Lost in conference shuffle, UConn finds a home at Final Four

Among the residual effects of history comes the image: Warde Manuel, UConn's mountainous athletic director, as Peter Pan. Manuel, a hulking man, looks more like a bouncer. Or the lineman he was at Michigan. And yet most of this week, he could channel his inner Peter with an absorbing, "I'm flying!"

Has he ever. Manuel traversed a section of the country, the Broadway-to-cornfields shuttle, watching his basketball teams get better with each rendition. The men at Madison Square Garden, where the rainbow was there for the climbing. The women in Lincoln, Neb., where seldom was heard a discouraging word.

Now it's Big D to the Music City, otherwise known as Dallas to Nashville. Manuel probably has the "please stow your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bin" spiel committed to memory.

"I know it's happened here before," he was saying earlier this week, "but we'll never, ever take it for granted."

UConn has completed the two-gender Final Four for the fourth time. Consider it's been done 11 times total, and never more than once by anyone else.

UConn: where the men play in the Final Four today in Texas and where the women play Sunday night in Tennessee.

"They sure punch above their weight there," one women's basketball observer said recently of the sons and daughters of Storrs, where geographical isolation and lack of any "college town" identity belies the product.

UConn fans have endured a chronic discomfort for a while, to the point where it felt like they couldn't be bothered to cheer because they were too busy complaining.

The root of their complaints: UConn's perch in college sports' version of witness protection. The Huskies, despite a home arena awash in basketball banners, lost the game of musical conferences, landing in Elba, the American Athletic Conference.

The AAC has neither the cachet nor the endowment of the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big XII, Southeastern or Pacific 12 conferences. But why? It's vexing for the fans of Connecticut, who do Final Fours now as habit, to process UConn's exclusion.

"I think what is likely holding UConn back is the football program," Texas A&M women's basketball coach Gary Blair said earlier this week in Lincoln. "Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how good their basketball teams or other teams are; football pays the bills and until they improve their football, they probably won't be invited to play in the right conference."

Which invites the question: Can this week influence future bouts with expansion and realignment, perhaps delivering an invitation to a better neighborhood? It can't hurt. Of course, neither would an 8-4 football season and bowl trip under first-year (and energetic) head coach Bob Diaco.

For now, though, UConn fans get to crow "we told you so." Even better: The nation will listen. The nation might even wonder why the Big Ten ultimately chose Rutgers, whose relative athletic successes could fit inside a gnat's eyelash. The spin goes that Rutgers' perch in the area of New York leads to the many households there purchasing the Big Ten Network, which leads to absurd revenues.

Whatever.

It's probably not prudent to assume that UConn has a place at the table during the next rendition of expansion and realignment. The process is treacherous. But at least Manuel can present his frequent flyer card to his colleagues and say, "any other of you jokers have more points than I do?"

The answer would be "no."

A joyous "no" for the people of Connecticut.

Enjoy it, folks. It's just not this way anywhere else.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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