10:29 PM EST, December 20, 2012
The UConn women had routed Oakland by 72 points Wednesday night, and now here was Geno Auriemma talking about how he had planned to teach at the school's international branch campus in Florence, Italy, this spring.
Auriemma was preparing for a three-week seminar on how sports affects different cultures differently when he discovered that Jen Rizzotti was being inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville on a conflicting June date. He postponed his career as "professore" until next year.
"When did anyone ever think they would hear me say I'd trade Florence for Knoxville?" Auriemma said.
Ten minutes later, Auriemma was still talking about a famous Florentine and the principles of conduct set down by Machiavelli; fun stuff like bad faith, cunning and duplicity. Only Geno wasn't joking anymore. He was talking about the defection of the seven Catholic schools from the Big East, the bundle of money they'll leave with and, in general, the cutthroat course of conference jumping in college athletics.
"There's going to be a lot of bad blood," Auriemma said. "There's going to be a lot of animosity no matter how you shake it. We're like Italy in the 15th century. We have a bunch of city-states and everybody is looking to stab the next guy in the back. You can't trust anybody anymore.
"I'm not saying we're above reproach. Everybody knows our intentions; we're in the Big East, but if something comes along we'll re-evaluate. That's on the record. That's not me saying it."
A day earlier, Auriemma got plenty of attention for saying the Catholic basketball schools only stayed in the Big East as long as they did for the money and when they saw it drying up, they decided to bolt. "I hope they all leave tomorrow," Auriemma said. No sooner had the words left his mouth than he heard the detractors scream he's only a women's basketball coach.
"They're right," Auriemma said. "I am."
That would be a Hall of Fame women's basketball coach.
And that's why it was heartening to hear Auriemma and Jim Calhoun speak out loudly and boldly in recent days. UConn athletics, or at least its perception, is at a disturbingly low point. Bad news in 2012 always seemed to be followed by more bad news. The men's basketball team was denied a berth in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Calhoun retired. Amid cries for the dismissal of Paul Pasqualoni, the football team turned in another losing season. High hopes for an invitation to the ACC crashed.
No sooner had President Susan Herbst sent out a message Wednesday to Husky fans — an 11-paragraph pep talk — than, bam, another punch to the gut. Defensive coordinator Don Brown, the one guy who got people to feel good about the 2012 football season, was leaving for the same job with Boston College.
Assistants at UConn are on year-to-year contracts. So Brown, 57, was free to leave and you can't blame him. UConn sources insisted it wasn't about the money, but it had to be about security. There's a good chance Pasqualoni will be gone after next season. Going to BC, which was lousy defensively, gives Brown, originally from Spencer, Mass., security for at least three of four years and a chance to work with new coach Steve Addazio.
"I wish Don well," athletic director Warde Manuel said. "We'll have a hard job replacing somebody as good as he is."
Some may rationalize that the defense gave up points late in games and didn't force enough turnovers. And, yes, Brown knows many of his top defenders are graduating. The overriding truth is this: If not for the D, UConn could have been 2-10 instead of 5-7 the past two years. UConn was ranked 10th nationally in defense, 109th in offense and those numbers add up to this: Don Brown left town, there's every reason to frown and if you ask me again, George DeLeone will run on first down.
After much talk of new relations with the BC folks, they backed Louisville, not UConn, for the ACC opening left by Maryland. BC was one team even UConn could have beaten in 2012, yet their most valuable asset takes a lateral position there. Can it be any worse than that?
UConn Nation's confidence is in the toilet. There's little room for optimism for next football season. There could be plenty of empty seats. Until Kevin Ollie gets that long-term contract, probably in January or February, there also will be lots of angst on that front. And until commissioner John Swofford is faced with Florida State or somebody bolting the ACC and turns to the Safety School in Storrs, there is little reason for sanguinity.
That's why it was uplifting to hear Auriemma and Calhoun speak up. In the face of disappointing athletic times and tragic human times, it was uplifting to see them, hear them making a difference. While handing out holiday meals to needy families the other night in Hartford, Calhoun had strong and meaningful words for the New Haven Register about gun control.
Things like, "In my opinion, nobody should have an automatic weapon unless they're protecting the country." Things like, "This isn't a political issue. This is a moral issue." Things like, "The right to bear arms was put in there for tyranny, the fact that the government could come back and abuse us. As a former American history teacher, I can tell you it wasn't put in for us to shoot each other."
Calhoun and Auriemma remain powerful men in our state. Their university has come off kind of mealy-mouthed in recent times. It's good to hear some of the old fight.
Auriemma stood up, too, putting money where his mouth is. The $80,000 he and Kathy donated to UConn's Sandy Hook School scholarship fund for kids from that school and for siblings and dependents of the murdered was meaningful. That is the cost of a four-year UConn education for one in-state student.
"No matter how much money we raise, awareness we bring, how many prayers we say, that's not going to bring back those kids and those teachers," Auriemma said on CNN. "Those of us on the outside, we can't fix what happened. But going forward we have the power to make those who come after these kids and adults maybe benefit from this tragedy so it doesn't just end with a footnote in the paper."
Strong stuff. Powerful stuff said to the nation. For lack of a better term, it's called keeping it real.
And the reality is UConn is looking at an uncertain future. Mike Aresco is out there looking at the likes of Fresno State and UNLV. Between exit fees and March Madness participation, the 10 Big East schools could split up to $90 million. If they wait 27 months the seven Catholic schools don't even have to pay an exit fee. Granted, they could opt for an early-exit penalty and there will be legal fees, but they could be looking at $8 million or $9 million each to walk! The next writer to call the seven "victims" should be arrested for misdemeanor tomfoolery.
Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and DePaul have been to exactly one NCAA Tournament in the past six years and two in the past eight. All those millions from March Madness are off the backs of somebody else. If everybody had said yes to that $1.4 billion TV offer from ESPN in 2011 instead of holding out for more, they'd be going nowhere. Look, Xavier has made seven NCAAs in a row and they've made peanuts compared to the Big East Catholic schools. No wonder Seton Hall's nickname is the Pirates.
"We have reached the point where every decision is going to be made about money," Auriemma said. "And for those people who say we don't want to be in a conference with Tulane or so-and-so — no — it's about where can I make the most money. That's the reason football schools leave, why non-BCS schools leave and why the seven Catholic schools left the Big East. My thing is, good, God bless you. I don't have a problem with that. It should have happened 10 years ago."
It's good to hear some old fight in the Hall of Famers.
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