In the age of the American Athletic Conference, many fans cling to nostalgia when it comes to UConn athletics. The glory days of the Big East are full of so many classic moments that it’s easy to say the Huskies should just go to the new Big East and recapture this magic.
But many people don’t realize that going to the new Big East would more likely than not require UConn to drop football. Football and the Big East is like oil and water—no matter how much you try and stir them together, eventually they’ll just settle apart from each other. And football, football revenue and TV deals associated with football are at the root of the old Big East’s decline.
How it started
The Big East originally formed in 1979 when the new scheduling of NCAA basketball caused Providence coach Dave Gavitt led an effort to assemble basketball schools around the East Coast. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown and Syracuse all invited Seton Hall, UConn, Holy Cross, Rutgers and Boston College to join, with Holy Cross and Rutgers declining. Villanova and Pittsburgh joined in the next three years, forming the core of the Big East.
The addition of football
As the years went on, it became increasingly clear that having a football program was the way to get the greatest revenue, and in 1991, the Big East played its first football season. The conference added Rutgers, Miami, Virginia Tech, Temple and West Virginia to bolster their football resume and they were trying to market themselves among the Power 5 conferences. (Notre Dame was admitted as a non-football school in 1995 and the football-only Temple was voted out of the conference in 2004 due to poor attendance and lack of success).
The addition of football caused a lot of turmoil within the conference between football and non-football schools and it blew up into a months-long tension that resulted in Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College all leaving for the ACC in 2003. Subsequently, Louisville, Cincinnati, USF, Marquette and DePaul all came to the Big East from Conference USA.
Of course, the driving force for all of this was football revenue and the allure of the Power 5. And the Big East recognized this. In April 2011, Villanova, a non-football school, was asked by the conference to add FBS football and they came up with a comprehensive plan to make it happen. But there were objections to this, specifically from Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Rutgers.
Of course, there was the whole Penn State issue, which may have represented the beginning of the end all the way back in 1982.
Just over four months later, as it became increasingly obvious that the Big East could never compete in football at the level of the Power 5, Syracuse and Pitt left the conference for the ACC and in 2012, West Virginia was accepted into the Big 12. TCU was also scheduled to join the conference in 2012, but they instead accepted a bid to the Big 12, dealing a severe blow to the Big East’s football resume.
The departure of these schools spurred major conference realignment. In 2012 alone, 10 different schools were admitted to the Big East; some just for football, some for all sports; two schools—Rutgers and Louisville—announced their departure from the Big East to the Big Ten and the ACC, respectively, beginning in the 2015-16 season.
The Big East was not the only conference affected by this large period of conference realignment from 2010 to 2013, but it was unquestionably the one who felt the biggest impact. The Catholic 7, as the media called them—DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova—all unanimously voted to leave the existing Big East in 2013. They did this because they wanted a more lucrative TV deal, something they believed they just couldn’t get with the football schools.
The Catholic 7 originally planned to depart starting in 2015-16, but they instead departed in July 2013, resulting in the football schools who remained in the conference receiving $100 million in entry fees, exit fees and earned money from NCAA basketball tournament wins. From this, the remaining members of the now-disbanded Big East rebranded as the American Athletic Conference. Once Louisville and Rutgers left, the American accepted Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina into the conference.
But what about UConn in the ACC?
Ah, yes. The age-old question of why UConn didn’t just leave while they were perhaps at their athletic peak in 2011. The ACC originally wanted UConn—they were their second choice after Syracuse and before Pitt—but they were blocked by Boston College.
Some reports say that BC Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo was angry over comments UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun made when the Eagles departed the conference in 2003. DeFilippo said in 2011 that, “It was a matter of turf. We wanted to be the New England team.”
But it may have to do with the lawsuit filed led by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. When BC left the Big East, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and UConn brought suit against the ACC, BC and Miami for “improper disclosure of confidential information and conspiring to weaken the Big East.” The lawsuit was dismissed in court, but a secret out-of-court settlement was reached where each Big East school was given $1 million.
The decision to file the suit impacted the relationship between Connecticut and Boston College so much that it resulted in all the bad blood that ended up locking UConn out of the ACC.