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UConn’s Big East Return Is the Right Kind of Conference Realignment

After six years spent wandering the wilderness of the American Athletic Conference, the Huskies are abandoning big football dreams and returning home. Is it a road map for other programs that were lost in the realignment shuffle?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Conference realignment is back, baby! The Great Realignment Rush of 2010-2014 was a period of great upheaval in college sports, a coast-to-coast reshuffling of teams and leagues that broke age-old alliances broke and forged awkward new rivalries. Anything seemed possible at the time, except Texas joining the Pac-12. That was never going to happen. College sports have calmed down in the half-decade since. Teams settled into their new leagues, and we got used to the new normal, where the Big Ten has 14 teams, the Big 12 has 10, and Rutgers is in a major conference.

But some teams never adjusted in the expansion aftermath, and now, one of those mistakes has been fixed. UConn, which used to be a member of the old Big East, will leave the American Athletic Conference, where it has been a member since 2013, and rejoin the reconfigured Big East. The university will officially announce the move at a press conference at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. The Huskies are expected to join the Big East after the 2019-20 season and will have to pay the AAC a $10 million exit fee. The Big East doesn’t host football, so UConn will have to find a new home for its football program, or embark as an independent.

OK, so, maybe UConn’s move is not a big deal. It is unlikely to be the first domino in a new wave of conference reshuffling; it will have virtually no effect on college football; it probably won’t make UConn’s premier team, the perennially elite women’s basketball squad, any better or worse. It is, however, a funny footnote. Several years after massive waves of realignment redrew the NCAA map and, in many ways, allowed for the creation of the College Football Playoff, UConn’s move is an acknowledgment that the invisible hand that rearranged the college football landscape screwed up a little bit.

UConn just straight-up landed in the wrong league. After the old Big East fell apart, its member schools went in one of three directions. Some, like Syracuse and Pittsburgh, joined power conferences like the ACC, but the Huskies never got the call. One group of schools formed the AAC, a new league that sponsored FBS football. The rest remained in a reconfigured Big East, which focused on basketball. Shockingly, each league developed a relatively coherent identity. The AAC was a geographically unbound breeding ground for upwardly mobile football programs, like Houston and UCF. It’s the only conference outside the Power 5 to have sent multiple schools to the New Year’s Six slate of big bowl games. The Big East is a basketball-focused league composed mostly of Catholic schools, generally situated in the Northeast, whose big ticket is its annual basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. The league has gotten as many as seven bids to the NCAA tournament in a single season and produced two national champion Villanova teams.

UConn, needing a home for its football team, chose the AAC. But that was a bad call because it prioritized UConn’s moribund football program over its historically successful basketball teams. I cannot stress enough how dismal UConn football has been. The Huskies are 18-55 since joining the AAC. They play in a stadium 22 miles from campus that would probably remain empty even if the Huskies were good. Perhaps most depressing of all, the school recently rehired Randy Edsall, who is easily the greatest coach in program history, after his five-year stint at Maryland ended with a 10-24 record in conference play. (Why is Edsall the greatest coach in program history? We’re talking about the man who won the International Bowl and the Bowl in back-to-back years, and then went 8-4 in the regular season in 2010, which was enough to send the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl in the BCS era.)

The defining moment of UConn football’s AAC tenure is when it went 1-7 in conference play in 2014. Then–head coach Bob Diaco, noticing that nobody cared about his team, decided the Huskies needed a rival. Unfortunately, they had no nearby competition, so Diaco picked one and even built a trophy for the winner. When UConn played UCF, Diaco called it the “Civil ConFLiCT” (capitalizing FL and CT, for Florida and Connecticut). When UCF beat UConn in 2016, Diaco’s final year, the Knights refused to accept the trophy. The whereabouts of the trophy since then are a mystery.

Meanwhile, UConn’s proud basketball tradition was never a good fit in the AAC. The UConn men’s team won a national championship in 2014 in its new conference, but that was flukey, and the school has otherwise struggled to return to prominence at the national level. As for its women’s team, UConn has seemed to be in a league of its own. The Huskies have gone 102-0 in conference play. Last year, the Huskies won all 16 conference games by double-digits and scored at least twice as many points as their opponents five times, including a 118-55 drubbing of East Carolina and a 102-45 win over Memphis. (In 2015, the Huskies tripled their opposition in three AAC games; in 2017, the Huskies won the conference championship game 100-44 over South Florida.) In the end, it appears women’s basketball was the motivating factor for their move, as the school expressed disappointment with the way the AAC’s new television deal placed UConn women’s hoops behind a paywall. (UConn will almost certainly go down in history as the only school to switch conferences over women’s basketball television rights.)

Every part of life in the American made UConn sad. The UConn women’s conference schedule wasn’t challenging or high-profile enough for a team of its caliber; the men’s team plummeted in stature as it faced unfamiliar competition far outside its geographic footprint; the football team got wrecked. From an outsider’s perspective, this was rather funny. I loved watching UConn women’s basketball try to triple up outclassed opponents; I also loved watching UConn’s hapless football program get wrecked. For fans, it seemed miserable.

It’s unclear what will happen to UConn football—perhaps it will receive an invitation as a football-only member in the MAC, or maybe it will live life as an independent. It doesn’t really matter. UConn football was already an awkward outcast in the AAC. They’re still an awkward outcast, but at least the Huskies’ other sports have homes now.

The Huskies’ meandering path through the conference wilderness is an example of short-sightedness that hampered many programs during the realignment craze. Historically, college athletic conferences were formed by pretty reasonable geographic considerations and rooting interests. Fans of State U wanted their team to play State Tech; fans of State Tech wanted to play State U; fans of both teams wanted to see their teams play Neighboring State U and Neighboring State Tech, so all four schools joined forces and called up some schools from surrounding states and went from there. For the most part, these leagues were regionally centered and composed of similarly sized schools with similar profiles. Up until about 2010, expansion usually centered around leagues adding nearby, like-minded schools.

But then came a series of moves around 2010, motivated by, of all things, cable television subscription fees. Instead of adding new schools based on convenient travel or existing rivalries or league fit or athletic prowess, the new game became adding teams from new, distant regions, because doing so would allow a conference to convince cable networks in that region to add their league’s network to local residents’ cable packages. For instance: When Rutgers got added to the Big Ten, my New York–based parents suddenly had the Big Ten Network added to their cable sports package, increasing their bill, even though they didn’t attend Rutgers or care about Rutgers or know anybody who cared about Rutgers. Even at the time, this seemed like a scam. Five years later, the rise of cord-cutting makes this seem completely ridiculous. (Perhaps cord-cutting was brought on by people fed up with having random college athletic networks added to their cable bills when they didn’t ask for them.)

UConn was one of many schools that wasn’t an active player in this game, but that got moved by forces beyond its control, and looked up one day and realized it was significantly worse off than before. As the years pass, I suspect more schools will look at where they’ve landed and wonder if they would be better off joining a conference that makes regional and competitive sense. West Virginia, which is almost 900 miles from the closest Big 12 school but just 75 miles from former Big East rival Pitt, should probably be in the ACC instead of the Big 12. The Big 12 should add Houston even though it’s in the same state as three of its other schools. Rutgers and Maryland both make a lot of money now because of the Big Ten’s cable deal, but share virtually nothing in common with their Big Ten counterparts. Maryland should probably go back to the ACC, and Rutgers … hell, I don’t know what to do with Rutgers. UConn might have found a home, but some things can’t be fixed.