STORRS, Conn. — It’s a prickly question, and one that visibly frustrates Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel.
Are the Huskies done looking for a landing spot in one of the so-called five power conferences, or is the school a member of the new American Athletic Conference just until something better comes along?
“I’ve been done,” Manuel said during a recent interview with The Associated Press in his office to discuss the recent past and future of UConn athletics. “If my focus is always looking outside this organization and what we’re doing, we’re not going to maintain the success that we’ve had.”
That success has included three men’s national basketball titles, eight women’s basketball championships, an appearance in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl and numerous titles in lower-profile sports such as soccer and field hockey in the old Big East.
But UConn is no longer competing in a conference with programs such as Syracuse, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Georgetown or Villanova. The old football and basketball rivals have been replaced on the schedules by the likes of Memphis, Houston, and Central Florida.
Two other big names in the American, Louisville and Rutgers, are just temporary members, heading soon to the ACC and Big Ten, respectively.
“It is difficult to think of the American Athletic Conference as anything but less than the Big East — in terms of stature, brand strength, and overall positioning in the new landscape of college sports,” said David Carter, the executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute. “And for strong college sports brands like UConn, this will have an impact.”
How big an impact remains to be seen. The upside, Carter said, is that UConn now has certainty and can plan strategically for the next decade
“But the potential inability to schedule high-profile, non-conference matches could grow given the imperatives put on the larger and higher profile conferences,” he said. “This will impact UConn’s ability to generate significant TV revenue and market itself nationally since it is no longer a major conference in the eyes of many.”
Women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has said he foresees no issues with recruiting or getting top programs to play UConn, which is considered the gold standard in women’s basketball. Men’s coach Kevin Ollie said his program understands there would be a drop-off in the quality of league opponents, and looked toward improving its RPI by putting together a very tough non-conference schedule for the upcoming season that includes Washington, Maryland, Florida, Stanford and possibly Indiana.
“We think we got it close to last year,” he said.
Manuel acknowledges UConn will have less money in the American from TV revenue, and will have to make that up somehow — through ticket prices, corporate sponsorships or other revenue generators.
But he said UConn is not planning to cut any sports and he believes the school will have the TV exposure, money and opponents it will need to be nationally competitive. Too much, he said, has been made of which conference the Huskies call home.
“It’s a business problem,” he said. “My concern is the stability of UConn, and what we do at UConn. We’re going to compete for national championships.”
The school also is planning major infrastructure improvements. A $40 million basketball training center is already under construction. Plans also are in the works for a new on-campus hockey arena and upgrades to the soccer, baseball and softball facilities.
There are currently no plans to expand the Huskies’ 40,000-seat football stadium, though Manuel noted that it was built to be expandable.
“We’re going to keep being as aggressive as we can in terms of facilities and growth,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Aresco acknowledges UConn is clearly the highest-profile member of the conference, and a cornerstone of what it is trying to build. But, he said he believes the American is closer to having the competition level of the five so-called power conference than people believe.
He said with UConn, Memphis, Temple and Cincinnati, the conference already is nationally relevant in basketball. And just as the Big East did, he believes his league will spawn other national powers.
“I think it’s really, really important for UConn to be able to play at the level they’ve become accustomed to,” he said. “And while they will have different teams coming in, and a different look, they will be playing a high level of competition, and presenting marquee matchups will be important to us.”
At the same time, he said the Huskies could benefit from being a big fish in the American’s relatively small pond.
UConn’s football program, for example, will likely have an easier time earning bowl bids out of the American than it would competing for league titles against programs such as Florida State or Michigan, he said.
“We’re the underdogs,” he said. “And I think America likes underdogs.”
The Huskies are counting on it.