It’s official: UConn is back in the Big East

Photo of David Borges

STORRS — UConn is back in the Big East.

A noon press conference Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York City will officially unveil the reunion after the UConn Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Wednesday morning to accept an offer from the Big East Conference presidents to join the league in all sports except football and hockey. The decision will embolden UConn’s signature men’s and women’s basketball programs as they move to a league that emphasizes the sport, but the shift will leave UConn’s football program without a conference home.

The school is leaving the American Athletic Conference, which is unlikely to allow UConn to house only its football program in the league. The more likely scenario is that UConn’s football program will operate as an independent while the rest of the athletic deparment is part of the Big East. The men’s and women’s ice hockey programs are members of Hockey East.

The Big East does not sponsor football or ice hockey.

“I think we all appreciate the AAC, but the Board feels this is in the best interest of the programs,” interim chairman Tom Ritter said during the public portion of the meeting. “We’re still committed to our football program. ... Somewhere (Big East founder) Dave Gavitt and (former UConn athletic director) John Toner are misty-eyed and exchanging high fves right now.”

UConn will have to pay a $3.5 million entrance fee to join the Big East, as well as a $10 million departure fee from the AAC that could increase, considering the school will want to leave before the 27-month window set in the league’s bylaws.

And if UConn ever wants to leave the Big East, it will have to pay a higher withdrawal fee than other current Big East schools. Per the agreement, UConn would have to pay $30 million if it leaves between the time it enters the Big East (expected to be the summer of 2020) through its sixth year the league. That fee goes down to $15 million from years 7 through 9, and $10 million from 10 years on.

UConn will not be eligible to receive financial awards (NCAA tournament units, etc.) accrued by other Big East schools prior to UConn’s entrance.

Beyond what was said at the meeting, there were no detailed answers offered about the future of football by the school Wednesday. According to the Big East agreement, however, the UConn football program is allowed to solicit an invitation to any conference except the Power Fives (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC) as it searches for a new home.

While the vote was open to the public and the media, school officials have remained quiet about the move. A spokesperson said the school has been asked by the Big East to refrain from comment until the Thursday announcement.

Outgoing president Susan Herbst siad at the Board of Trusteees’ meeting that the school is honoring the Big East’s process, and that she and athletic director David Benedict will speak at a press conference at Madison Square Garden on Thursday at noon. Men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley and women’s hoops coach Geno Auriemma will be there, as well.

“I think the Board made the correct decision,” said Larry McHugh, the former longtime UConn Board of Trustees chairman. “I’m fully supportive of the decision they made. It’s gonna be great for (basketball). Hopefully, they want to continue to support football, too.”

Either way, after Big East presidents voted Monday to extend an invitation and Attorney General William Tong reviewed the offer, the final hurdle was cleared Wednesday — UConn is joining the Big East.

Or returning to the league, perhaps more accurately. UConn was a charter member of the Big East when it was founded by Dave Gavitt in 1979, along with Georgetown, Syracuse, Providence, Boston College, St. John’s and Seton Hall. Pittsburgh and Villanova joined soon after.

The league dominated men’s college basketball in the 1980s, sending three teams to the Final Four in 1985 (Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova), winning two national titles (Georgetown, 1984, and Villanova, 1985) and sending six different teams to the national title game (Georgetown in 1982, 1984 and 1985, Villanova in 1985, Syracuse in 1987 and Seton Hall in 1989).

UConn emerged as the league’s dominant team by the mid-1990s, though it wasn’t able to get over the hump and get to the Final Four until 1999. The Huskies made up for lost time, winning three national titles (1999, 2004 and 2011) under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.

Meanwhile, Geno Auriemma’s women’s program evolved into a national power in the 1990s. The Huskies won their first of 11 national titles in 1995 and were Big East Tournament champion 18 times from 1989 to 2012.

Numerous other programs joined the conference along the way, including football-focused schools like Miami and Virginia Tech. By the mid-2000s, the relationship between the football and basketball schools had become fractious. When Boston College departed for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005, it proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Schools like Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame — realizing the money that major college football brings — followed BC’s lead and left for the ACC. West Virginia went to the Big 12.

The league’s so-called Catholic 7 (Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette and DePaul) also broke off to form its own league — one with no FBS football. The league bought the Big East name from what remained of the league.

UConn, along with Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers and South Florida, was left in what was re-named the American Athletic Conference. Before the league even began in 2013, Rutgers accepted an invitation to the Big 10, while Louisville beat out UConn for the final spot in the ACC — a crushing blow for UConn athletics, as it sat in a conference outside the lucrative Power Five. The American conference derives far less revenue from media rights deals than Power Five conference such as the ACC.

Amazingly, UConn won its fourth national championship in men’s basketball, under second-year head coach Kevin Ollie, in that very first season. But the Huskies have only been to the NCAA tournament one more time since, culminating in Ollie’s firing after the 2017-18 season. Dan Hurley, a New Jersey native and Seton Hall graduate who played in what he often calls “the real Big East,” took over.

The women’s basketball program maintained its strong national presence despite playing in the weak AAC, but UConn’s football team hasn’t had a winning season since a 2011 trip to the Fiesta Bowl. The Huskies were a school record-worst 1-11 last season, as interest eroded and attendance slipped. Randy Edsall, the original architect as the program transitioned from Division I-AA to Division I, has been tasked with reviving it and will have an even bigger challenge without a conference to call home.

But school officials and the Board of Trustees ultimately decided to let the basketball programs return to their roots and deal with football’s situation separately.

At least one football fan isn’t happy with the move. Tom McDougall, who identified himself as a 2015 UConn graduate, a season ticket holder and donor, addressed the board and pleaded that it reconsider its “short-sighted decision” to join the Big East and send the athletics program into “conference purgatory.”

He added that the move will “slit the throat” of the UConn football program.

McDougall was the only person to address the board regarding the move.

UConn joins a Big East that still features the “Catholic 7”, along with relative newcomers Creighton, Xavier and Butler. UConn isn’t expected to join the league until the 2020-21 season.

The school’s athletic department operated with a $40 million revenue gap for the 2018 fiscal year, subsidized by institutional support and student fees.