UConn and UMass Can Avoid Independent Purgatory With A Little Ingenuity

UConn football is heading for an uncertain future, no doubt.

Those who point to FBS Independent status as a good thing (and I assure you, that is where the Huskies are headed) like to use UMass’ three-year run as an independent program as some sort of standard to aspire towards.

Yes, it is indeed true that the Minutemen have won more games in three seasons as an independent than they did in four years in the MAC. I’m still doubting that any UMass fans are bragging about a 10-26 record, considering they went a decade straight with no fewer than five wins before they left FCS.

One thing that caught my attention recently was an article that is now a decade old, from the heyday of Bleacher Report, about what a good idea it would be for the Northeastern schools to form their own FBS football conference.

This was at a time when UMass was three years removed from their most recent FCS title game appearance. Temple was on their way to their first nine-win season in forever and dead smack in the middle of their awkward tenure in the MAC, and UConn was a year away from a then-surprising BCS bowl game appearance.

Between the lost revenue and the decreased exposure for their two prized possessions (men’s and women’s basketball), UConn may not necessarily make long-term sense in the Big East.

To that end, the independent struggle for their football program and a cohesive conference for all sports could be bolstered if they entered into a new venture with the teams in their region.

Know what helps athletics departments? Regular matchups against teams their fans want to see and road games that are easier to visit for both themselves and their fans go a long way towards stabilizing and growing an athletics department.

Welcome to the East Coast Conference?

Within the initial Bleacher Report article (which again, is almost ten years old) the following teams are mentioned as potential candidates for our shiny new conference: Troy, UCF, ECU, Charlotte, Marshall, Army, Navy, Temple, Buffalo, Florida A&M, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Old Dominion, Liberty, James Madison, Delaware, and Youngstown State are the schools.

We can automatically rule out UCF as a candidate for obvious reasons. We can also rule out Troy, App State and Georgia Southern who are perfectly happy in the Sun Belt nowadays.

You can forget about Florida A&M too – they’ve flirted with FBS in the past, but we’re not putting a Florida school in a conference where nobody else is within shouting distance geographically.

I’d be surprised to see ECU or Temple depart the AAC, or for ODU, Marshall or Charlotte to leave C-USA, unless they find the potential basketball rivalries really appealing, especially since most of their fans would see it as a step down in stature.

Navy at least considers this transition, but having Army/Navy as a conference game in and of itself would likely torpedo that possibility.

That leaves Army, Liberty, Buffalo, James Madison, Delaware, and Youngstown State.

Army and Liberty are also FBS independents right now who would be able to slot into this conference for football and port most other sports over.

Delaware and James Madison are CAA conference-mates who are both regularly mentioned as potential FBS caliber programs.

Buffalo and Youngstown State are a bit further west than the rest of this crowd, and their recent athletic success has been fairly mixed. Youngstown State’s athletics budget is a long way from supporting FBS football, and their enrollment is too low to get there with student fees, so I think they are off the table. We’ll hold off on Buffalo for now.

Multiple sports matter

One thing I’ve held out thus far is the fact that this new conference is absolutely not going to happen unless it can retain an auto-bid for the NCAA tournament. For that to happen, the guts of the conference need to be a Core Five who have been in a conference together for at least the last five years.

For that conference to logically include UMass and/or UConn in its geography, that would have to be a Core Five pulled from either the Atlantic 10 or the Colonial Athletic Association.

From the A-10 that would mean UMass, Fordham, Rhode Island, Richmond, and Duquesne. No other A-10 school has FCS scholarship football right now, so they’re all out of this discussion.

Take those five, and you can then add UConn and two others – perhaps JMU and Delaware so the CAA stays at 10. This is promising, but flawed because we don’t know Fordham, Rhode Island or Duquesne’s willingness and ability to make that FBS jump.

From the CAA, that would mean JMU, Delaware, Elon, Towson and William and Mary, and it has to be those five schools.

Of the 12 teams in the CAA Football Conference:

  • Those five just mentioned are in the CAA for basketball (your other Core 5 option)
  • Four are in the American East for MBB. but that’s one shy of a Core 5 and none of the other American East teams even have football.
  • The other three are in the A10, A10 and Big East for basketball.

So your only real option there would probably be for the five CAA teams to move up to FBS and add Richmond or Rhode Island, UConn, and UMass. This leaves the A10 balanced but means the CAA is suddenly in peril and needs a 6th member or it has to drop football. It also presumes Towson, Elon or William & Mary’s ability and willingness to make that same FBS jump.

Close, but Quite Far

This is where things get a bit hairy. When you really start parsing out the size of each school’s athletic department budget, the size of their enrollment and ability to absorb the financials of the jump, things become a little more clear.

Of all the schools mentioned above, Duquesne and Elon are the only schools whose budget is currently below $25 million, while UConn is the only school whose budget is north of $50 million.

Elon has no real history of athletic or academic success in any sport, and they’re a renovation/expansion away from having an FBS-sized football stadium. Duquesne has been much more successful both athletically and academically, but FBS football would require a substantial investment.

The Dukes currently play in what would generously be called a stadium, since they could sell out to standing-room-only proportions and not hit 3,000 in attendance. As a private university with a healthy endowment, they could certainly afford to upgrade and expand to a real stadium, though the existing footprint presents challenges. They also could spend time playing at Heinz Field if it were necessary.

I think this plan has a lot of positives to it. UMass is able to maintain basketball rivalries with Fordham, Rhode Island, Duquesne and Richmond. The Minutemen and Huskies are able to keep their football programs at the FBS level, have a basketball conference that continues to hold an auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament, and will have to split any tournament revenue in fewer directions.

The football programs in question will play most of their schedule with a very pleasant travel schedule, which should improve attendance for everyone involved. They also are competing with programs that are in their neighborhood financially, which will reduce the odds of having to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Don’t let UConn’s $83 million budget fool you as that upper-level outlier. Take away the $24 million increase in additional student funds since 2013 – a number necessitated by a massive drop in donations and a lesser drop in ticket sales with no increases in student fees – and you have a budget that is more sustainable and more in line with the rest of the new conference.

It even creates balance in its wake. The Patriot League and Northeast Conference both drop to six teams for football, the CAA drops to eight for football and 10 for basketball, and the arguably bloated 14-team Atlantic 10 drops to nine teams, with a number of schools that would love to create balance as the new 10th program.

Sure, figuring out how to give Duquesne an FBS-sized football stadium would be a challenge, but issues like that aren’t unsolvable and are perhaps worth having as part of this discussion.

Maybe Duquesne joins for everything but football and Army or Liberty or Buffalo takes their place?

Army is perhaps perfectly content as an independent, and their stink-bomb stint in C-USA likely has something to do with a minimal desire to join a conference, but perhaps anything is possible.

Liberty still has the Fallwell Stench on all of their money, and I’d imagine that if $24 million couldn’t buy their way into Conference USA or the Sun Belt they may have similar issues in the ECC.

Buffalo would be a bit of an outlier, but they’d make good sense if for some reason UConn wasn’t interested, though it would make little sense for the MAC to lose a program and create an imbalance in a very stable conference.

It’s not a full-fledged idea, as you’d need to keep extrapolating across all sports and figure out details like the ones mentioned for Duquesne, but if the offseason isn’t for speculation to start a discussion, why are we even here?

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