6:24 PM CST, November 28, 2012
They had the television market, the province of 21st century greed, and they had the academics, the province of 19th century purity. Those in power at Connecticut's flagship university were hopeful that they would help carry the day for admission into the ACC.
They did not.
Football, that 20th century staple of Saturday afternoons in the South, is the reason the ACC voted to admit Louisville to replace Maryland as its 14th member Wednesday morning. Yes, Connecticut would wake up to a dark, dark November day.
In the midst of their anger or confusion in an ever-changing landscape of college realignment, fans demand instant analysis. Make it short. Make it snappy. OK, we'll play that game to start out. The three reasons Louisville beat out UConn:
1. Perceived football superiority
2. Tom Jurich
3. UConn is the ACC safety school
Last week when the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland the prevailing wisdom was that Jim Delany had masterminded a plan to add millions of cable subscribers and therefore untold millions of metro East Coast cable booty.
The target moved. This time it was about the ACC reacting to the loss of one athletic program by adding a better one. More than that, it was about the ACC bending to the wishes of the conference's football powers. Exactly how much Florida State, Clemson and others leveraged never-ending rumors of leaving for the SEC or Big 12 is something for ears closer than mine to ACC conference calls to quantify. Or, as one source indicated, it's simpler than that: ACC schools took a one- or two-year snapshot and decided Louisville football is the safest, best bet on making the conference more formidable for the national playoff future.
North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp said, "We felt that what the ACC needed most was to add the most exciting sports programs that we could."
The ACC, the alleged domain of superior academics, didn't blink twice at passing up UConn (63rd in the last U.S. News & World Report rankings) to accept Louisville (160th).
"I think everybody needs to understand it's not like the court of law where everybody is called upon in a systematic way to make their rational evidenced-based case about who they are," UConn President Susan Herbst said of the process. "It's highly volatile. It's political. It's perceptual."
Before the presidents and chancellors gave their unanimous support to Louisville, the athletic directors were said to have their own vote a day or two prior. According to sources, UConn had support from Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia. That meant up to seven schools were not for UConn. That means some schools with lofty academic standards bowed to the football gods. Maybe the ACC schools are confident they have the academic cred to carry a school. Yes, Louisville has made academic strides. And, yes, Louisville President James Ramsey said his experiences as vice chancellor at North Carolina set the academic road map and UNC is an "aspirational peer." Still, I tend to believe sources who said academics were off the table this time.
With a program that has produced a couple of years of good classroom numbers and a new coach, those same sources said, the academic sanctions against UConn basketball played no role this time around. Some proof in that argument could be found in the four schools for UConn, all strong academically, all with basketball traditions. And old grudges over Richard Blumenthal's lawsuit against the ACC in 2004? Only fragments, I'm told.
"To tie ourselves up in knots about things out of our control, like life in general, is not a recipe for success," Herbst said.
So if you don't want to tie yourself up in knots, UConn fans, keep telling yourself college realignment will continue. As much as it has been presented by some that the ACC only did this because Louisville might have gone to the Big 12 and it had to move quickly, I've held a mitigating view. The ACC would be just as nervous that Louisville might jump in five years.
Either way, UConn is the ACC's safety school. It'll be there and be thankful when/if the ACC calls. Keep telling yourself some ACC school will jump and when it does — next year, three years, after the world ends on the Mayan calendar — UConn will be next. One of these times, you'll be right. Does this sustain you in your time of anger and disappointment, UConn fans? While you think about it, care to buy a seat to the ACC wannabe Cincinnati-UConn game Saturday heretofore known as the Beggars Banquet?
"UConn was great yesterday, is great today and will be great in the future," athletic director Warde Manuel said. "We're going to continue to win conference and national championships. While I understand our fans are disappointed, we need them now more than ever."
After playing the public game last year — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy even got into the act — UConn didn't want to be portrayed as groveling again. Different UConn sources insisted Herbst and Manuel "worked their humps off," and any suggestion otherwise is "absolute bull." They called presidents, ADs, industry powers, politicians. How much so? When Miami President Donna Shalala didn't return calls, there supposedly was even last-minute talk of getting her former boss Bill Clinton (a Jim Calhoun admirer) to facilitate a call.
What hurts here is perception. When Maryland bolted for the Big Ten, national media immediately made UConn the favorite, and Jurich said UConn was "penned in." UConn sources, however, said Louisville and UConn were co-favorites from the start with Cincinnati third. Unlike Herbst and Manuel, who went to the Virgin Islands with UConn basketball, and Ramsey who went to the Bahamas with Rick Pitino's team, Jurich stayed back in Louisville burning up the phone lines. Clearly his intense lobbying paid off.
There is a deeper feeling among some in Storrs, however, that whatever victory Jurich scored in the short term pales to the victory he scored over former athletic director Jeff Hathaway in the long term. The feeling is that Hathaway, among other things, didn't do enough to articulate the excitement of a burgeoning football program and that Connecticut wouldn't be such a dark place Wednesday if he had. That he was on all sorts of committees, yet he didn't grind out the message in a compelling way.
The bottom line is Jurich, with 15 years of experience and program-building, won big. Certainly, Louisville's facilities are excellent. Louisville has a budget of $84 million. Not only is it the highest in the Big East, but also the ACC. (Florida State is at $81 million.) Manuel said UConn's budget is $65 million, which is about $7 million more than Maryland.
Louisville has the most profitable basketball program in the nation, yet UConn sources insisted the perception of Louisville's superior football team was at the heart of the final decision.
I agree. I give the edge to Louisville over UConn, but we're not talking Alabama-Vanderbilt here. Nowhere in the ACC press conference did anyone mention Louisville and UConn are 4-4 since they started playing in the Big East in 2005. Nowhere did anyone mention that since 2007, Louisville is 38-35 while UConn is 43-32.
Manuel argued that UConn has won two Big East championships, played in five bowl games — including four over the past five seasons — and became the fastest program to rise from its FBS inception in 2002 to an appearance in a BCS game.
Yet I also cannot get over the feeling that if Dave Teggart missed that field goal in South Florida in 2010, UConn would have been in a better place. No sooner had he made it than the national media went on a rampage of what a joke it was UConn got into a BCS game. When the Huskies got whacked by Oklahoma, it was printed and framed for posterity. UConn went from the young program on the rise to the poster child for BCS injustices.
From there, UConn did not build on its BCS success. Blame it on Randy Edsall bolting. Blame it on Paul Pasqualoni. Blame it on Hathaway for failing to put together attractive schedules for 2011 and 2012. Blame anybody you want. But make no mistake that the karmic rush of beating Notre Dame in 2009 and getting to the Fiesta Bowl has ended. And UConn football needs to get it back in the worst way.
"As disappointing as this is today, we've got to play the long game," Herbst said of the need to build athletics and academics together. "We're building a place forever."
UConn fans can be forgiven today if they feel like forever is feeling a little like never.