UConn is officially on the way out of the American Athletic Conference.
The Big East officially introduced Connecticut as its newest member on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York, a return for the Huskies to their conference home from 1979 to 2013.
Exactly when UConn is leaving the AAC for the Big East remains undecided, however. The exit fee to leave the American is $10 million when schools give at least 27 months notice. If UConn wants to leave before September 2022, it will have to negotiate a new exit fee with AAC commissioner Mike Aresco.
“We wish UConn well,” Aresco said in a statement. “We will next address the exit procedure mandated by our conference bylaws. Our conference will continue to move forward in pursuit of its national goals in football, men’s and women’s basketball, and Olympic sports.”
How does this affect the American and Wichita State, the conference’s lone member without football?
For starters, UConn was the largest national brand in the conference and gave the American a huge presence in the northeast. While UConn men’s basketball team has struggled recently, it did win a national championship as recently as 2014, and Geno Auriemma and the women’s basketball team are established as the best program in the country.
Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright said there’s no denying it is a blow to the conference.
“To say it isn’t is complete garbage,” Boatright said. “They are a fantastic national brand and operate some great programs, and their men’s basketball program is in a resurgence, which would have led to financial gain for the entire conference.
“It hurts, but we sure understand it. You have to go through and evaluate your institution and what’s best for it, and the term ‘best’ can be defined in many different ways.”
Not too long ago, it was Boatright who was evaluating the state of his athletics program in the Missouri Valley Conference and determining the AAC would be a better fit for the Shockers moving forward. From that perspective, he can relate.
“We hate to see them go, but I don’t blame them if they believe that’s what is best for them,” Boatright said. “They were a fantastic partner of ours and an ally of ours when we were going through the process of trying to get an invitation into the American. I’ll never forget that and our institution will never forget that either. Connecticut will always have a friend in the Shockers.”
UConn’s departure leaves the American with 11 schools, an odd number but also one that could open the door for playing a round-robin, 20-game schedule for men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Boatright said it’s likely the AAC will look for a football-playing replacement, so it can remain at 12 teams and host a conference championship game. But he doesn’t think the American will be in a rush to get to 12 teams for all other sports.
“I believe in our commissioner, and I believe in the conference and I’ll support whatever decision they will make,” Boatright said. “But I would not be surprised if we sit tight and watch the landscape play out. I don’t think our conference will make a reactive decision. It will take its time to look at things and figure out what’s best for us now.”
For WSU, its biggest money-maker in the American is men’s basketball.
Losing UConn hurts because UConn is one of the nation’s most prestigious programs and second-year coach Dan Hurley is expected to have the Huskies on the rise. But the reality is that after winning the national title in its first year in the American, UConn has been a combined 55-53 with no top-four finishes in conference play the last five seasons.
Even without UConn, the American is trending up with top-notch programs like Cincinnati, Houston and WSU and a rising national power in Memphis. Central Florida, Tulsa and SMU all have well-respected coaches, Temple is an established program, while Brian Gregory (South Florida), Joe Dooley (East Carolina) and Ron Hunter (Tulane) all have their programs excited about the future.
“I think now it’s got to be next man up,” Boatright said. “It’s time for somebody to step up and fill that void, and we have to share some of that burden, too. The way I look at it is it’s an opportunity to creep into that upper-half for somebody or maybe the upper-third and give some opportunities to somebody else.”