championships; four women’s basketball titles and a historic winning streak; and the utter degradation of Huskies football, acceleration to its nadir going full-throttle with this latest round of conference realignment.

Perhaps more than any FBS program, UConn’s 21st century best crystallizes the Realignment Era and exposes the pitfalls of college football-as-big business. The story begins when the Huskies transitioned from the former I-AA to I-A, a process that began amid Y2K paranoia and concluded just prior to Hanging Chads.

University brass made the decision in 1997 when given a timetable to the Big East in accordance with I-A football transitioning to the Bowl Championship Series model, although not an ultimatum: Villanova, which opted to remain at the I-AA level in football, stayed with the conference.

An enterprising piece in the June 21, 1998 Hartford Courant provides some insight into UConn’s motivation:

“If you ask me, UConn is in a much better situation [to move to Division I (sic)] because of the strong profits of their men’s and women’s basketball programs already make for the school,” [Transylvania University professor Daniel] Fulks said. “Consider that at most I-A schools, football is the only profitable program.”
That is sweet music to the ears of UConn athletic director Lew Perkins. He has said it before. And he has heard it before.”

That same Courant article provides examples of other programs moving up commensurate with the transition to the BCS. Among them: UConn’s erstwhile Civil ConFLiCT “rival” UCF. The still-fledgling athletic department sought to build around its football program, loading up on lucrative buy games against Nebraska, Auburn and the Mississippi schools.

In a bit of twist, Perkins told the Courant in 2000 he did not want to rely on a schedule heavy with paycheck games to establish UConn football’s presence. Twenty years later, the Huskies’ inaugural independent slate sends them to Illinois, Virginia, Ole Miss and North Carolina.

Maybe the injection of revenue from Power Five opponents is a boon. The money certainly helped UCF’s cause — and so did the emergence of a generational talent, Daunte Culpepper.

With its location in the heart of a recruiting hotbed, UCF was naturally positioned to grow into a football power more easily than UConn. But the Huskies’ current state of disrepair, in which they’ve finished below .500 in nine consecutive seasons and failed to win more than three games in the last four straight, wasn’t a given.

To a lesser degree than Culpepper, but still important all the same, UConn’s early I-A days coincided with the rise of a generational talent at quarterback. Younger folks and those newer to college football may now know Dan Orlovsky exclusively as a purveyor of hot takes on ESPN, but he was a damn good ball player in Storrs.

In the above clip, UConn coach Randy Edsall credits Orlovsky for “making it cool to come to UConn.” That might elicit some snickers now, but it’s quite remarkable to trace the program’s trajectory in the years coincided with Orlovsky’s tenure and in the seasons immediately following.

– UConn won eight-plus games six times from 2003 through 2010, matching the program’s total occasions hitting the same benchmark from 1901 through 2002.

– 15 Huskies were drafted to the NFL from 2005 to 2011; from 1995 through 2004, UConn produced zero NFL draft picks.

– Running back Donald Brown earned All-American recognition in 2008 after breaking the 2,000-yard rushing mark, and became the program’s first 1st Round draftee.

These and other milestones support a point Edsall made to the Courant on National Signing Day 2000, insinuating UConn gained access to better recruits by simple virtue of being I-A/FBS.

The irony, however, lies in that the current UConn football squad would most certainly not contend with James Madison for supremacy in the FCS Colonial Athletic Athletic if the Huskies opted to reclassify. One could argue UConn would have an uphill climb competing with New Hampshire and Maine to be the CAA’s best New England-based program — and if you’re curious, I’m “one.” If COVID-19 allows for a 2020 season, we’ll get to test the hypothesis on Oct. 10 when Maine visits Rentschler Field.

Rather than return to FCS and rejoin former Yankee Conference counterparts in the CAA, UConn football goes it alone commensurate with the rest of the athletic department joining the Big East. Precedent exists that suggests independence is a disastrous move for a program already sputtering: Nearby UMass went that route after the MAC jettisoned it, and it’s not gone well.

A fascinating what-if begs the question how much differently the 2010s might have gone for UConn had Big East football not folded. The conference’s gridiron death is a topic too cumbersome to dive into here, except to say it ranks among the more sordid stories in the uncomfortable co-existence of college athletic departments and television networks. What’s more, the shuttering of Big East football wasn’t behind UConn making two dreadful hires in the years following Edsall’s departure and the historic Fiesta Bowl berth.

Still, TV as the catalyst for conference realignment and ESPN’s specific efforts in devaluing the Big East football brand made for a perfect combination that damaged UConn in what has been an irreparable manner. UConn’s flagship sports, men’s and women’s basketball, trade a partnership with ESPN via the American Athletic Conference, for a union with FS1.

While I personally fail to see the positives in aligning with a network that does a wretched job promoting its content, and that will advertise shows with personalities like Colin Cowherd and Clay Travis on game broadcasts, I suppose it’s an upgrade from working with a monolith that actively buried a once-thriving conference.

As for football, independent UConn partners with CBS Sports Network. Leaving ESPN means no longer being just a brick in the content wall for ESPN+, and perhaps CBS SN will treat UConn like a centerpiece. How that partnership evolves in the next four years could make or break UConn’s football prospects, as a worthwhile television presence plays a key role in the athletic department continuing to field a respectable schedule.

It’s a considerable gamble, however, particularly for a program that began chasing the dream of building a centerpiece football program two decades ago.