Curb that enthusiasm over Big East return

It is easy to get excited about reports that the University of Connecticut is about to return to the Big East. The motivation is to restore the luster of the men’s basketball program and the ability to recruit top athletes to play for it.

But no one is offering a good explanation as to what is to become of the football program. The American Athletic Conference, in which UConn ended up in by default and which has never been a good fit, has made it clear it will not allow Connecticut football to remain in the conference while its marquee men’s and women’s basketball programs return to the Big East.

The university — meaning state taxpayers and students through tuition and fees — have invested heavily in building a football program, sold by the Athletic Department as a means to tap large television revenues and further elevate UConn’s profile.

If, as expected, the move to the Big East is confirmed this week, the university needs to have a strategy ready for fans, students, alumni boosters and those state taxpayers concerning the future of the football program. “We’ll figure that out later” will not suffice. The UConn administration may not have all the answers, but it certainly needs a plan of where it is heading in this regard. The effort to move up to big-time college football has had an ad hoc feeling about it from the start. It has not worked out well.

If basketball were the only matter at hand, the Big East would appear a good move without reservation. True, it is not the Big East that UConn left. Gone to other conferences are Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville. But still on board in the Big East is Villanova, winner of the 2016 and 2018 national titles. UConn men would be able to renew rivalries with ‘Nova and some of the other schools it battled in building itself into a national powerhouse — Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Providence College.

As a member of the Big East, the men’s program won national titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011. It won again in 2014, its first year in the AAC, but has had only one NCAA tournament appearance since and home attendance and TV viewership has been declining.

Returning to the Big East would help Coach Dan Hurley recruit in the target-rich Northeast corridor. Fans would love a return to the Big East Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

The women’s program, possessors of a ridiculous 11 national titles, has remained strong, despite competing in a weak AAC. But as with the men, the Big East is a better fit and would reduce the potential for recruitment to start to slip. The move would allow the women’s program to escape an AAC deal with ESPN that next season would leave many games viewable only on streaming.

But does this move make sense from a financial perspective?

The athletic department had about a $41 million deficit in 2018, with $8.7 million attributed to football. Exiting the American conference would require a $10 million fee, and that is with 27 months’ notice. If UConn leaves sooner as reported, a bigger payout would have to be negotiated to allow it to do so. Substantial TV revenues are also at risk.

There could be some savings in travel, which has been a hardship for the sports that do not have big attendance revenues. With conference opponents in Tulsa, Memphis, Houston and Florida, the league is an odd geographical match for UConn.

But it was football that drove the school from the Big East and into the AAC to begin with. It was why the state invested $91 million to build Rentschler Field, opening in 2003. Is UConn admitting the goal of joining one of the Power Five football conferences was an overreach? Where will the football program land? Notre Dame can recruit as an independent program, UConn can’t. Dropping back to the second-tier division of football appears out of the question given the university’s investments.

UConn officials need to make clear who is driving this decision that comes at a time of transition. President Susan Herbst is finishing up her tenure with the next president, Thomas Katsouleas, beginning Aug. 1.

Until there is a better explanation how all this will work, we’ll curb our enthusiasm.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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