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Kevin Duffy: UConn -- particularly in football -- has to hope it's not stuck forever

Updated 12:49 am, Thursday, November 29, 2012
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STORRS -- Nine days ago, a dose of cautious optimism jolted through the Louisville and UConn fan bases. Even then, the stakes were clear: One school would be set free; the other would be sent back to the prison that is the Big East Conference.

Early Wednesday morning, Louisville was plucked by the ACC, removed from a league that is truly deteriorating. Meanwhile, UConn sat there pleading its case, only to watch the head of the parole board slam a red stamp on its application -- think "Shawshank Redemption" -- and toss it back in the briefcase: DENIED.

This one hurts in Storrs. That's the truth of it. Doesn't matter if you view the conference realignment glass as half-full or half-empty. The Debbie Downer of UConn fans would call this a pure catastrophe. Even Cheery Charlie (if that were a thing) would concede, "Wow, this stinks."

He would, however, present the bright side: This conference realignment soap opera has a twist or two before the series finale. Suffice to say, it would be extremely surprising if Louisville's jump to the ACC turned out to be the final maneuver in this mess.

The timetable, though, is unclear. The Big 12 is reportedly happy with 10 teams (makes sense, right?) and ACC sources told CBS Sports that expanding from 14 teams to 16 is "unlikely." Perhaps the Big Ten, which recently added its 13th and 14th teams (Maryland and Rutgers), will seek two more. It's difficult to know.

So, if UConn is indeed stuck here, what's life going to be like?

Well, for women's basketball, it doesn't matter. Really, what's the difference between beating Tulane by 60 or Syracuse and Pitt by 40? You could stick the Huskies in the Big 12 or the NEC or the Western Conference of the WNBA and they'd be just fine.

And contrary to popular belief, men's basketball won't be a complete disaster, either. As Kevin Ollie said Wednesday, "Wherever we're at, we're going to compete for conference championships." That's true.

So is Susan Herbst's positive spin.

"We are a great athletics program across the board, so we'll always be in national tournaments and will always, eventually, play the best teams in the nation," Herbst said.

That's the beauty of March Madness: Any team that routinely makes noise in the Big Dance will remain nationally relevant. Look at Memphis, the hoops powerhouse that will join the Big East in 2013 (or, in other words, re-join Conference USA). The Tigers rose to national prominence because of John Calipari, and they've stayed elite with Josh Pastner running the show.

Despite the watered-down future Big East schedule, despite the one-year postseason ban and Kevin Ollie's seven-month contract, UConn basketball has a lot going in its favor: Top-flight prep players likely view college as a stepping stone to the NBA, and Ollie played in the league for 13 seasons. How many other college coaches can sell that?

Big East basketball still has seven teams -- UConn, Memphis, Marquette, Cincinnati, Villanova, Georgetown and Temple -- that are annually in the mix for the top 25. No, it's not as sexy as Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville. But there's reason to believe UConn -- because of its young, charismatic coach, new facilities and rich tradition -- can still be UConn a decade down the road.

"The truth is that if you have the talent and coaches to win, you'll rise up, regardless of conference realignment dynamics," Herbst said.

Football, though, is a whole different matter. This is where Cheery Charlie goes to the bench and Debbie Downer checks in.

UConn football doesn't have a rich history or a young, charismatic coach. It has two wins all-time against ranked opponents and a 63-year-old Paul Pasqualoni, rather unaccomplished (even after that win over Louisville) in two seasons at the school. It has a mountainous climb to national relevancy in what has become a mid-major football league.

The Huskies are surrounded by mediocrity: Central Florida, East Carolina, Tulane, SMU, San Diego State, the list goes on. They can't sell the league schedule, that's for sure.

They can't sell bowl access either: The Big East champion must compete with Conference USA, Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt for a single spot in the six-bowl playoff system.

Can they sell Pasqualoni, the guy who once recruited Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison? Probably not. Today's recruits were watching Rugrats when McNabb and Harrison were drafted.

For UConn, conference realignment presents the most sickening of Catch-22s: If the football program is continually mediocre, the Huskies will be bypassed as conferences expand (wouldn't Boise State and Cincinnati come off the board next if this were all about football?) And if UConn is continually bypassed, the football program will never be anything more than mediocre.

That's why this must feel like prison for the UConn administration.

Problem is, it's not "Shawshank Redemption." Susan Herbst can't go Tim Robbins on us and tunnel through the wall to the ACC. Warde Manuel can't get defiant and give his version of Morgan Freeman's "rehabilitation" speech. Imagine that: "Realignment? It's just an (expletive) word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time."

Unfortunately, there's no easy escape route here. UConn is trapped for the time being. It just has to hope, for football's sake, that this isn't a life sentence.

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy