While professionals across the country seek institutional riches thru conference realignment, UConn women’s basketball just goes about its business one rout at a time.
Winning seven national champions and playing in five straight Final Fours, credentials that quality the program for CEO status, do not give it a seat at the bargaining table that ultimately will reshape collegiate sports.
The same can be said for Geno Auriemma, UConn’s Hall of Fame coach of 28 years. He is one of the most famous of Connecticut’s residents, soon to be enriched again by a new five-year contract.
But aside from offering his insight, even Auriemma, the spokesman for his sport, has no say about where UConn should be or must be.
“I get a kick out of people that tell you that you better hurry up and make this move [away from the Big East],” Auriemma said. “I think to myself, ‘What move are you going to make?’”
“You can spend all your time worrying whether the presidents or athletic are talking or what league you will end up in. What’s the point?”
The point is, there isn’t a point. But there’s something else to consider: Aside from the implications a move or no move will have on UConn’s athletic future, it likely will have no impact on the women’s basketball program.
And that’s because it has grown into something much larger than the weighty Title IX obligation it is for many other institutions.
“Since it [realignment] all started to happen, I began to think of us [UConn] like we were an independent contractor,” Auriemma said. “We go out and play, we get [players] we are going to get. We play who is on the schedule and we’re in the Big East to win the Big East.”
“We’ve been good as a basketball program in terms of just not worrying about things that you have no control over it.”
The same can be said for the players. During last week’s Paradise Jam tournament, every Husky asked said UConn’s conference affiliation had nothing to do with their decision to come to the school.
“It didn’t matter to me at all,” said freshman Breanna Stewart, the nation’s high school player of the year last season. “In fact, I don’t think that I ever even considered it [conference] affiliation when I was being recruited. It was nice for me when Syracuse was in the Big East because it would have meant that I would be able to play at home on occasion. But it’s not that big of a deal.”
For Stefanie Dolson, the junior center, there also was only one thing that mattered.
“I understand how hard this has been on the Big East,” Dolson said. “But being recruited, it wasn’t a big deal to me, it didn’t matter to me. It’s still just UConn to me.”
UConn’s television contract with SNY, the national sports cable network that televises the New York Mets and a portion of UConn football and men’s basketball packages, will allow the women’s basketball team to stand out even more.
“I think any conference or team we are playing will love the fact that we can get into 14 million homes [SNY’s subscription base],” Auriemma said. “It’s great for them [conference]. What we’ve done with SNY is a boost for those teams that will get national exposure playing us. You can’t imagine how they would get otherwise with the exception of ESPN.”
The UConn women do not just rely on the Big East to play nationally respected programs, although Notre Dame and Louisville have joined them in the Final Four over the last five seasons.
And whether UConn remains in the Big East, or is invited to join the ACC or Big Ten, that will not change as long as Auriemma is around.
“When I was being recruited, I looked at the Big East schools more because I lived in New York,” All-American guard Bria Hartley said. “The Big East was always around me. There are a lot of good conferences, and I don’t know that it ultimately made a difference with me.
“If you think about playing basketball in college and winning a national championship, you think about UConn. It doesn’t matter what conference you are in because UConn is always going to play the top teams.”
What the players are more concerned about is playing for a coach that will make them better. And the truth is, had Auriemma left Virginia three decades ago for UMass or Rhode Island, and had the same success, that’s where the All-Americans and Olympians would flock.
“You don’t want to go to a place where you won’t be tested,” Kelly Faris said. “I remember thinking about all the great teams that were in the Big East when I considered UConn. But at that age , I don’t know how many players really look deeply into it. And with all the changes now, you really can’t be thinking about that stuff.”
So UConn can stay or UConn can go. And then it will be up to athletic director Warde Manuel, President Susan Herbst, the trustees and coaches, to figure out what it all means.
But things figure to stay the same for the UConn women.
“It was more about the team for me, who I would be playing with,” said sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the 2011 player of the year. You knew UConn was always going to be in the NCAA Tournament so that was most important.”