Jeff Jacobs: On a day of unanimous Big East approval, some are still seeking answers from UConn

STORRS — He arose from his seat wearing a No. 15 UConn jersey and his heart on his sleeve. Tom McDougall stepped to the microphone, began to read the words he had spent much of Tuesday constructing, and damn if the young guy didn’t deliver the passion Randy Edsall wished he got from his players every autumn Saturday.

McDougall introduced himself to the UConn board of trustees as an alum, class of ’15, a donor, a 10-year season ticket holder and, most of all, a dedicated UConn football fan there to persuade the trustees not to make a “very short-sighted decision” to approve a move to the Big East. It was an argument, he later admitted, he knew he had zero chance of winning.

Still, McDougall insisted to UConn President Susan Herbst, Andy Bessette, Tom Ritter, Rebecca Lobo (via teleconference) and the rest of the trustees that this wasn’t a return to glory. Rather, he said, it was a move to cripple the entire athletic department. McDougall talked about how he missed only one home game in a decade because of the flu, attended 10 of 12 games in 2017 and, like thousands of UConn football fans, spent considerable time, energy and money with little reward on the scoreboard. Solely because they love the team.

“By voting yes today you say to every one of those fans that you don’t care about them,” McDougall said. “That their loyalty over the past decade means nothing.”

He insisted that leaving the American Athletic Conference and leaving football to fend for itself makes no sense. He argued there is more money in the AAC, more future in the AAC. While he admitted the AAC might not get UConn to a Power Five conference, the Big East assured it.

“To vote yes on the Big East is to admit defeat, to admit our university is OK with sitting at the children’s table,” McDougall said.

He called the conference UConn is joining the “Zombie Big East Conference,” no longer filled with ambitious schools like Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, etc. McDougall said he used to brag as a freshman how UConn built a basketball powerhouse from nothing and now, after playing in the BCS Fiesta Bowl, was in the process of doing the same in football.

On Wednesday, McDougall said he was sickened and heartbroken.

“So hold your vote to send it to conference purgatory,” said McDougall, as he looked around the North Reading Room of the Wilbur Cross Building. “The only solace I receive from this whole situation is that I got the chance to stand up and speak my piece before the committee decides to slit the throat of my favorite sports team.”

It was great theater. The loyal opposition.

Of course, the board of trustees would later vote unanimously in favor of joining the Big East. Not a single nay. Despite the hoopla, this day was a mere formality. Look, I don’t necessarily agree with Tom McDougall, a psychology major, who lives in West Hartford and works for Reynolds and Reynolds. I also don’t know nearly enough to tell him he is dead wrong. For this was a day that unfortunately provided precious few answers to the many, many questions about the entirety of UConn athletics.

I know. I know. Got to honor the Big East process and wait at least until its news conference Thursday at Madison Square Garden to start asking. Ritter said it. Herbst it. The school repeated it.

That’s partially poppycock. The Big East has nothing to do with UConn football. And that’s why I had called for some open debate, questions and answers about a specific plan, options on conferences and independence, about the ultimate goal, the financials, etc., during the board of trustees meeting prior to a vote. Explain why football shouldn’t drop to FCS. Explain why dropping football altogether is stupid. This is a state-funded school and the athletic department needed a nation-high subsidy of more than $40 million last year. Taxpayers deserved some transparency up front.

Hey, there was an explanation Wednesday that the $10 million to fix the Gampel roof wasn’t enough. Another $1.8 million needed approval for permanent dehumidifiers to stop a condensation problem, of which officials aren’t sure of the cause, yet are sure the dehumidifiers will remedy. Now that’s dripping with transparency.

Look, we already made clear that a move to the Big East in basketball as a standalone proposition is a good move. It fits UConn’s reach and it fits Dan Hurley perfectly. Let’s just not get all giddy like this is an invitation to the Big Ten and an annual $40 million TV rights check.

“The board has made a decision that is best for the athletic program,” said Tom Ritter, interim trustees chairman during the session. “I support accepting the Big East’s invitation as the better overall fit that in my opinion is best for our student-athletes.

“Make no mistake, we’re still committed to our football program. We will have options for football and decide on a pathway for a successful and exciting football program.”

With Fox Sports contracted with the Big East, how much can it use its ties with the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 to line up some lucrative games with UConn football? Can UConn leverage its basketball programs to help with independent scheduling? Is there anything to this talk of a MAC East division? Freed of the AAC-ESPN squabble, how much can SNY bring to the table with football and basketball? Was that SNY feud the last straw with the AAC or was the move already seriously afoot with the Big East? There was an attempt at a move 18 to 24 months ago that fell through. What happened this time that worked? Exactly how much will be saved in travel costs? Can more now be done about the rent at XL Center and Rentschler, or at least move some of the cost to the state’s ledger? Could other sports still be dropped? We found out that UConn has to pay a $3.5 million entry fee to the Big East and $30 million to leave during the first six years, yet what about the $10 million AAC exit fee to still be negotiated?

Those are only half the questions I have and answers I couldn’t give McDougall.

“They looked at everything and I think it’s a decision that they had to make,” said Larry McHugh, former trustees chairman. “The board made the right decision.”

McHugh is an old football coach. Does he think UConn football can still make it?

“Absolutely,” McHugh said. “(Athletic director) Dave Benedict is a football guy, too. I think it will work. It’s a matter of time.”

After a fraternity brother tipped him off about the open meeting, McDougall went online to discover public participation was an option and got himself on the docket. Later he said he was a little nervous, but man, he stood tall in front of a lot of important people.

This is a kid, raised near Lake George in New York, who visited UConn when he was a high school senior and stopped at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on the way home. A security guard allowed him in, he climbed to the top of the stands and there, he said, he “literally decided” to attend UConn. He didn’t grow up when Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin were kings. He said he doesn’t care about Seton Hall or St. John’s. He cares about Cincinnati and UCF. He said the American isn’t at fault for UConn’s problems. UConn is.

“I believe the Big East is a dead-end coffin,” McDougall said. “To be fair, they haven’t revealed a full plan so maybe they do have some genius thing. If it goes the independent route I think football collapses in three to five years. We used to look down at UMass. Now we aspire to be UMass.”

Before he adjourned the meeting, Ritter said, “Somewhere, Dave Gavitt (the late architect of the Big East) and John Toner (the late AD who got UConn into the conference) are misty-eyed and exchanging high-fives right now.”

Perhaps they are. Yet here among the living, we still need some important answers, to stop guys like Tom McDougall from promising to drop his season tickets after this year.; @jeffjacobs123