Nearly every holiday party has a moment when Uncle Charlie, who rejected George W. Bush as too liberal, sits down next to the guy who voted for Nader. The hosts hold their breath and try to steer the conversation toward the weather or the lasagna.
The good news for University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst, as she heads off to a Sunday meeting of Big East presidents, is that it’s raining. Maybe there will be lasagna, too.
Otherwise, when she meets with her counterparts to discuss the future of the Big East conference, they might ask her about the school’s hopes of joining the ACC and Gov. Dannel Malloy’s description of the Big East as a fallback plan. Talk about awkward.
The unsettled world of college athletics has a lot of schools frightened. UConn and Kansas, united by their status as basketball schools that play football, are both looking for a safe place to land. They should simply switch sides in a debate that has been going for years. It’s possible there would be tremors of realignment if there was a national college football playoff but they would lack the urgency of these tumultuous, desperate days.
After all, if you can play your way into the tournament (and the big money) from anywhere, it doesn’t really matter what conference you’re in. Those about to be thrown out of the inner circle might do well to reconsider their position on this issue before they get a place in line next to Boise State, pressing their noses against the window and watching the big schools feast.
Okay, the E-ticket trip to fantasyland is over. The reality is that Herbst is going to have to walk a line between helping the Big East glue itself back together and searching for the first, best chance to leave. One does not rise to the top level of academia without a certain amount of tact but she might be better off laying out the cold hard truth.
She should tell the world UConn is looking for the biggest, best conference that will have it because the Big East will not exist in two years; at least not as a major player in the world of college athletics. Mike Tranghese might be able to figure a way out of this mess, but he doesn’t run the conference anymore and this challenge may be beyond even his considerable mental powers.
The old Big East, the basketball conference, had an identity and when college basketball had as much power as college football that meant something. They were all eastern schools, most of them Catholic, that stretched from Boston to D.C. and didn’t go farther west than Pittsburgh. They were linked by geography and purpose.
Most conferences were like this. Fans of a certain age remember when conference affiliation was shorthand for summing up the entire school:
- A Big Ten school meant a large, brawny state university of high academic standards.
- A Pac 10 school conjured sun-dabbled California schools with excellent academic reputations that were maybe too laid back for their own good.
- The ACC meant southeastern public schools, mostly of high academic reputation, built in the shadow of the tobacco fields and proud of a certain gentlemanly comportment, which held as long as you didn’t ask why they were slow to integrate.
- The old Southwest Conference meant football corruption and the SEC meant pretty much what it means now – schools more interested in football than academics.
- At least, the Ivy League still means pretty much what it meant all those years ago.
The days of such shorthand are gone. This may be a sad thing but it’s the truth and there is no sense wasting time on nostalgia. There is a big building in East Hartford that is about to become two times too big unless UConn somehow manages to make a jump to the ACC or the Big Ten. There are folks in Rockville and Enfield and Suffield who fill up their fall and winter with UConn, but it’s hard to imagine them rolling in for a conference game against Memphis with a trip to the Hyundai Sun Bowl at stake.
There are those who will criticize UConn for its rather public pursuit of the ACC. They say it makes the school look desperate and undermines the Big East. The Big East was undermined long ago and it seems better to be affiliated with a school that announces its intentions honestly rather than engaging in the sort of duplicitous double-dealing of Boston College or the stealth negotiations of Syracuse and Pitt.
Does it make UConn look desperate? Well, these are desperate times.