UConn reportedly close to rejoining Big East Conference

UConn appears close to making a return to the Big East Conference.

The news was first reported by the Digital Sports Desk website and then confirmed by multiple sources.

Details still need to be worked out and procedures followed. The Big East has yet to extend an official invitation and the UConn Board of Trustees would need to approve the move.

The Associated Press reported that UConn officials confirmed there have been talks with the Big East, but said they were not aware any invitation had been extended.

An announcement could come within the week, with the Big East possibly holding a press conference Thursday in New York City. A source said the Big East will meet Monday and the UConn's Board of Trustees will meet on Wednesday.

When reached Saturday afternoon, Big East associate commissioner John Paquette declined to comment, adding that he's paying attention to what's out there.

UConn issued the following statement about reports regarding a move:

"It is our responsibility to always be mindful of what is in the best interest of our student athletes, our fans and our future. With that being said, we have been and remain proud members of the American Athletic Conference."

AAC members, at least for now.

The Huskies will reportedly begin play in the Big East during the 2020-21 season in all sports, with exception of football, which is not part of the conference's structure. Football will suffer most by the move, even though athletic director David Benedict has indicated in the past that UConn's commitment to the program is strong.

Since the AAC won't be open to keeping UConn as a football-only member, according to a source, the Huskies have to find a new home for that sport. Potential options include competing as an independent or joining another conference.

Playing an independent schedule in 2020 would be problematic, however. Football schedules are planned years in advance, so leaving the AAC would leave Huskies with only four contracted games in 2020: home games against UMass (Sept. 3), Maine (Sept. 19) and Indiana (Sept. 26) and a road game at Illinois (Sept. 12).

Playing as an independent would also leave UConn with no ties to bowl games if the Huskies became bowl eligible.

Attempts to reach football coach Randy Edsall were unsuccesful, but former basketball Jim Calhoun, who spent a significant part of his Hall of Fame career coaching in the Big East, talked about the potential move and impact on UConn athletics.

"I worry about football," Calhoun said by phone. "But, beyond that, I understand why it would be a good move. ... It would be very exciting for me, certainly."

Conference realignment helped push UConn out of the Big East and into the AAC where it has resided since 2013.

The AAC has never been a great fit for the Huskies, especially geographically. Travel has taken its toll on teams. The UConn fan base never embraced AAC opponents and home attendance dipped for marquee programs, men's and women's basketball.

Going back to the Big East neighborhood, UConn will renew rivalries with Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall and Villanova as well as play familiar Big East foes DePaul and Marquette and new ones in Xavier, Butler and Creighton.

Calhoun fondly remembers the atmosphere for UConn home games.

"It was an electric place and the Big East had a lot to do with that," Calhoun said. "You can get yourself into a league and do a lot of things, but you can't create rivalries. Between Providence, St. John's, Georgetown, Villanova, we'll have some old rivalries and schools that everybody here knows.

"I think it could help recruiting, because you have a base in the East. Villanova has won two of the last four national championships."

Returning to historic Madison Square Garden to play in the Big East tournament is another big plus.

"Whether it be New London or some other place, a whole bunch of people jumped on that train to go to New York City for that tournament," Calhoun said. "We have a lot of old Big East season ticket holders and people, that was a big deal to them. We have a great history with the Big East."

The Huskies also have a winning history with the Big East of which they were an original member in 1979.

The men's basketball program won three national championships (1999, 2004, 2011) as members, 10 Big East regular season and seven conference tournament titles. They won one national title (2014) and a conference tournament title while in the AAC.

The women's basketball program has been successful in both the Big East and AAC, winning a total of 11 national titles.

The football team, while still a member of the Big East, went to five bowl games during Edsall's first tenure. That included a trip to the 2011 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, UConn's only major FBS bowl appearance.

Hurdles still remain for UConn's move to become official. The AAC has  $10 million exit fee. Conference bylaws also require schools to give a 27-month notice before leaving, so that fee will likely be negotiated.

But it appears UConn is on track to return to the Big East, a conference where men's basketball experienced far more glory days than glory days compared to its time in the AAC.

g.keefe@theday.com

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