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AAC Roundtable: What should the conference do if UConn leaves for the Big East?

UConn basketball is a shell of its former self. We explore the AAC’s options if the Huskies really returned to the Big East.

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 18 Tulsa at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since winning the title in 2014 as a member of the American Athletic Conference, UConn is 74-59 overall, and 36-34 in conference play, with one AAC Tournament Championship and a NCAA Tournament appearance. (Both occurred in the 2015-2016 season and ended with a lost in the NCAA Second Round).

In 2018, with a full roster recruited to play in the AAC, the Huskies are 13-16 overall and 6-10 in conference play.

Seeing the UConn basketball program in the AAC wither as an afterthought has made many UConn fans believe they should return to the Big East. The Huskies are currently a geographic misfit in a conference more geared towards teams in the southeast and southwest corridor. (One could also make the case that the AAC is a football-first conference).

For the second straight season UConn is on the verge of missing the Big Dance. The last time that happened was nearly 30 years ago. Should UConn really leave for the Big East? If they do, what should the AAC do? What would happen to UConn football?

To answer these questions we asked SB Nation’s USF and Cincinnati blogs, The Daily Stampede, and Down the Drive, respectively, as well as Tulane’s Fear the Wave and Houston’s The Scott & Holman Pawdcast, to join our roundtable.

Should UConn leave the AAC and go back to the Big East for the men’s basketball program?

Cyrus: UConn basketball in the AAC is like Kentucky joining Conference USA or UCLA playing in the Mountain West. It just doesn’t feel right. As someone who grew up on “Big Monday” where ESPN would televise Big East games on the regular, I want the Huskies to return to the Big East. Big East Coast Bias sums up my feelings on the matter.

With that said, your stance on UConn leaving the AAC depends on your perspective of the job. If you think UConn is fine and Kevin Ollie is the real problem, they should stay. I find it hard to believe that the guy who coached a 7 seed to a title to be the problem though. Assuming Kevin Ollie is let go at season’s end, how attractive is this job? Two different coaches have won it all but something is off about UConn now. They don’t feel cool anymore. In the Big East this was without a doubt one of the best jobs in the country. In the AAC, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Winning a National Championship so fast under Ollie added to the belief that the Huskies would dominate the AAC and that just hasn’t been the case. Misfires on the recruiting trail has certainly been an issue, but the one thing I can’t get over is that the aura of the program is gone. There was something magical about UConn basketball when the Big East signature was plastered near the free-throw line.

The current Big East isn’t really all that similar to the glory days (the Big East has Creighton in the league for goodness sakes) but at least you can rekindle rivalries with Villanova, Georgetown, Seton Hall, etc., return back to The Garden, recapture the UConn brand in the New York City/Tri-state area and recruit there again. Leaving the Big East to salvage a football program that has an obvious ceiling was a mistake. UConn should return to the Big East ASAP.

Fear the Wave: If I were in their shoes, in a word: nope.

The thing I always go back to is since 2015, UConn has 6 ESPN 100 signees. The other 11 schools in the AAC, and we’ll include Wichita State, have 6 combined. It would be one thing if UConn found itself losing in the Sweet 16 and unable to breakthrough against the elite programs. The reality is, they have an all-time losing record against Tulsa.

Everyone should do what makes them happy. That said, I can’t think of another program in history that theoretically would destroy one program to compensate for the mediocre tenure of a single coach in another sport. That level of crazy gets me kinda stoked. I change my answer to yes.

The Daily Stampede: If they feel like it’s the best option for the long term future of the program, then sure. No Escalators’ post on A Dime Back made a lot of good points about how the switch to the AAC has affected them in terms of things like recruiting, brand recognition, attendance, etc. So parking their primary sport in a geographically compatible conference with nearby foes would make sense.

I think my annoyance with UConn fans comes from this idea that they’re the only ones that have been negatively impacted by realignment and they’re above all of this. Like they’re the only ones that have been BURDENED with having to travel to far distances for conference games. As if it’s beneath them to have to go to places like Tulsa.

Whether they stay in the AAC or leave for the Big East, just pull the trigger already and decide what you want to be as an athletic program moving forward.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Temple
Would Kevin Ollie’s tenure at UConn be different if he was coaching in the Big East?
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Scott & Holman Pawdcast: Looking at geographic fit and basketball prestige, the current, “new” or “zombie” Big East is a significantly better fit for the University of Connecticut than the American Athletic Conference. Whether there is mutual interest or whether the university deserves an invite are other questions entirely. Another question is whether or not the Huskies’ current conference shares some blame for the woes of their men’s basketball program, but again that’s not the specific question here.

If the Big East Conference is interested in adding the University of Connecticut, the school should make that move every single time. There are so many handicaps to UConn succeeding at a high level in football, especially as it compares to what we’ve seen their men’s basketball program do. One program has a ceiling of eight wins and the other has won four national titles in the last 20 years. You can probably guess which one is which. So even if it means relegating football to an uncertain future and some degree of lower level of play, that risk would be well worth it. There’s the risk that the financial penalty of leaving the AAC would force UConn to keep around Kevin Ollie until his buyout gets much more manageable.

It is our belief that Ollie is a much bigger part of UConn’s recent failures than conference affiliation. But the long term gain of joining the Big East is worth the potential short term frustration of keeping around a poorly-performing coach. So yes, of course UConn should join a conference that’s a more logical geographic fit and currently a superior basketball league.

Down the Drive: UConn never belonged in the AAC. Unlike many of their AAC peers, they had a natural conference home. The Huskies were charter members of the Big East in 1979. Its conference peers were geographic and historical rivals. UConn became a national power in both men’s and women’s basketball in the Big East, competing against the best of the best. They developed a strong football program within the context of a still-robust Big East football conference. They tried to make the best of a bad situation with the Dave Gavitt Big East’s dissolution, but things have not worked out for them in the American. I wish the Huskies nothing but the best on their hopefully forthcoming return to the Big East.

Nick: I mean, I’m not sure how much going back to the Big East will salvage them. They’re still going to have to deal with Villanova and Xavier every year. I would rather deal with some teams in the AAC than the Big East. Seton Hall, Creighton, and Butler are no slouches either. Heck, even St. Johns knocked off a couple top teams, and they are one of the worst in the conference! Either way, it appears that UConn’s men’s basketball team is on the decline. The Big East can take them if they want them. Currently, UConn does not add much value to the AAC (minus the women’s team).

Where do you think UConn football would go?

Cyrus: I may be in the minority here, but UConn should really consider going to the FCS if they were to go back to the Big East. Group of 5 programs are already hurting financially and in the long run, it might be best for the Huskies to join the Colonial Athletic Association with James Madison and Villanova. If the FCS is off the table, they should join UMass as a G5 Independent. The G5 Indy life isn’t a glamours one though.

Fear the Wave: Optimists will say the MAC, but I don’t really get the real world logistics of making that happen. For one, the natural other partner for UConn in realignment is UMass, whose football program gets all the fun of playing an SEC schedule with none of the TV money. That very same Minutemen program bailed on the MAC once, and I don’t have any sense they are trying to go back.

Being an Independent is terrible in this era, so I don’t think that is a sustainable business model, particularly when you don’t have the national brand (a la Army) or history (a la BYU) to get quality matchups beyond buy games.

I would guess dropping back to FCS would be the most fiscally responsible decision, if UConn were to actually bail (which I don’t see happening).

Connecticut v Temple
Since joining the AAC, UConn is 14-35 and has yet to record a winning season.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Daily Stampede: Probably either the CAA or the Patriot League. I highly doubt that the MAC or whomever at the FBS level will allow them to double dip. If they’re doing this, then they’re program is going back down to FCS (By S&P+, they’re practically already there anyway).

The problem with this is that Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field is owned by the state of Connecticut, which would be a waste to invest that much stadium money for a program that’s moving down.

The Scott & Holman Pawdcast: My gut reaction to this question was that the Huskies would join the Mid-American Conference (MAC) as a football-only member. But the recent addition of UMass was not positive and before that Temple was kind of a mixed bag, although they were decent by the end of their run as a football-only MAC member. My next thought was the Huskies becoming an FBS Independent, as UMass has done recently. But that route is fraught with the peril of the odd scheduling and strains required of putting together a 12 game schedule without the eight conference games ever year. BYU, a school with a massive fan base and lots of football tradition, has struggled with the life of an FBS Independent.

The most natural fit could be moving to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and competing just on the gridiron in the Colonial Athletic Association. That’s a good league with James Madison, Delaware, New Hampshire, Richmond, Villanova, Stony Brook and Towson all experiencing varying degrees of success at that level recently and historically. UConn actually played in this league until 1999. Dropping down a division could be a sting to the pride, but if that move came with the “carrot” of Big East basketball I don’t think most UConn fans would mind.

Down the Drive: UConn should bide its time as an Independent. Rebuild their recently strong football program by juicing up regional rivalries with the likes of UMass, Boston College, and Rutgers.

On a related note, I foresee a de-evolution of some of these unwieldy mega-conferences. The facts of life have a way of reasserting themselves, no matter how hard we try to pretend they do not exist. One of these facts is that rivalries revolve around culture and geography. As schools on their periphery of their new conference homes find life in the Big Ten and ACC increasingly frustrating, they will seek out other options. I envision a northeastern football conference emerging from the ashes of the great realignment of the past 10 years. In some respects, it will recreate the old Big East football conference.

Boston College, Rutgers, Temple, UConn, UMass, Syracuse, Buffalo, Liberty, Army, and Navy will be its charter members.

Will it be a power conference? No. But it will be a competitive league. Like the AAC, it will be a genuine college football mid-major. And I will be its commissioner.

Nick: What I would want versus what will happen are most likely two separate things. I would have to say that UConn football will stay in the AAC. UConn has already expressed they would like to keep their football team in the highest level of competition. As much as I would rather see UConn disappear to somewhere else, the money they would receive from the AAC is much greater than any other potential conference. This is another case where this program does not add any value to the conference without men’s AND women’s basketball doing well. Overall, I would rather see UConn become an Independent. But, I have no confidence that would happen.

If UConn leaves the AAC, what should the conference do?

Cyrus: Now that Army has their act together I’d call them first. If the Black Knights are still hesitant about joining a conference then I guess you see if BYU is interested. If both turn down the offer as football-only members, I think the AAC should really consider standing pat at 11 for football. Adding another full fledged member means less money for others right now and I’m just not sure it’s worth adding a school from Conference USA. I don’t think the AAC would really choose that option though. My guess is they would add either Southern Miss, Marshall or WKU.

Fear the Wave: Some would look at UMass, but I’d prefer we look west. Not only is there some pretty good inventory of strong football brands playing in the Mountain West, but you also pick up some additional perks like expanding your time zone coverage that can be a factor when it comes to increasing the size of a TV deal.

The pie in the sky dream would be BYU, but that only becomes a possibility if Commissioner Aresco pulls in a monster TV deal in the next round that would exceed the Cougars’ sizable independent deal today. @BoneyFuller is one of the best on College Football Twitter, and I think we should consider the importance of adding him to the AAC Twitter world through this opportunity.

Assuming BYU is off the table, Colorado State strikes me as a really intriguing fit. They’re competitive, investing in their programs, and a solid academic fit for the league.

Outside the Mountain West, I’d also take a strong look at Southern Miss. They have a strong regional fit, and they don’t deserve to be in Conference USA. For Tulane, this would reunite us with the mustard buzzards and bring back an historic rivalry.

At a high level, it would be disappointing to lose UConn’s strong baseball program, but there are certainly some rising G5 football schools that would elevate the league.

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - San Diego State v Army
Now that Army is fielding winning teams, the Black Knights are a logical choice to replace UConn if the Huskies really left the AAC.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Daily Stampede: I think the conference will have no problem finding a replacement. There’s several schools that could fill that void for a variety of reasons so here’s a few just off the top of my head that would be interesting adds: UTSA, FAU, Army, MTSU, WKU, Georgia State, James Madison.

The Scott & Holman Pawdcast: Penalize UConn as much as possible. Nothing personal Huskies, but if you get to leave while we’re all stuck in this conference we’d like that sweet, sweet cash as a consolation prize. In terms of replacing the departed Huskies, we both had to think about this question for a while. You have to kick the tires on Army and see whether their school brass is interested in the idea of playing in a conference again. My guess is no because of how badly the Black Knights’ stint as a football-only member of Conference USA went in the early 2000s.

But, that time period coincided with Army football trying to make a radical (and woefully unsuccessful) shift in offensive philosophy under Todd Berry. Perhaps if they had made a less radical change at the beginning of the 21st century (like Navy when they hired Paul Johnson) the C-USA stint would have been a tad more successful. The current ‘Supe’ of West Point: Bob Caslen Jr, is very adamant about the school returning to football glory (some would argue at the expense of Academy standards) so I think they wouldn’t completely dismiss the notion of joining a conference .

We both believe Western Kentucky brings more to the table than they get credit for in these kinds of hypotheticals, but they are a long shot. VCU would be an interesting addition as a non-football member (maybe in conjunction with adding Army for football only) but they’re struggling this year in the A10. North Texas is getting closer and closer to making a leap to a bigger conference and they’ve always been kind of a sleeping giant with their location right near the DFW Metroplex.

Down the Drive: The geographic flexibility of the AAC should be regarded by its members as one of its virtues. Members will come. Members will go. The key is to replace strength with strength. The AAC should poach basketball and football powers as it sees fit, just as it did with Wichita State for basketball. North Texas and UTSA, both of whom would make great rivals for SMU and Houston, would be on my radar.

Nick: The AAC has a few options if UConn were to leave. In football, the AAC could: 1) Get Wichita State to resurrect their football program or 2) Start grooming candidates from the MAC or C-USA. The first option is probably not as likely, but is still an option worth talking about. Wichita State has been debating for a while now whether to resurrect their football team. But, this option does not add much value. It is just for the continuity of Wichita State already being the conference for basketball. The other option is much more likely. I am a huge fan of poaching Toledo from the MAC. This gives Cincinnati a good in-state rival and adds a ton of value for the AAC East division.

For more insight, and commentary on the AAC and G5 landscape please follow JP Gooderham of Fear the Wave (@FearTheWaveBlog), Clayton Trutor of Down the Drive (@ClaytonTrutor), Scott & Holman (@SHPawdcast), Nick Simon of The Daily Stampede (@NickSimonTDS), Nick Armstrong (@udd_nick), and Cyrus Smith (@CoolCyWrites).