UConn May Be Next In Line for ACC

It became official early Sunday morning. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Exactly when the various schedules will start to reflect this new affiliation isn't clear. But the new order of college athletics is clearly upon us. Do not make the mistake of viewing this as an end point. It's really just the beginning.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh made their moves quickly and – at least in this world of 24-hour, 7-day coverage of everything – secretly.

It's possible UConn won't be far behind.

The story about Pitt and Syracuse didn't leak until Friday night when The New York Times first reported the two Big East schools had entered into talks with the ACC. By Saturday there were reports that both had submitted letters of application to the ACC and the president at Florida State told the Associated Press things were moving quickly.

Just around the time Oklahoma (currently in the Big 12) was finishing off Florida State (ACC) Saturday night in Tallahassee, the ACC announced it would hold a Sunday morning teleconference call. Gee, what might that be about?

Then, before the conference call, came the official word in another ACC press release. The first paragraph read: "The Atlantic Coast Conference Council of Presidents has unanimously voted to accept the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University as new members. The invitation followed the submission of letters of application from both universities."

At least 10 – if not more – schools have expressed their interest to the ACC and commissioner John Swofford said Sunday the recommendation was to expand to 14 teams "at this point" but the conference isn't "philosophically opposed to 16." He also said he would have interest in bringing the ACC basketball tournament, which rotates sites, to Madison Square Garden in New York.

Consider that an official declaration of war. About the only way that could happen is if the Big East ceases to exit.

And that brings us to what is next – especially for Connecticut. There are reports that UConn and Rutgers could be the next targets of the ACC. Sources indicate, and there are other reports, that UConn and Rutgers have had discussions with the ACC. UConn is a charter member of the Big East (just as Syracuse is) and has pledged its loyalty. But right now the only way to run an athletic department is by being proactive. And it seems UConn has been just that.

If the ACC wanted to make an immediate move to 16 teams, why not do it all at once? Don't know the answer to that. But it can't be ruled out for the future, especially since Swofford isn't saying no. There are other reports that the ACC has its eye on Texas and Kansas from the Big 12. Swofford refused to comment on any other schools.

Anxiety is at an all-time high. The next move could belong to Oklahoma. The OU board of regents meets Monday. Will the Sooners stay in the Big 12? Pack for the SEC? Head west to the Pac-12? Will Texas announce a move after Oklahoma figures out its future?

The SEC has already accepted Texas A&M. Texas will be fine regardless of where the Longhorns end up grazing. But if Oklahoma departs, the rest of the Big 12 teams will be scrambling to find a new home. Could be the ACC or Pac-12. Or it could be that the football-playing teams from the Big East merge with the leftovers from the Big 12 (not such bad leftovers in Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State). What happens if West Virginia heads to the SEC?

There were reports Saturday that Big East commissioner John Marinatto knew nothing of the activity by Syracuse and Pitt until he was told by a reporter in the press box at the Maryland-West Virginia football game. Swofford says he called Marinatto "real early Saturday morning."

Marinatto finally released a statement late Saturday, saying, "Although I was obviously very disappointed to learn the news about the ACC's being in discussions about membership with the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University, I continue to believe the Big East Conference is well positioned for the future and that the events of the past 24 hours will unify our membership. We have been working steadily to solidify and strengthen the Big East Conference and position us for our upcoming TV negotiations and I am confident that we will again emerge from this situation and remain strong."

Marinatto may talk to the media Monday, a Big East spokesman said. The only comment from UConn Sunday was a statement released from new president Susan Herbst. She called the departure of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, "a jolt, but not a huge surprise."

That's interesting because most around the Big East were indeed surprised – in a big way. That might be the best indication of all that UConn has had discussions with the ACC.

"UConn is a proud charter member of the Big East and we have taken a lead role in the league's success over the years," Herbst continued. "However, it is my responsibility as President that we stay in constant communication and be actively involved in discussions with our counterparts from around the country to ensure the successful long-term future of our university's athletic program. The truth is that our teams will play competitive athletics at the highest level of excellence, wherever things land, and our central goals will be academic success and compliance, always."

Read that closely. Not exactly a statement of unification, as Marinatto suggested. The same could be said for Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, who said, "we are committed members of the Big East and will continue to explore all of our options and do what's best for Rutgers."

Herbst's statement concludes: "To my mind, the conference realignments and incessant national gossip is distracting many presidents and athletic directors from the real conversations we should be having, about academics, the distorting role of money in sports and what it means to support student-athletes. I hope all settles soon, and we can change the national focus away from profiteering and back to student-athletes, where it belongs."

The "student-athletes" and the fans were left behind long ago, as were traditions and long-term relationships. Profit and the fear of being left out of huge amounts of TV contract revenues are the things that are driving these decisions by university presidents. Coaches – and to a large degree athletic directors as well – are being left out of these decisions. It's a lock that Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim isn't happy about this decision. The same likely goes for Pitt hoops coach Jamie Dixon.

Pitt chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Syracuse chancellor and president Nancy Cantor talked about the "academic strengths" and the "academic quality" that makes the ACC a "perfect fit" for their schools. So all those years in the Big East (since 1979 for Syracuse) was a bad fit evidently. And it shouldn't be long before the engineering schools at all the ACC schools go and land a $1 billion contract with ESPN or FOX Sports. Right?

Syracuse and Pitt officials used the word stability over and over. They refused to say what is so unstable about the Big East. It could be a combination of things. Is the Big East a football conference or a basketball conference? It tries to be both. If the move to super conferences is eventually completed it means a big loss for the schools without big-time football. Providence, Villanova, St. John's, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Marquette and DePaul can still play hoops but they won't have any power – or link to power – under the current and future structure.

This may not even be the ultimate move to super conferences. This might the final stop before the big tremor hits.

Either way, the Big East is in trouble. And UConn must protect itself. Perhaps the fact that Herbst wasn't surprised is good news for Huskies fans. Maybe it means a plan is in place and UConn will find a comfortable, protected home.

The real irony in all of this is that Big East founder Dave Gavitt, the visionary man who changed the shape of basketball in the Northeast, died on Friday. Gavitt was a tremendous friend to UConn. Where would the Huskies be if he hadn't included them in his plan? What if Holy Cross had gotten in instead?

Perhaps it is best that Gavitt won't be able to see his work torn apart. It's a sad, sad sight right now. And UConn must be diligent and aggressive. The Huskies don't want to come close to being left out again.


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