Life as UConn knew it was already vanishing as one traditional Big East Conference rival after another bolted for new homes.
But the rug was pulled out from under the Huskies on Saturday. Seven Catholic schools are taking their sports somewhere else, as they grew weary of their association with a football conference and were ready to build a new conference.
Standing amid the ruins of the Big East, UConn still holds out hope that the Atlantic Coast Conference will come calling. Until then, the school's athletic future is tied to a collection of mostly unfamiliar colleges from all over the country.
How can UConn survive? The impact of the Big East's evaporation will vary from one sport to another.
The football program has been dealing with the prospect of defections for a year, with Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville electing to leave. The events of this week don't affect football, at least not directly.
The women's basketball program operates above the politics of conference realignment. The seven-time NCAA champion is a national brand that derives little if no benefit from its conference affiliate, so the end of the Big East won't damage the program.
The three-time NCAA champion men's basketball team? This was a rough week for coach Kevin Ollie's program. Already smarting from the future losses of Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville, the program was faced with competing in a battered conference. Now traditional foes such as Georgetown and Villanova are leaving.
Memphis and Temple will enhance the basketball conference, just as Boise State will provide credibility to the football conference. But it won't be an easy road for two of UConn's marquee programs.
The conference turmoil puts the UConn men's program, already at a recruiting disadvantage, in jeopardy of losing much more ground.
"Right now UConn, as far as recruiting goes, is in 'no man's land,'" said Paul Biancardi, a veteran coach and ESPN's director of recruiting coverage. "Two basic questions every kid has are, 'What league am I going to play in?' and 'Who is going to coach me?' … Then comes style of play and how he would be utilized, but right now he couldn't answer the first two questions."
When Ollie replaced Jim Calhoun in September, he was signed only through April 4, an "audition" of sorts. Much has been written on that subject. But now, UConn is out recruiting — Ollie and his staff have been traveling the country during the current 10-day break looking at Class of 2014 candidates — without the old Big East brand to sell.
"When UConn was in the Yankee Conference, they were in 'no-man's land' then," Biancardi said. "They didn't have championships, they didn't have swag. They joined the Big East, and they hired a young coach from Northeastern and it took Jim Calhoun how many years to build that brand? … They had a brand, with the Big East, and now it's blown up."
Recently, Calhoun said that the key to building UConn was selling the chance to play in the Big East to recruits from the South and West — including Ollie, who came to UConn from Los Angeles.
"Tradition is part of the equation," Biancardi said. "Right now, the one thing UConn has to sell is its tradition, and who better to sell that tradition than someone who has been part of it?"
"But they have a lot of questions and they don't have any answers right now; everything is in flux. I don't know how a kid can commit until he knows those things."
Once the coaching situation is settled, UConn might have to "schedule up" to help its recruiting. For years, UConn played in a Big East conference that sent as many as 11 teams to the men's NCAA tournament. The old Big East was so strong top-to-bottom that UConn could get to the needed 18 to 20 wins by coming close to .500 in league play, and then collecting 10 wins against a nonconference schedule consisting mostly of mid-major opponents.
Going forward, to position itself better for NCAA selection and seeding, as well as recruiting, UConn will have to adjust its formula. The new conference's RPI-earning potential is not what the old Big East's was, so future UConn schedules will have to include stronger nonconference competition.
Much of the basketball scheduling is done the summer before the season, so there is flexibility to change from year to year. But UConn appearances in tournaments, such as the Paradise Jam this year, are arranged more than one year in advance and, to play teams from power conferences, "home-and-home" contracts are usually required.
This is what makes "scheduling up" complicated. UConn needs to play a certain number of home games, at Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center, which is why teams such as Maryland Eastern Shore or Fordham, opponents this week, appear on the schedule. Mid-majors will come to Connecticut without requiring the Huskies to reciprocate.
This year, with the Huskies ineligible for the postseason tournament, a stronger schedule was assembled. They played Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic in Germany and N.C. State in New York, both neutral-site games. New Mexico turned out to be the opponent in the Paradise Jam.
But Washington, from the Pac 12, will come to the XL Center on Dec. 29, and UConn will complete this "series" with a trip to Seattle next year. Similar agreements have been in place with San Diego State and Texas. UConn could stagger these home-and-home series to have enough home games each season, but it would not be easy to schedule five or six power-conference opponents in a given year.
If there is a UConn program likely immune from damage amid the fray of conference realignment, it is women's basketball.
As constituted for the past 20 years, coach Geno Auriemma's seven-time national champions would dominate any conference or league in which they would be incorporated. They have already won 37 total Big East championships (18 tournament titles) on the way to their 13 Final Fours, including the past five.
In fact, the Huskies probably would also survive as an independent, a fact that Auriemma alluded to a few weeks ago.
"I have been operating for a long time now as if this program is an independent contractor," Auriemma said recently.
UConn's biggest problem trying to operate as an independent, such as Notre Dame does in football, is trying to fill its schedule with enough games.
"I don't know if that would be possible, to be honest with you," Auriemma said.
This season, the Huskies have 16 conference games to supplement a strong nonconference schedule that includes Pac-12 (Stanford and Oregon), Big Ten (Penn State, Purdue), Big 12 (Baylor), SEC (Texas A&M) and ACC (Maryland and Wake Forest) opponents.
But if any program could do it, especially with the help of national network and cable television matchmakers, it would be UConn.
Another factor in UConn's favor is that it already recruits nationally on the basis of its reputation, as opposed to its conference affiliation. The Huskies have signed the past two national high school players of the year, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart.
"It was more about the team for me, who I would be playing with," said Mosqueda-Lewis. "You knew UConn would be playing a strong schedule and was always going to be in the NCAA Tournament, so that was most important."
On his coach's show on WTIC-1080 Thursday night, Auriemma even suggested the possibility that each of UConn's athletic programs could try to associate itself with a conference that best suits its competitive needs and level.
There is precedent in the nation of many college programs playing in many leagues, as Boise State, East Carolina, San Diego State and Navy are planning to do when they join the Big East for football.
"The best way we can help UConn athletics is by making sure we are the best women's basketball program in the country," Auriemma said. "We'd be doing a disservice to the school and our players if we just sat around and said, 'Woe is me, what are we going to do?'"
The Huskies' football future is not changing as the Catholic schools leave the Big East. The Big East football conference has been decimated by defections, most recently Rutgers to the Big Ten and Louisville to the ACC.
Moving forward, UConn's football program is tied to a conference with a mix of Big East holdovers (South Florida, Cincinnati, Temple), Conference USA refugees (Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU, East Carolina, Tulane), ex-Mountain West members (Boise State, San Diego State) and Navy (football only in 2015).
The Big East — or whatever the football conference will be called — will retain its AQ status next year and the conference is slated to be part of the college football playoff system as one of five conferences vying for a BCS bowl bid. That should remain the same, especially if commissioner Mike Aresco keeps Boise State in the fold.
Boise State has been a perennial Top 25 program for the past decade. Head coach Chris Petersen is 83-8 in seven seasons with the Broncos.
With Cincinnati — which has shared the Big East title in four of the past five years — and Boise State, the conference will have two solid programs to build around.
So UConn could play in an adequate conference. But building and enhancing the program might be tied to boosting the nonconference schedule.
Athletic director Warde Manuel has cited this as a priority since taking over earlier this year.
"Absolutely, in football and basketball, we're going to ensure for our fans and our teams that we play a schedule that showcases the talent and the strength of UConn sports," Manuel said Friday.
Next year, Maryland and Michigan are visiting Rentschler Field. There are also future games scheduled with Tennessee and Virginia.
Some around the program believe that UConn should have boosted its out-of-conference schedule after the school played in the Motor City Bowl in 2004, the Huskies' first year competing in the Big East.
A program source said that former coach Randy Edsall wanted to use the nonconference schedule to pad the team's record with wins before embarking on the Big East schedule. Former athletic director Jeff Hathaway allowed Edsall to build the young program with a less-than-stout nonconference schedule, figuring that victories were important.
A better nonconference schedule might have attracted better recruits, which in turn might have led to more quality wins. And those wins might have provided the program with more credibility with ACC football schools when it came time for expansion, some close to the program believe.
With the potential for an even weaker conference schedule in the future, scheduling strong nonconference opponents will be crucial to sustain the program.