Column: Manuel’s empire held together by mere threads

FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2015, file photo, UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel watches during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame, in Storrs, Conn. Two high ranking UConn officials say the school's athletic director has been offered the same job at Michigan. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, because Michigan has made no official announcements about the opening. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

University of Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel is expected to announce any day now that he will be joining the University of Michigan’s athletic staff in the same role.

And good for him. For all of his hard sweat and toil in Storrs, he deserves a job where he can simply call up donors and say, “Hi, our football coach is Jim Harbaugh. Can you give us some money?”

Not only that, Michigan is his alma mater – his home – where he earned his undergraduate and two master’s degrees. He played football there under College Football Hall of Fame coaching legend Bo Schembechler. It’s also the school that gave him his first major job in athletics administration. From 1998 to 2005, he served as an assistant athletic director and was later promoted to associate athletic director in an administration that presided over five NCAA national championships.

UConn President Susan Herbst was right to say Wednesday anybody would be “lucky” to have him at the helm. In 2012, Manuel took the reigns in Storrs and laid the groundwork for the unprecedented success UConn athletics has experienced in the years since.

His administration presided over six national championships in four years, a feat matched and surpassed only by Oregon in the same span of time. Oregon’s championships came in cross country and track and field. UConn’s came in men’s basketball, women’s basketball and field hockey.

You be the judge of which accomplishment carries more weight.

Manuel built on the success of the past and solidified UConn’s status as an athletics empire halfway through the second decade of the 21st century. But for all the accomplishments in the last four years, his imminent departure serves to highlight the fact that it’s looking more and more like an empire held together by mere threads.

When Manuel arrived at UConn in March 2012, the Huskies were safe and secure in the old Big East. Through no fault of Manuel’s, UConn now finds itself indefinitely stranded in the American Athletic Conference. Manuel has made earnest efforts to get the university back into a power conference, first with the ACC, then with the Big Ten and finally with the Big 12.

Despite concerted efforts with Herbst’s administration, he couldn’t pull it off. But even the nation’s best athletic administrators would have struggled in similar circumstances.

That’s probably why Michigan did not hold it against him in the hiring process.

However, the financial implications of remaining in The American are starting to take its toll. In 2014 – the year in which the university won both the men’s and women’s basketball national championships – the university’s athletic department ran a $27.2 million deficit.

It was only a few years prior that UConn’s athletic department ran a surplus. Thanks to the meager television deal negotiated by The American, the Huskies find themselves fighting for the scraps left over from the big payouts going to schools in the Power Five conferences.

Manuel presided over an athletic administration that spent money like a Power Five program despite having a mid-major budget. His successor will surely struggle to maintain such high levels of spending.

Yet, this may prove to be the least of the university’s concerns. Keeping UConn’s top-tier coaches could be even more difficult as the man who hired many of them departs.

Manuel earned praise for hiring and retaining men’s basketball head coach Kevin Ollie, who led the program to its fourth national championship in 2014. He also hired football head coach and savior-in-chief Bob Diaco. He led the Huskies to a bowl game this year for the first time since the 2010 season – and the future under his tenure seems even brighter.

But both coaches could very well leave the university in the near future because of shifting circumstances, not the least of which includes Manuel’s departure.

Diaco’s aspirations clearly surpass what UConn can give him as a non-Power Five university. Multiple football players expressed concern privately that if the Huskies exceed this season’s results in 2016, he would be enticed to pay his $700,000 buyout and hit the road for a bigger program with a larger budget.

An 8-4 regular season next fall suddenly seems a little less appealing.

Granted, Diaco might have left even if Manuel stayed, hypothetically speaking. But the players I talked to seemed to believe Manuel’s departure could be pivotal. Anything less than the perfect hire to replace Manuel could put Diaco’s long-term future at the university in even more jeopardy.

Then there’s Ollie, who has consistently remained in the NBA coaching rumor mill over the past two years.

Here’s what you need to know: Ollie’s contract buyout shrinks to zero just one year after Manuel leaves. Ollie would not have to pay a single penny to leave the university anytime after late January 2017.

Would any of us be surprised if NBA owners and general managers started making some phone calls to the Ollie residence next winter?

While he passed up on the Oklahoma City Thunder job last year, the temptation this time could be too difficult to resist if the level of competitiveness in The American continues to decline. Currently, SMU is the only ranked team in the conference. While UConn’s prospects look brighter next season, a look around the conference says the Huskies are the exception to the rule.

Ollie said Wednesday he plans to be “coaching this team for a long time,” which serves as temporary reassurance. However, circumstances could certainly change by next year, especially if the university botches the hiring of the next athletic director.

And that’s what this all ultimately comes down to: the make-or-break selection to replace Manuel.

I don’t dare speculate on who the university should select to replace Manuel. There are going to be brighter minds than mine – I hope, anyway – leading the search. But let me address three significant issues.

First, the university should name either Paul McCarthy or Neal Eskin as the interim athletic director. Both McCarthy and Eskin would bring nearly a decade of administrative experience at UConn to the position. McCarthy’s work as chief of staff under Manuel would ensure the athletics department continues to run a tight ship going forward. Eskin’s effusive personality cultivated as director of athletics external affairs could keep a positive face on the department through what could become a rough patch. I would strongly endorse either option.

Second, the university should name former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as the head of the search for the new athletic director. His near half-century of experience in collegiate athletics would make him the perfect candidate for the position. Reports have said Herbst has already been consulting with him in recent weeks about conference realignment. One more phone call from Herbst asking him to lead this effort certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Finally, the university needs to act swiftly to fill the vacancy. It’s impossible to continue positioning the university as a strong candidate for a Power Five conference opening without an equally strong athletic director at the helm.

Whomever the university decides to select, it is imperative to remember this is the person who could very well be hiring the university’s next football and men’s basketball coaches. This is the person who could position the university for the longshot escape from The American or its spiral into the unending mid-major abyss.

The future of UConn athletics is sitting in hands of Herbst and her administration. I believe she realizes the gravity of the situation and will act accordingly.

In the meantime, I wish Manuel the best in his new job at Michigan. I am immensely thankful for the memories over the last four years delivered in part by his administrative efforts. For those of us who were here in 2014, the dual national championships will remain one of the highlights of our college careers.

So, I guess this is goodbye, Warde. You’ve left us with some big wins and some even bigger shoes to fill.


Kyle Constable is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kyle.constable@uconn.edu.