Interesting possibility floated out there by Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is hearing rumors about UConn to the Big Ten combined with a plan to ultimately expand to 14 teams. He suggests making a play for Missouri and Nebraska as part of that expansion deal.
To be honest, when we took a look awhile back at some of the Big Ten possibilities, UConn was a name that I had never considered.
I didn't think of them as a realistic possibility with their football program still in a developmental stage and because it seems like there are better options within the Big East (Pitt, Cuse, WVU, maybe even Louisville). But now that I think about it, I can at least see a case made for the Huskies.
1) Elite basketball program -- If you rattled off a list of the most successful basketball programs in the last twenty years, how long would it take for you to get to UConn?? 3-4 names?? I'd give you North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, maybe Michigan State, maybe Kentucky. That's basically it in my book. UConn has been the premier program in the Big East for a long time.
Think about all the players who have gone through UConn since Calhoun has been there. Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, Charlie Villanueva, Hasheem Thabeet, and of course, Jake Voskuhl!! They crank out a lottery pick just about every year.
So if the Big Ten is looking for a powerhouse basketball program, UConn would be a great addition. They'd basically be raiding one of the "heavyweights" from the Big East and bringing them into the fold. You add UConn with Michigan State, Wisky, Purdue, OSU, Illinois, and a resurgent Indiana program, and that would be one strong conference from top to bottom.
Only question is what will happen with UConn basketball when Jim Calhoun eventually retires. He's already having health problems. Jim Calhoun singlehandedly built that program into what it is today. You could make an argument that he's one of the ten greatest college basketball coaches of all time. 2 National titles, 3 Final Fours, 2nd among active coaches in wins, 6th all time in wins. In terms of active coaches, the only guys I would definitively put ahead of him in terms of legacy would be Roy Williams, Coach K, Pitino, and Izzo. That's it for me.
If he retires, would that program remain strong?? Tough to say. They have built a brand name, but they have no history beyond Jim Calhoun. Recruits go to UConn to play for Jim Calhoun. But UConn has statewide support, and they spend the money on the program that you need to spend to be good. In that Big East spending ranking article that came out awhile back, UConn spends $6.7 million a year on their program, which puts them at 5th in the Big East (ND spends $4.3 million and ranks 12th...ugh).
I'm still tempted to say that Syracuse would be a better addition on the basketball front for the Big East. Syracuse annually ranks in the top 5 in attendance in college basketball and seems to be more of a national basketball brand than Connecticut. I don't know if it's Nike or the Carrier Dome or those orange uniforms or all the ESPN announcers who went to Syracuse or John Wallace singing "Cuse is in the house! Oh my god! Oh my god!" but there's just something about Syracuse basketball that gives them more of a national appeal. Then again, maybe that's just me.
The one thing that might push UConn over the top on the basketball front is their women's program. I can't really discount that. You're talking about the best women's program in the country with a rabid fanbase. UConn is one of the few women's programs that probably makes money for the school and can actually produce television ratings and things like that. If you put the UConn women on the Big Ten Network, you might actually get some viewers. Right now, I can't imagine anyone is watching women's hoops on the BTN.
2) A developing football program -- The biggest concern about adding UConn obviously would be on the football end. UConn has only been playing major college football since 2004, and this is their history since they've been in the Big East:
2004 - 8-4 (3-3)
2005 - 5-6 (2-5)
2006 - 4-8 (1-6)
2007 - 9-4 (5-2)
2008 - 8-5 (3-4)
2009 - 8-5 (3-4)
I mean, not exactly illustrious there. They've had one winning conference record in six years in the league. And their recruiting is bottom feeder quality. Looking back at their rankings in the last few years on Rivals.com, they've generally averaged around #75 in terms of recruiting rankings. In other words, you're adding another Purdue on paper.
With that said, UConn is building something in my opinion. I don't know what their ceiling is (especially since it's really tough to recruit with a limited in-state talent pool), but they are on the path toward becoming respectable. They beat Notre Dame and South Carolina this year, and they've produced quite a few NFL players in the last few years.
The other thing is that I think UConn as an athletic department is committed. They built a really nice football practice facility, and it seems like the financial commitment to winning is there. If UConn continues on the path they've been on, they could probably become a steady, middle-of-the-pack type team in the Big Ten.
Is that what the Big Ten is looking for?? I wouldn't think so, but maybe they'd view UConn as part of a larger expansion process. It would be risky though. If Edsall leaves and they make a bad hire, all their momentum could collapse and the program falls apart. When you're talking about a program with such little history, any disruption could derail the program. They are fighting for hearts and minds at this point, so a tough stretch could send people right back to ND or Penn State or whoever they were rooting for before UConn football became relevant.
And if the Big Ten adds UConn and the football program goes into the tank, it would be an absolute disaster when you consider some of the other options that they might have in terms of expansion. Suddenly, you're splitting all that tv money with a 4-8 UConn team. It's a risky bet on the football front.
3) Presence in New York City -- I keep hearing that the Big Ten is obsessed with this idea of capturing the New York City market for the Big Ten. Delaney and his crew seem to think that adding someone in the New York market would suddenly lead to huge dollars coming in, and I think their dream is get the Big Ten Network added on local cable in New York. Admittedly, from a financial perspective, if that actually happened (I'm dubious), it would open up a massive revenue stream for the league. If the BTN was on every cable network in the Tri State New York area, that network would be the biggest cash cow in college sports.
I just don't think the New York market cares about college football and certainly not enough to get the Big Ten Network added on a bunch of cable packages in NYC. Does anyone really think Cablevision is bending to the BTN's demands because some UConn fans want to watch their team play Iowa?? Child please. There would be zero demand for that in NYC. This is different from holding Time Warner hostage in the Midwest. When you don't show the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, people are outraged and threatening to change cable companies. If you don't show UConn football in NYC, no one cares.
UConn basketball has support in the New York area, but football?? No way. They are barely on the radar. The only football program not currently in the Big Ten that would probably turn some heads in New York is Notre Dame if they were added. ND would move the needle. UConn is a niche following at best.
Put it this way, if I was the Big Ten, I would rather add a statewide Missouri or Nebraska fanbase over the sliver of NYC residents that pay attention to the Big Ten because UConn was in it. Give me 500,000 rabid Husker fans who are going to watch every program on the Big Ten Network and buy a million sweatshirts over the "casual fan" from NYC. Chasing after the casual fan doesn't work in college football. Instead, you want Husker fans crowding around the set to watch "Greatest Moments in Husker History" at 1am on the Big Ten Network.
The other thing is that the Big Ten is, at heart, a Midwestern league. Unless you're going to add a national brand like Notre Dame or Texas, I think the Big Ten should look to maintain their identity as a Midwestern brand. Adding UConn dilutes the Big Ten in terms of identity. And UConn will never be anything more than a mid-pack Big 10 team, so I don't see how they add any national cache to the league.
4) Would UConn be interested?? -- The final question is whether UConn would even be interested. I guess it's a no-brainer for UConn from a financial perspective with all the dollars that the Big Ten rakes in on national tv packages and from its own tv network, but what about from a competitive standpoint?? UConn has absolutely zero Midwestern ties. Would UConn fans be happy about playing the Iowas and Minnesotas of the world every week in basketball instead of Syracuse and Georgetown?? UConn has built up some big time rivalries in Big East basketball. Would they give all that up for the Big Ten??
And wouldn't it hurt their basketball recruiting?? Players growing up in NYC and Philly and Boston don't want to play boring, methodical Big Ten basketball. They grow up dreaming of playing in the Big East. And it's not like UConn would start showing up in Indianapolis and Chicago and Cleveland and Detroit and stealing players from the Big Ten schools. I think UConn would be jeopardizing their basketball image in the Big Ten.
Just seems like a strange fit. I don't really see a nexus between UConn and the Midwest. I've literally never met a UConn alum in all my years living in Ohio. And now suddenly they're going to start showing up regularly places like Iowa City and Champaign and West Lafayette?? I just can't see it.