Friday, March 1, 2013

Everyone, Let's Not Panic, UConn Will Be Fine

Connecticut can be forgiven if it thinks the sky is falling – it’s been falling for 25 years.

Since the Insurance Capital of the World heyday of the mid-1980’s, the state and its cities have been in a constant state of decline. With two of the world’s greatest cities within a 2-hour drive, it can be very easy to get lost in the mix. Our inferiority complex is ingrained in who we are.

Our state government has conspired, at times in a corrupt manner, to whittle away at what made our state great. Bridgeport is now one of the saddest cities in America. New Haven is not a place you want to walk alone in past sunset. Hartford is now a relic – a sad, empty reminder of what was and what could have been. The former Hartford Civic Center stands renamed as the XL Center and as arguably the worst arena in any major city in this country.

The University of Connecticut and its sports programs have provided a stark contrast. Over the past two decades, our basketball teams have combined to win 10 national championships, our football team has risen to play in a Fiesta Bowl from I-AA and our non-revenue sports, including baseball and soccer, are some of the top programs in the country.

Yet even UConn hasn’t been immune to poor decision-making and a lack of foresight. The very publicly feud with Boston College, along with the resulting litigation from the ACC raid in 2003, likely kept UConn from joining the conference in 2011.

Former athletic director Jeff Hathaway inherited a robust, firing on all cylinders athletic program and managed to push Randy Edsall out the door by failing to pay market rate for him or his assistant coaches. While Edsall’s inexcusable manner of departure shaped public opinion, he built up a middle of the road Yankee Conference team into one that played Oklahoma on New Year’s Night.

In a twist that could only happen in Connecticut, Hathaway’s best move was undercut by our state government. A 10-game series with Notre Dame, with UConn “home” games being played in NYC and Boston was shot down by a government convinced Notre Dame should visit the Rent, our 40,000-seat stadium. The taxpayers, they said, deserved it. Notre Dame laughed and moved on. UConn’s football program would now kill for that type of exposure.

On Thursday night, it was announced the Catholic 7 of the Big East is moving on by next fall. In the wake of this news, the story took a UConn slant. The biggest losers in conference realignment? UConn. The athletic program most likely to fall off the face of the map? UConn. The end of the world? UConn.

So with that prologue out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the matter – UConn athletics will be absolutely fine.

The Hartford/New Haven television market is one of the biggest in the United States, standing above other “major” metros such as Kansas City, Memphis, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.

The UConn women continue to be the gold standard in women’s basketball, routinely drawing five-figure crowds and proving to be a cash cow. Did you know SNY pays UConn more than $1 million annually to televise the UConn women in the world’s largest media market?

The retirement of Jim Calhoun was feared for years as many thought it could end the historic run for the men’s team. Instead, Kevin Ollie took over, reinvigorated a fan base and has led a short-handed team through an exciting season that would make them a lock for the NCAA Tournament if not for a one-year academic ban. When it comes to producing NBA talent, UConn shares the same altitude as Kentucky, UNC and Duke.

The football team has admittedly been in a rut thanks to the George DeLeone reign of terror and Coach Gramps’ inability to win football games. Despite that, UConn was one of the stories during last week’s NFL Scouting Combine with 4 defensive players making waves and all will likely be drafted. UConn football is not Alabama football – but we’re not Memphis football either.

It always comes down to money and perception in college sports and right now, UConn is lacking both. The new television deal for whatever its conference will be called is sad and pathetic – the UConn women’s team makes almost as much by itself. The rivalries with Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville and Rutgers are about to go the way of the dodo bird.

It can be tough for anyone with ties to Connecticut to see the positives. But they are there. The UConn brand is strong. The UConn brand is renowned. The UConn brand will survive.

Whether UConn remains in its new conference for a year or a decade, it all comes back to winning. As long as UConn’s programs continue to win, they will be fine. No other women’s program can boast 7 national titles. No other men’s program can boast 3 title since 1999. No other program has had a former basketball star play the leading role in a Spike Lee movie – okay, less important, but still significant.

I know UConn will remain strong because I’ve felt what it could be at its height.

Every time Notre Dame hosts an opponent, the visiting fans try to infiltrate the stands to see a game in college football’s most historic and mythic venue. In 2000, Nebraska and its famous “Sea of Red” took over the stadium, much to the disgust of Domers.

But nothing compares to what happened in 2009. After 3 straight heart-breaking losses by a total of 10 points in the wake of Jasper Howard’s murder, UConn finally broke through in double overtime on a glorious, sun-splashed afternoon into unseasonably warm November night. As Randy Edsall gave his emotional post-game interview to NBC, Notre Dame Stadium was engulfed by UConn fans, myself included, letting the world know how we felt.

Watch. Learn. Love.



UConn will be fine. Panic is not necessary at this time.

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