Archive for December, 2015

Tom Coughlin: The Next Coach at Union College

December 31, 2015

by John Furgele

The elephant is in the room and his name is Thomas Richard Coughlin.  He has been the head coach of the New York Giants since the 2004 season.  Now, in his 12th year he prepares his 6-9 club for a game against the 6-9 Philadelphia Eagles; a team that just fired coach Chip Kelly.  To call an NFL game meaningless is unfair because they all mean something and when you’re charging fans for tickets and beverages, then it deserves to be treated as such.

Coughlin is older than old school.  He has pride and determination to go along with class.  He will go down with the ship because that ‘s the type of person he is.  And, that’s what makes this excruciatingly tough for the Giants owners.  John Mara and Steve Tisch own 50 percent of the team; they have to agree on what the plans are before acting on them.  This isn’t Al Davis in Oakland, who was President of the General Partner.  Davis was an owner of the team, but he wasn’t majority owner.  He did, however, have complete control of football operations.  He didn’t have to consult with the other owners.  The Mara and Tisch families have gotten along for decades and they will get along on this matter, too.

Coughlin is 69 years old and will turn 70 on August 31.  That’s not old, nor is it young.  The game has not passed him by; Coughlin is more than capable of running a football team.  In 12 seasons, Coughlin coached the Giants to two Super Bowl titles.  His 2007 team finished 10-6, and then blazed through the NFC playoffs.  They played the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl; a Patriot team that was 18-0 and on the brink of history.

They beat them.

In 2011, the Giants were 7-7 after 14 games, but they won out and qualified for the NFC playoffs.  Like in 2007, they got hot and faced the Patriots again in Super Bowl 47.

They beat them.

With two Super Bowl titles, many think Coughlin has earned the right to go out on his terms, while others feel that it’s time for a change.  There has to be some fear in Coughlin, knowing that if he steps down or is let go, he won’t get another head coaching job in the NFL.  Coughlin doesn’t strike anybody as the type who wants to live free and easy and do nothing.  I also can’t see him as an analyst either.  Coughlin is good to the media, but it’s clear that he doesn’t love it.  I’m also sure that Coughlin would drive his wife and family nuts by not coaching.  This is a man who has been coaching non-stop since 1969.  The only break was the 1994 season when he was in charge of the Jacksonville Jaguars as they prepared for their inaugural season the next year.  At 70, he wants to keep going and the Giants don’t want acrimony.  They want Coughlin to call Mara and Tisch and step down.  That way, nobody looks bad.

Mara and Tisch need to do what they need to do.  If they want Coughlin to be gone, then tell him and the public that.  The backlash—if any—will subside quickly and before you know it, the talk will focus on Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and all the other coaching candidates that are or could be available.

Coughlin should be the bigger man and step down.  Tell everybody he’s had a great ride coaching the Giants and before that, the Jaguars.  Wax poetic about beating perhaps the best coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick—twice.  He can look back with fondness and talk about the great people he’s met in pro football.  He can even talk about his 1993 Boston College team that took down number one ranked Notre Dame on a last second field goal by kicker David Gordon, whose father at the time owned the Hartford Whalers.  He’s had one of the greatest rides in NFL history.  He helped start an expansion team, took them to the AFC Championship Game in just its second year; took them to another and then coached one of the marquee franchises in the league, the New York Giants.  It’s been a fantastic ride.

But the ride shouldn’t end.

Coughlin is a young 70, so young that he’s only 69.  He wants to keep coaching and he should.  He’s more than a coach; he’s a teacher, a molder of men and a builder.  He built the Jags and he rebuilt the Giants.  His next job would incorporate all of these skills.   He would be a perfect fit to be the next football coach at a place that would welcome him.

Union College.  Schenectady, New York.

The Union College Dutchmen need a football coach.  More importantly, they need a builder, a teacher and a molder of young men.  They have a great history, but in recent years, have fallen.  In 2014, they played many close games, but finished 0-10.  They’re a Division III school, where players are recruited, but unless they qualify for academic or financial aid, pay their own way to attend the college.

I am hoping that Coughlin and/or his agent have already reached out to the school to inquire about the job.  Knowing Coughlin that probably hasn’t happened.  The athletic director at Union is Jim McLaughlin and if he’s smart here’s hoping he’s reached out to Coughlin’s agent.

This theory probably comes off as hokey, just some half-baked hack trying to be funny or clever, but Coughlin is a different breed of cat.  His ego is not like those of Rex Ryan, Chip Kelly, Pete Carroll and most of the NFL coaches.  This is a guy who loves to coach, loves to work with men and loves the pride of accomplishment.  This would be him returning to the grass roots of football, which for Coughlin is where it began.

In 1970, Coughlin took the head coaching job at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT for locals and Rochester Tech for writers).  There, he lined the field and probably helped wash the uniforms.  The program was new and in fact, it no longer exists.  At Union, Coughlin could help rebuild the Dutchmen and who knows; compete for a Division III national title.  He wouldn’t have to worry about three press conferences per week, nor would he have to worry about the Odell Beckhams and other millionaire athletes running around.  He might have to deal with a quarterback who comes to summer practice late because he’s finishing up an internship on Wall Street or a kicker who played soccer in high school and then thinks he can walk-on and kick field goals for the school.

I think Coughlin would love it and I think he has at least five more years of coaching left in him.  Division III coaches don’t make tons of money; salaries range from $60,000 to $200,000, but does Coughlin need the money?  Of course not, he wants to coach; in fact, he would probably donate the $120,000 back to the program.

Coughlin would love it.  Imagine the response when he calls a 5-10 205 pound linebacker from Peabody, Massachusetts and asks if he’s interested in playing football for the Dutchmen!  The kid might go somewhere else, but you can bet a dollar that he’s driving to Schenectady to tour the campus, the facilities and to talk with the two-time Super Bowl winner.

Coughlin would be a good fit at an Ivy or Patriot League school, but as of today, all 14 of those jobs are spoken for.  Division III is the perfect landing spot for Coughlin.  Schenectady is not in the middle of nowhere, and Coughlin himself grew up 200 miles west in Waterloo, NY so he knows what Upstate New York is like.  Union won the 2014 NCAA national title in Ice Hockey, the only Division I sport at the school.  Coughlin would feed off that as well, bringing recruits in during the hockey season.

There are no negatives here.  He wants to coach and it appears that the Giants won’t allow him to keep doing that.  If a coach wants to coach, they need to find a place that needs and wants a coach and Union College, with its 2300 students is the perfect place for Coughlin to keep coaching.

He’s a builder and Union needs to be rebuilt; retooled is a better word.  They are down, but far from out.  Coughlin can be that guy.  This is pure football, and like RIT, he will be coaching smart kids who are playing football for the love of the game.  He won’t have to worry about a “student-athlete,” taking money from boosters, or bogus classes or declaring early for the NFL draft.  His players will graduate and will get jobs making lots of money, and in 20 years, can tell their friends, kids, spouses that they played for Coughlin and both learned and loved it.  Coughlin would relish this opportunity and would get to dictate his own exit strategy.

I expect a press conference sooner rather than later.










Would Pegula Fire Rex Ryan After Just One Year?

December 22, 2015

by John Furgele

It’s only been one year.   Rex Ryan came to town full of swagger and bluster. He said that the Buffalo Bills would be bullies. He said that the Bills would make the playoffs and he said that the Buffalo Bills would challenge for a Super Bowl.  Of course, he said the same things when he became the head coach of the New York Jets.  During his five years in New York, the Jets made the playoffs in his first two years, reaching the AFC Championship Game both times.  After that, they team went downhill and Ryan was relieved of his duties.


Ryan is not a terrible coach, but the one thing we have seen this year is that the team seemingly cannot make adjustments.  They have been undisciplined all year, leading the league in penalty yardage.  They can’t seem to correct themselves.  Once the penalties start, they cannot stop.  In one word, puzzling.


Ryan came to Buffalo known for his defensive prowess.  He inherited an excellent defensive unit, led by Mario Williams, Marcel Dareus and Jerry Hughes.  With any new coach there was bound to be changes and with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz gone, everybody knew that there would be some tweaks with the defense.  In the end, there were too many which led to grumblings by some and more importantly, an inability to get enough stops to win enough games. The Bills allowed Kirk Cousins to have a career day in a 35-25 Washington victory and also yielded 30 points to conservative Kansas City in another loss.


This team could finish 6-10, and even if they end up 8-8, they will be deemed a colossal disappointment. When Ryan became coach, he turned on the natives of Buffalo, Rochester, Batavia, Syracuse and Southern Ontario. Season tickets were purchased at record levels, nearly 60,000, more than the Super Bowl years and the salad days of 1988-1996.


The Bills never got it going this year. It was a season of fits and starts. Win one, lose one, win another, and lose two more. They never had more than a two-game win streak and for the third consecutive year, the Kansas City Chiefs essentially knocked Buffalo out of playoff contention despite being outplayed in each game.


The Bills have been a true study in mediocrity and have been for most of the last 16 seasons. Since 1999, not only have the Bills missed the playoffs every year, their best seasons were a pair of 9-7 campaigns ten years apart in 2004 and 2014. Simply, they have been a bad football team.


Under Ryan, the Bills have regressed. Mario Williams was a beast in 2014; now, he will likely be jettisoned from the roster.   Jerry Hughes has fallen off and Marcel Dareus; he of the 6-year $90 million contract extension is doing nothing more than absorbing blockers in a 3-4 scheme. Ryan insisted that his system was best, despite the fact that the Bills with a 4-3 defense in 2014 were dominant, finishing fourth in the league in total defense.


Ryan has four years and $22 million left on his contract. That is a lot of money, but if I’m Terry Pegula, I’d fire him. I understand the odds of this happening are more than long and if he brings Rex Ryan back, I can’t criticize him for it. But, deep down, Pegula knows that the Buffalo Bills will not win and go deep into the playoffs under Ryan’s direction.   If you know that, perhaps money might not be a hindrance.


Pegula saved football in Buffalo and Western New York. He paid over $1 billion for the Bills, but in 2010, he sold some land and assets for $4.7 billion and in 2014, partly to help with the Bills’ purchase, sold more land and assets for $1.75 billion. That’s $6.45 billion and while nobody likes giving away $22 million for someone to do nothing, it wouldn’t be a huge hit on Pegula’s financial portfolio.


How bad does Pegula want to win? Already revered, we know that he can be revered to the ultimate degree if he can bring home a Super Bowl and/or Stanley Cup. He is the only one that can do it. He owns both teams and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. A title or two would result in statues of the man for all to see for the rest of time.


How much patience does he have? I’m sure he has more than the fans do and because of that, Ryan likely comes back for one, if not two more seasons. But, if Pegula is really studying what he has seen, he can’t be happy. I really believe that he is contemplating a move to dismiss Ryan.   He has not come out in support of Ryan at all this season and in fairness, has not said anything negative either, but what does that really mean?


Pegula will hold the season-ender presser very soon. In it, he could say that he will do everything possible to help the Bills and Ryan win a Super Bowl, or he could say that the time to win is now and because so, I am relieving Ryan of his duties.


I would like to see the former, but I do expect that latter. That’s the safe call, but the Buffalo Bills have been in the NFL since 1970.   That’s 46 seasons with no championships. None. And, except for a nice little run from 1988-1996, the Bills have never really threatened the NFL bluebloods.


How much longer does Terry Pegula want to wait?








Unsweet 16 For Buffalo Bills

December 16, 2015

by John Furgele

In 1999, both Twitter and Facebook did not exist.  That’s the last time the Buffalo Bills made the NFL playoffs.  Wade Phillips was the coach and for 15 games, Doug Flutie was the quarterback.  Rob Johnson got the start in the meaningless season finale against Indianapolis and played brilliantly.  Two days later Phillips announced that Johnson would be the starter for the Wild Card playoff game at Tennessee.  Johnson did not play particularly well, but engineered a late fourth quarter drive that ended with a Steve Christie field goal that gave Buffalo a 16-15 lead.  Bills’ fans know the rest of the story.  The Home Run Throwback ensued and the Titans were on their way to the AFC title and a Super Bowl appearance.


Sixteen years is a long time.  In those 16 years, I got married, became a three-time father and got divorced.  A lot can happen in those years!  Buffalo Bills fans are great fans.  I’m not one to believe that fans “deserve” a championship, nor am I to believe that Buffalo fans are better than Atlanta, Detroit or Jacksonville fans, but Bills’ fans have been a patient lot.  Since 1960, the Bills have played 55 seasons of football and have only qualified for the playoffs 16 times, a rate of just 29 percent.  That percentage should drop assuming that the 2015 Bills, at 6-7 will not qualify.  The Bills did win AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, and then lost the AFL Championship Game to Kansas City in 1966.  A win there would have propelled them to Super Bowl I.


Being a fan causes much anguish.  My 14-year old son is not a sports fan and for that, I tell him he’s better off.  Why deal with added stress?  There is enough stress in the world.  Following sports also consumes a valuable amount of one’s time.  Think about how many hours have been lost watching game after game after game?  It can, at times, overwhelm.


Bills fans are up in arms with the latest result, a 23-20 loss to a not-terribly good Philadelphia Eagles squad.  It was the same old-same old; seventeen penalties, poor coaching decisions and so on and so forth.  The fans call the talk shows and make demands.  They want GM Doug Whaley gone, they think Rex Ryan is overrated, the defense is under-performing, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman has not been creative enough.  Fans say this because they have wishes and hopes.  Each year, they hope to be good.  They wish for the team to make the playoffs, they hope that they found a diamond-in-the-rough in quarterback Tyrod Taylor.  Cubs’ fans have been like this for years.  They expect to win a division with fourth-place talent.


The GM can only do so much.  They can draft players and then turn them over to the coaches in the “hopes,” that they can be made into productive NFL players.  It really is a crap-shoot.  They get too much credit when one becomes a star; too much blame when one becomes a dud.


Sports fans also believe in dumb luck.  Buffalo Bills’ fans think that dumb luck would find them making the playoffs at least once since 1999.  The 1970s Bills made the playoffs just once; in 1974 when they were drubbed 32-14 by eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.  They went 9-5 in 1973, but failed to qualify for the playoffs and there were 8-6 in 1975.  The rest of the decade saw sub-.500 finishes, including the Dark Era of 1976-1978 when Buffalo won just 10 games and lost 34.


Bills fans look at this team and think they should be a playoff caliber club.  They believed the talk of head coach Rex Ryan, just like Jets’ fans did when he took over as their coach.  Fans are like kids and Santa Claus; they want to believe.


Football is unlike the rest of the sports.  The league is mired in mediocrity.  There are the Carolinas, New Englands and Arizonas, but there are far too many 5-8 and 6-7 teams that are contending for playoff bids.  That’s what makes the anguish greater for Bills fans; the fine line from being in and out.  Football is the ultimate tease.  In baseball, you usually know early on if your team can compete.  You don’t hope for good pitching, you know it’s either bad or good.  A .250 hitter is going to hit around .250;  there is little hope that he will suddenly bat .310.  Hockey and basketball have similar like consistencies.  It is rare for one team to go from 30 wins to 45 in each 82 game season.


Football, because they only play 16 times, lends itself to a certain kind of unpredictability and that is one of the many reasons why the game is so popular.  Even at 6-7, there are some Bills fans that think they can “run the table,” and sneak into the AFC playoffs.


Buffalo Bills fans don’t “deserve” to have their team make the playoffs, but they do deserve a team that can play with discipline and have some character.  When you commit 17 penalties, do you really “deserve” to win?  When the star running back eschews the team to complain about how bitter—and sad—he is at being traded by the opponent, what does that say about LeShon McCoy?  Why can’t McCoy get over it?  Why can’t he accept that the Philadelphia Eagles no longer wanted him?  Why is that so hard for him to take?  Why can’t he also accept and be glad that the Buffalo Bills wanted him?  Why can’t he be grateful that he is still employed and making good money in the NFL?  Furthermore, why didn’t Rex Ryan and the other coaches explain this to him in the days leading up to the game?


That’s what Buffalo Bills fans deserve.  Would it be nice for the fans to see a playoff game before guys like me see their kids—unborn in 1999—graduate from high school?  Sure, but there are only two guarantees in life and deserving a sports champion isn’t one of them.   Of course, fans get greedy once success is achieved.  The Boston Red Sox endured an 86-year drought before finally winning the World Series title in 2004.  Two more titles followed in 2007 and 2013 but after two sub-par finishes, there is pressure again in Beantown. General Manager Ben Cherington resigned and Dave Dombrowski has taken over to help deliver another world title.


The Bills won four consecutive AFC championships (1990-1993) and then lost all four Super Bowls.  Even so, those teams were revered for their perseverance, fortitude and never-say-die persona.  What would Bills’ fans give to see their team lose a fifth Super Bowl?  That too, is another worn-out cliché.  Do fans really have to give up something to see their team win?  You’ll hear people say that they would give up five years of their life for just one Super Bowl title, but in reality, nobody would really do that.


Most Bills’ fans lay in bed, visualizing a Super Bowl victory and all the pomp and circumstance that would go with it.  But, when you see the 2015 Bills play, you realize that lying in bed and visualizing is just robbing you of much needed sleep.



Army-Navy: Football the Right Way

December 13, 2015

by John Furgele

Navy beat Army for the 14th straight time on Saturday in a game that was closer than they so-called experts thought.  I use that term loosely, because if you follow college football closely, records tell only part of the story.  Most looked at 9-2 Navy and 2-9  Army and assumed a blowout was forthcoming.  CBS analyst Gary Danielson told Mike Francesa on Friday that if Navy could win 50-0, they would because in this, the ultimate rivalry game there would be no letup.


Army is now 2-10.  They’re not a very good football team and they have a long way to go before becoming one.  But, if you look at their record, they were more than competitive in eight of their 11 games; and after Saturday, nine of 12.  They lost at the gun to Tulane and Wake Forest, they lost by two points to Fordham, six to Penn State, five to Connecticut, seven to Rice; you get the point.  Good teams win the close games, bad teams don’t.  Army needs to schedule carefully to be competitive, and they seem to managing this aspect of their program well.  In 2016, they will play two FCS teams in Morgan State and Lafayette and also play games against Rice, UTEP, North Texas, Kent State and Buffalo, so there is an opportunity to improve and win more than two games in 2016.


They have the right coach in Jeff Monken.  He gets academy football.  He coached at Navy before moving on to Georgia Southern as head coach.  He knows that the triple-option is the right offense when you have undersized offensive lineman.  More importantly, he wants to be at West Point.  He wants to be the guy who turns Army around into a contender like Navy has been in the last 14 years of this now lopsided rivalry.


Academy football is much different than it has been in the past.  The pool of players continues to narrow and with so many FCS schools offering scholarships, it gets even tougher to recruit at Army.  The Patriot League, of which Army went 1-1 this year, now offers football scholarships, something they didn’t do from 1986 to 2013.  Today, a player who is considering Army might have to take a look at Colgate, Holy Cross, Lehigh or Fordham.  The Northeast Conference now offers scholarships making it even tighter and tougher for Army to get players.  Schools like Duquesne, Bryant and Sacred Heart offer excellent educations and a chance to study and play for free.


There is the military commitment as well.  Keenan Reynolds is a splendid player, but unless there is some exemption or alternative available, he is off to active duty for the next five years.  When you go to a MAC school, or an FCS school, you don’t have to worry about this.  That said the kids who choose to play at Army, Navy or Air Force are a different breed of cat.


Navy went 10-2 and 7-1 in the American Conference.  Air Force went 8-5 and lost in the Mountain West Conference championship game, so there can be success at the academy level.  For some reason, Army has not enjoyed that success despite having good coaches.  Rich Ellerson was more than solid and there is much to like about Monken, but for some reason, the level of success enjoyed in Colorado Springs and Annapolis has avoided West Point.  It appears that West Point is committed to Monken, but eventually, he will have to beat Navy to keep his job.


As for Navy, things might be much different in Annapolis in 2016.  Reynolds will be gone and head coach Ken Niumatalolo might be as well.  A devout Mormon, he is being pursued by BYU and has agreed to meet with school officials.  I don’t think he’d be visiting there without being their number one candidate, but we won’t know what will happen until he is offered the job.  He could get cold feet.  He has been at Navy for a long time and he loves it there.  But, this could be the right time to leave.  BYU, for him, is the dream job and he is losing Reynolds.  The next quarterback can’t be as good and why not leave Annapolis on a high note if you can?  If Niumatalolo says no, then there is reason to believe that he will stay at the Naval Academy for a long, long time.


The Army-Navy game is the best that college football has to offer.  This is an overblown cliché, but it’s what’s right about sport on any level.  The pageantry, and the fact that these kids are playing for both love of football and love of country make it a very special event.  None of these players are dreaming of NFL careers and million dollar contracts.  This is football at the backyard level, the high school level, the Ivy League and Division III level.  The players will graduate and then serve their country and then go on to jobs across the world.


They moved this game so it can stand-alone on the second Saturday in December and of course, there were some at the CFP level that didn’t like it.  What if Navy was 12-0 and we couldn’t announce selections until the second Sunday in December?  They were worried that they would have to wait until the Army-Navy game is played before assigning teams to the four-team playoff and the bowl games.


So what?  If Navy—or Army—were undefeated, then guess what?  Wait.  There are far greater tragedies to deal with than this.  One would think that the Nick Sabans and Urban Meyers of the world would understand.  The chance of this ever happening is remote, but there is always a chance.  Forcing these two academies to push the game up to accommodate the bluebloods is wrong.  And, it isn’t going to happen.  They deserve the spotlight.


The American Conference is more than fine with Navy doing this.  The Middies could foreseeably play the American Conference championship game on the first Saturday in December and then play Army the following week.  It may not be the most logical, but it does make the most sense.  The Army-Navy game is more important and it deserves to have its own stage regardless of records, quality of play and everything else.


If you watched yesterday’s game and didn’t like it, then you’re not a true fan of college football.  You like college football for other reasons, some of which include gambling, having a favorite team or even fantasy, but fans who love college football have to love this game.  It’s intense and it always means something—always.  I’ve said this about the Ivy League in the past because like Army and Navy, football is part of the educational experience, not the entire experience.  At places like LSU, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, there is separation that doesn’t exist at Army, Navy, Harvard and Yale where it’s part of being a well-rounded student and athlete.   Playing football at these schools is like playing soccer and running cross country and track at others.  You’re part of a culture, a club, if you will, but nobody outside the club really cares and that’s okay.  The good thing is that there is Army-Navy and there is Harvard-Yale; special events that made America—America.


Let’s appreciate it.



Is There Cause for Concern at UConn?

December 9, 2015

by John Furgele

The Connecticut Huskies have won the NCAA men’s basketball championship four times.  In the 1990s, they made steady progress under Jim Calhoun and in 1999, beat favorite Duke to claim national title number one.  The 77-74 win was considered an upset but that Huskie team was very talented led by point guard Khalid El-Amin and future NBA star Richard “Rip” Hamilton.

In 2004, the Huskies won again, this time as the favorite.  They beat Duke in an epic semifinal then cruised past Georgia Tech in the title game.  And, coupled with the uber success of the women’s team, the basketball universe was centered in Storrs, CT.

The Huskies then won two more titles as underdogs.  Calhoun’s third title saw them win five Big East conference tournament games and then six more to finish the season on an incredible run. Led by Kemba Walker, UConn took down Butler in the title game.  And, finally, new coach Kevin Ollie guided the Huskies to their fourth title in 2014, once again, in improbable fashion.  That team was dead to rights in their opener against St. Joseph’s (PA), but regrouped, and as a seven seed cruised the rest of the way which included an impressive win over a young, but very talented Kentucky team.

The 2014-2015 Connecticut team failed to make the NCAA tournament and the future could be uncertain.  In the 1970s, Connecticut was a basketball wasteland.  In 1979, a four letter network called ESPN rose up from middle-of-nowhere Bristol and helped put Connecticut basketball on the map.  Back then, Connecticut played games against Holy Cross, and Assumption and wasn’t very good.

Calhoun arrived in the mid-1980s after having success at Northeastern and in 1988, the Huskies served notice by the winning the NIT championship.  Soon, they were playing on the big stage, losing to Christian Laettner in a buzzer-beater in the 1990 East Regional final and getting agonizingly close to making it to a Final Four.

Connecticut helped make the old Big East back in 1979.  The classic nine team league featured Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John’s, Pittsburgh, Providence, Seton Hall, Boston College, Villanova and Connecticut.  The regular season games, part of Big Monday were legendary, as it became must-see TV.  Who could forget “The Sweater Game,” in 1985 when Georgetown coach John Thompson wore the same sweater as St. John’s coach Lou Carnesseca?

Eventually, the college sports bus would be driven by football and the Big East started to have infighting. Even though it was a basketball league, the football teams were making more money than the basketball-only teams.  The Big East bloated to 16 teams and eventually had to be broken up.  When the dust had cleared, most of the “original 9,” found suitable homes as did the late arrivals like Louisville and West Virginia.  Connecticut tried to push in to a Power 5 conference.  They wanted into the ACC and would have settled for the Big 12, but for some reason, landed in neither.  The result was the American Athletic Conference, a nice 11 team membership, but not the Big East, the ACC or the Big 12.

The American has some solid programs.  Cincinnati is good as is Memphis and Temple has always played sound basketball over the years.  But, the American is not an elite conference and it won’t send six teams to the NCAA tournament like the Big 12 and ACC, and for that matter, the current Big East.

Connecticut’s fourth championship came as a member of the American Athletic Conference, but one must remember that the players on that team were recruited as “Big East,” players, which at the time was a power conference.  The last two years has seen a slight erosion of talent in the Nutmeg State.  The Huskies lacked the firepower to keep up with the bluebloods last year and this year, they are just 5-3.

There are over 30 conferences in college basketball.  After the Power 5, there is the Big East, the Atlantic 10, and the American.  These are the eight best conferences in the land, but the American is closer to eight than one.  There was a time where Connecticut could recruit the 5-star player to come to Storrs because they had the cache of the Big East and of course, the signature Madison Square Garden.

They don’t have that anymore.  The recruit who once chose Connecticut over Indiana and Duke likely won’t do so going forward.  Connecticut was never a basketball blueblood, but they were more than just a spoiler, too.  They had their own cache because they bagged four titles over a 15 year span and that is not easy to do.

We all know how basketball works.  When a Temple plays Wisconsin, we hope that Temple can win, but we don’t expect it.  When Wichita State makes the Final Four we hope they can win, but in the end, it doesn’t happen.  In our minds, we wished that Gordon Hayward’s half-courter swished in against Duke, but in reality, we knew it wouldn’t.  Even in 1998, we hoped that Utah would have hung on against Kentucky, but in the end, they didn’t.

Basketball is not football.  The Butlers, George Masons, VCUs and Wichita States can make runs; in some cases all the way to the final.  But, as good as these schools have been, none of them have broken through and that goes for the talented Memphis squad that lost to Kansas in the 2008 final as a member of Conference USA.

Connecticut is probably in the conference that best suits them for football and other sports, but they have basketball pedigree and that could be in jeopardy going forward.  This is not a knock on the American Athletic Conference, but reality is reality.  In the end, star high school players are looking to go to a school that can win the NCAA title, or that very least, play in a big-time conference.

The Connecticut women may someday feel this as well.  Louisiana Tech was once the dominant women’s program back in the AIAW and early days of women’s inclusion in the NCAA, but eventually the big conferences took over with Tennessee, Stanford and Connecticut dominating.  The American will never be a big-time conference and deep down both Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma know this.

As I watched Connecticut take on Maryland at Madison Square Garden and lose 76-66 tonight, I couldn’t help but think of them as St. Bonaventure to Maryland’s Syracuse.  The Bonnies kept it close against Syracuse last week only to be overwhelmed at the end.  Is Connecticut turning into a St. Bonaventure?

The leaders at the University of Connecticut say the right thing.  They are proud members of the American Athletic Conference, which contrary to my thoughts is a good conference.  But, I wonder if basketball-wise they are worried about where they are and more importantly, where they need to go.  They have four titles, but those were when they really were a big-boy in college basketball.

Are they still?