Big East's Breakup Not The End Of The World For UConn

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In my favorite line from one of my favorite movies, "The Shawshank Redemption," Morgan Freeman's character Red goes on about how he has been in prison so long that he didn't think he could ever make it on the outside. Tim Robbins' unforgettable character, Andy Dufresne, thinks for a second, stares at his buddy, and says to Red:

"It comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying."

And Andy walks away.

In my little cinematic world of athletic drama and Ollie-isms, Kevin Ollie would play Andy Dufresne and he'd tell the same thing to UConn leaders, its alumni and its fans, all the people who are worried sick about how the Huskies had been in the Big East so long that they don't think they can make it on the outside anymore. Then he'd walk away and let Connecticut stew on it for a while.

Friday didn't go down as easily as some in the national media projected that it would at an Atlanta meeting of what's left of the Big East Conference. It turns out that it wasn't as simple as accepting a dollar sign and signing off on a date so the Catholic Seven could leave immediately to start a new conference with an old name: Big East.

A divorce — or is it an annulment? — can be contentious and complicated.

"We have very complex technical issues that take time to resolve," UConn President Susan Herbst said in an email. "But we are very cohesive … everyone will need to show some patience, but it is clear that we are a great fit to this new league, one that will be ambitious in some novel ways."

Herbst wasn't talking about the Catholic school basketball league. She was talking about the one that will include UConn, Cincinnati, South Florida and the slew of additions to be known as the Great American or the Big American or the Metro Jr. or the Conference USA Redux. Or maybe the Big Least Leftovers.

The Catholic schools are in a rush. They want to add Butler and Xavier and have their press conference in New York next week with Fox Sports to rejoice in a deal that will pay at least a million more a year in TV money than the remaining Big East schools will get from ESPN. That it didn't happen automatically Friday speaks to the complexities of departure dates, exactly how much money the Catholics schools will leave behind from exit fees and accumulated NCAA tournament booty, and how much they are willing to pay for two words: Big East.

I hope the remaining schools argue every nickel. I really do. The music didn't stop Friday on the old Big East, but it's going to stop, if not next week, next month, sometime soon. And when it does, no chairs will be left and UConn will be the only original standing. If Herbst and athletic director Warde Manuel don't argue every nickel, it says here they'll be busy dying. Leave the romance to the suckers still living in 1984. It's time for UConn's leaders to be as pragmatic, selfish, even mean as they need to be. And if the ACC calls, they should say see you in Carolina without one hint of guilt. What the UConn leaders do from here means everything.

When Herbst hired Manuel, she called him a rock star. Well, now's the time for the big guy to rock. With the new seven-year, $130 million ESPN deal smaller than the current deal and a whopping six times less than the one the Big East turned down in 2011, Manuel doesn't have an easy fiscal road.

"It's going to be hard work," he said. "I'm not sitting here saying I'm happy that I'm going to have less money than I've had before. But at the same time, I'm going to continue to work harder at getting people invested."

Away from the Big East national headlines, there are significant matters on Manuel's plate. The Rentschler Field lease agreement with UConn runs to 2023. The XL Center deal, however, is expiring and Manuel will meet with Frank Russo of Global Spectrum, the building's new management, in the next two or three weeks. There was a New London Day story a few weeks ago citing school sources that UConn was unhappy that Global Spectrum didn't meet with school officials during the bidding process and it seemed as if the Capital Region Development Authority showed more interest in an AHL franchise than the state's flagship university.

"I talked to Frank on the phone about a week ago and it was a great conversation," Manuel said. "I look forward to working with him. I feel good about it. Just like it was discussed with their relationship with the AHL franchises, I want for UConn the best financial deal we can negotiate and have the best venues for our teams and fans. We want a fair deal."

"So people understand: This isn't tied to the [ESPN] deal. We would be looking to generate more money and ways to control the bottom line regardless."

Presented with a number of possibilities about revenue steams and making up for lost TV money, Manuel resisted specifics.

"All revenue opportunities are there to be discussed," he said. Over and over, Manuel talked about improving the fan experience.

The per-game cost of football season tickets will not be raised. Manuel said a decision has not been made on basketball for next season. Expect to see more "premium" games. Tickets were raised from $33 to $50 for the Syracuse-UConn basketball game on Feb. 13, and while there was some consternation about why the game wasn't sold out, the gate might have been the biggest in UConn history. The cost of the UConn-Notre Dame women's game also was raised.

The Michigan football game on Sept. 21 will be a premium game. There might be another.

Manuel sounded intent on having off-campus men's and women's basketball games periodically in the state away from the XL Center. He didn't specify Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport or Mohegan Sun Arena. Playing outside the XL Center for state home games was not allowed in the expiring agreement.

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