WEST HARTFORD, Conn. - A slice of pizza, a cigar and an iced tea at arm's reach. This was Geno Auriemma, relaxed as usual, Monday afternoon at Hartford Golf Club, where he took a break from his annual charity golf event to meet the media.
The bulk of the questions, even if there wasn't much Auriemma could say in response, were about UConn and the Big East, of course.
Few, if any, people were less affected by UConn not being part of the Big East or a major conference back in 2013 - "We're in a league of our own," he said that year - and few people are affected less by UConn's move to the Big East, which will be finalized this week.
In six years as an American Athletic Conference team, UConn has won three national titles, reached the Final Four six times and gone 120-0 against conference opponents.
Still, Auriemma is said to be strongly in favor of the move and even worked tirelessly to help make it come to fruition. Why? Because it makes sense for the university.
The move is something to celebrate for Dan Hurley, something for Randy Edsall to have to live with, something that puts some programs in a better place than others, something UConn had to do in protecting and promoting its top assets.
The process advanced Monday with the Big East voting to formally extend an invitation. Next, UConn can present the contract to state Attorney General William Tong for approval, and a vote to accept the invitation can take place Wednesday at UConn's Board of Trustees meeting. A press conference to finalize and celebrate it all is expected to take place Thursday in New York.
UConn will be in the Big East ... back in the Big East.
"It can't be nostalgic because the other league does not exist the way it was when we left," Auriemma said. "It's like saying you're moving back to your hometown, but the block that you lived on and half the city is gone. It's not the same. So I don't know that it's as much about nostalgia, although our fans have been screaming for six years that we need to be in the Big East. So if this does happen, there better be 16,000 at the XL Center every night."
Women's basketball will be in a better place. The Huskies could probably spend the next five years making one Final Four run after another no matter who filled out their schedule and where it took them, but Auriemma won't always be the coach, and whoever replaces him will run a program from a conference in which it truly fits.
As Auriemma reflected Monday on life in the Big East the first time around, a couple of things came to mind: Cappricio in Providence and Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C. Yes, logistically, the move to a conference with a soon-to-be-11 team membership that makes geographic sense is a dream for Auriemma, who will be at his favorite restaurants by 10 p.m. after some road games.
"I don't remember getting home from any Big East games at 3 a.m.," he said.
Big East women's basketball is better than AAC women's basketball. Better coaches. Better teams. Better RPI (sixth to the American's ninth last season). Again, UConn under Auriemma was largely unaffected by any AAC shortcomings, but the Huskies did slip to a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed after finishing the regular season 31-2 (18-0 AAC).
The move to the Big East also opens the door for a continuing relationship with SNY, which probably would have been shut out as part of the AAC's TV deal with ESPN and the network's desire to push a lot of content to the ESPN+ streaming service. UConn wasn't supportive of that deal due to its squeezing of an SNY deal, which brings $1 million a year to the university and doesn't cost UConn a dime in production costs.
And what of the future? There is one after Auriemma, whenever that might be. Part of his legacy now will be having helped work UConn back to the Big East and leaving his successor to run a program from a more sensible platform.
This move touches just about everything and everyone - men's and women's hockey teams, which will remain in Hockey East, being an exception. UConn had to assure the Big East that it was focused - primarily and almost exclusively - on basketball.
When UConn went far down the Big East road a couple of years ago, the sticking points were astronomical entry and exit fees. Why? Because the Big East believed UConn was still pursuing Power Five dreams and letting football steer its operation. The conference had valid fears that UConn would be looking to leave at its first opportunity and, yes, the Big 12 was something UConn remained enthusiastic about as recently as October 2016.
Athletic Director David Benedict and Co. made clear this time around that basketball was the driving force at UConn, a basketball school through and through. The Power Five dream is over, and UConn can go ahead and make what it will of football - hopefully, something sustainable and reasonable, something interesting - while making clear that everything comes second to basketball.
There is clarity in UConn's identity and mission now. Whatever changes in the wake of that can be dealt with along the way.
Take baseball. Jim Penders' program is taking a step back because Big East baseball is not as strong as AAC baseball. Still, Penders is also said to be backing the Big East move. He didn't need the AAC to build UConn into a top-25 program. And after years of doing more with less than anybody, one could argue he'll have the best job in a conference and the best facilities.
Auriemma? He's got the best job in the country no matter where the program operates. But he and his program are in a better place today than they were yesterday.
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