Sunday, September 16, 2012

UCONN Basketball Madness

Susan Herbst: Uconn President

The recent retirement of Jim Calhoun, the almost legendary basketball coach at the University of Connecticut, creates a small window of opportunity for the administration of the University to bring the athletic department under some measure of control. Athletic departments at big time universities all over the country practically run the institutions they purport to serve. Head coaches build up sacrosanct empires that cannot be challenged. They receive enormous compensation packages that far outstrip even those of university Presidents.

 Any pretense that big-time basketball and football programs are for the benefit of the students is long gone. It is questionable whether these programs even benefit the so-called student athletes. How many of the semi-professional gunslingers that schools like UCONN recruit ever make the fame and fortune of the NBA? For every Ray Allen or Richard Hamilton there are thousands who never even graduate. 
UCONN is under sanctions this year for poor student performance but what about last year’s NCAA champs, Kentucky, whose team was specifically recruited to win a championship and then predictably move on to the NBA. What was their combined GPA?

In addition to the retirement of Calhoun there are many other factors that combine to make this a unique moment. Susan Herbst, the University President, is a newcomer and despite obligatory laudatory remarks about the UCONN program, she does not have a long-standing history of support. Moreover, the Big East conference is in a state of flux and with the loss of some major programs seems on the verge of collapse. The recently announced departure of Notre Dame will not help.

The team itself is in shambles. Two of last year’s starters have already left for the NBA. Three other stalwarts have left for other programs because UCONN is banned from playing in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Former UCONN great Kevin Ollie has only been given an interim contract to guide the team through what will probable be its worst year in memory. Who will he be able to recruit?

If Susan Herbst does not bring the athletic program under control this year, she or her successors will probably never have another opportunity. Her first step should be to only allow athletic scholarships to graduates of Connecticut high schools. One of the tragedies of the Calhoun era is that so few fine athletes from Connecticut have ever had a chance to play for UCONN. Every year the newspapers print lists of Connecticut All-Stars from schools like Hillhouse, Harding, and Norwalk but most of them have never even been approached by UCONN recruiters. If out of state or even foreign athletes want to come to UCONN, let them pay their own way just like other students.

Inevitably, this de-emphasis will eventually lead UCONN to leave the Big East and seek a less powerful conference. This is not such a bad idea. A bowl game appearance two years ago caused the school to lose over $10 million in ticket fees. Notre Dame is a private school and can do whatever it wants with its money but it will have to fork over $50 million dollars to exit its new league. Don’t tell me that its potential revenues will be much greater. That’s not the point. When the ACC signs a 3.5 billion contract with ESPN we are talking big business and not college athletics.

Susan Herbst needs to step up to the plate. Instead of telling Kevin Ollie that he is just going to be a sacrificial lamb while UCONN hunts for a big-time coach who will build a Calhoun type program, she could tell him to recruit a team of local athletes who will be prepared to play and graduate from the University. It can be done.

Years ago I knew a very successful high school coach whose players all graduated and most of whom went on to play and study in good colleges. From the first day of every school year, even before the basketball season had begun, he insisted that his players attend class and keep up their grades. He stayed on top of their progress and if the grades weren’t there, they didn’t play. His concern paid off. The students achieved and also played. His teams were very successful. They were just as successful as their cross town rival whose players came from the same socio-economic background but who rarely managed to go to college. Their basketball careers were over and they had no future.###

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