As much as Connecticut Athletic Director and native New Orleanian Warde Manuel is looking forward to returning to his home town this weekend to experience something that hasn’t been around since he was a child — an on-campus football stadium at Tulane — he’d probably rather be somewhere else.
Like maybe Ohio State where Rutgers, the school that usurped what could have been — and should have been in the view Huskies fans — UConn’s membership in the Big Ten, leaving them languishing in the AAC — will be playing next Saturday.
Or Nebraska, which the Scarlet Knights visit on the week after that.
Or playing host to Penn State and Michigan, Manuel’s college alma mater, which UConn’s former conference mate in the Big East has done this season.
A road trip to Tulane for a conference game isn’t exactly firing up the fragile UConn fan base any more than the Huskies’ 1-4 record. The school is using only about 600 tickets out of its allotment of 3,000.
But Manuel, a Brother Martin grad who came to UConn in 2012 just in time for the breakup of the Big East which resulted in Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse going to the ACC in addition to Rutgers getting its golden ticket invite from the Big Ten (“The Big Ten blew it,” Harvey Araton of the New York Times wrote this spring), isn’t bemoaning the Power Five train having failed to stop in Storrs.
“I’ve told our coaches, we can’t allow people to put us in a box because we don’t have the income from TV contacts that some schools have or aren’t in the conferences some others are,” he said.
“I never have and never will minimize my lot in life and I’m not going to allow that that happen to my coaches and our student athletes. We’re not going to take a backseat to anybody.”
In basketball, that’s very true. The Huskies men and women are the reigning NCAA champions. Manuel also points out a national title in field hockey won last fall as well.
But conference membership isn’t as important in those sports, especially when you’ve built your basketball brand like UConn has.
Football, though, is a very different animal in the Northeast where the colleges have to compete with pro sports for attention far more than they do in the South.
Plus, in UConn’s case, the Huskies have been in the FBS only since 2001. Grandfathered into the Big East thanks to basketball, they enjoyed the benefits of being in a BCS automatic qualifying conference (As league champions in 2009 they played in the Fiesta Bowl) without having to put much sweat equity into building a football brand.
Still, winding up in the AAC feels like a demotion, perhaps a permanent one.
The head of the UConn campus-based Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis even recently said that if the school can’t get into a Power Five conference, it should go back to being a “basketball-specialty” school — presumably somehow joining the reconstituted Big East with no mention of what happens to football.
Not gonna happen, Manuel said.
“We have a great core of fans and supporters,” he added. “And we’re obviously committed to football.
“We have first-rate facilities and while we may not have success in the last three seasons, we are building back up. Anything else is just not an option.”
UConn’s situation is an part of the AAC’s bonding dilemma — no regional identity plus the financial and public perception challenges of the widening gap between the Power Five and those not in the Power Five. The schools are hoping somehow someday that status changes, but not necessarily for all.
As his is the only flagship state university in the group, and Manuel sees the importance of UConn being a flagship member of the AAC, especially with the league headquarters not far away in Providence, Rhode Island.
In March, the Huskies are playing host to both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
If nothing else, UConn is being an exemplary member.
“We all need to step up our programs, in particular the big ones,” Manuel said. “We all need to be positive because it’s a great league with a great group of schools.
“We’ve got a great group of ADs and presidents who are all working as hard as we can to have success. Some years are better than others, but we just have to keep plugging away.”
For that reason, Manuel is anxious anticipating seeing Yulman Stadium, which was only pilings in the ground when Tulane Athletic Director and then-President Scott Cowen (a UConn grad) gave him a tour in March of 2013 during the Women’s Final Four.
“I think bringing football back on campus is great,” he said. “I know Rick and Scott did a great job in putting together a stadium that fit their vision.”
Maybe it’s not The Horseshoe.
But for Manuel and UConn, it’s where they’re at these days.