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UConn becomes the program left behind

Published December 15. 2012 4:00AM

The music has stopped and the University of Connecticut athletic program finds itself without a chair.

After being jilted in its attempt to dump the basketball-oriented Big East Conference for the Atlantic Coast Conference with its stronger football programs, UConn finds itself left behind in a conference without any orientation or identity, and not a lot of teams.

The college athletic world learned this week that the seven non-football schools in the Big East are leaving to form their own conference focused on what they do best, college basketball. Exiting will be Catholic colleges Providence, Georgetown, Villanova, DePaul, St. John's, Seton Hall and Marquette. They will seek similar schools to join them. Their plan goes against the prevailing wisdom that football and the lucrative TV contracts it can attract is where the money is and basketball only a poor stepchild.

In a way their plan is a trip back to the future. In 1979 Providence College's Dave Gavitt had the vision that a group of colleges in the Northeast, with varying levels of roundball success, could provide some interesting basketball, and develop great rivalries, by competing in a conference together, negotiating some TV contracts in the process.

That sure worked well, at least for awhile. Six years after its founding, the Big East was a beast, sending three teams to the NCAA Final Four. In this part of the country most every sports fan circled the Big East Championships at Madison Square Garden on their calendars. The UConn basketball program was one of the weaker charter members, lacking the pedigree of other programs. Many considered the university lucky to have been invited.

Then the school hired a coach by the name of Jim Calhoun, who built a basketball program that became among the strongest in the Big East and the nation, winning three national championships. Later the hiring of Coach Geno Auriemma would lead to a women's basketball program so strong, with seven NCAA championships, that it should remain dominant nationally no matter how the conference shuffling plays out.

UConn came to conclude, however, that its success in basketball was not enough, not when big-time football was bringing in the big-time money. With the state's help and that of deep-pocketed alumni, it built state-of-the-art football facilities, a stadium in East Hartford and moved up to the penthouse - I-A.

But after some stunningly quick success, including a 2010 trip to the Fiesta Bowl (which ended up costing the school money when too few fans made the trip to Arizona), UConn has slipped back to the mediocrity typically expected of a fledgling program.

And it became clear the Big East would never become much of a football conference, leading to UConn's desperate efforts to find another.

Now the Big East will soon not be much of a basketball conference either, what with Syracuse having also departed. After the exit of the Catholic 7, UConn will find itself the last remaining member of the Big East freshman class.

We won't try to fathom how, in this strange world of aligning and realigning conferences to make the most money off the performances of athletes who don't get paychecks, UConn could have played its hand better. But it certainly has not played it well.

If you're looking for a loser in the dissolution of the Big East you can certainly make a case for UConn, quite remarkable for a university with so much recent athletic success - in basketball, the sport that doesn't count.

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