Geno Auriemma's UConn women remain undefeated after slipping past BYU Saturday in the Sweet 16 (when a 19-point win qualifies as "slipping by" you know your program is dominant), and now they'll face Texas A&M Monday for the right to go to the Final Four.
Aggies coach Gary Blair has been a college coach for 26 years, joining Texas A&M in 2003 and winning a national title in 2011, so he knows something about the ebbs and flows of the women's game. On Sunday, the Hartford Courant's John Altavilla asked Blair about what effect, if any, the UConn women moving from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference could have on the program long term.
“In my opinion, it seems similar to what it was back in the day at Louisiana Tech [where Blair served as an assistant from 1980-85]," Blair told Altavilla. … "At some point it became harder for Leon Barmore [their coach] to get the games he needed to inspire himself and his team to play at the highest level. It was harder for him to convince the great players to come to LA Tech. They began going to places [in the bigger conference] where there were charter flights and better meal money and where everything was bigger."
This is a fair point, but UConn isn't Louisiana Tech, at least when it comes to skimping on "charter flights and better meal money." A lot's changed in 30 years, not just with the way the game is played but with Title IX and what it means for all collegiate sports programs, even beyond basketball.
But Blair gets to the crux of the matter in his next breath.
“And I think what is likely holding UConn back is the football program," he said. "Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how good their basketball teams or other teams are; football pays the bills and until they improve their football, they probably won’t be invited to play in the right conference.
And this is what it all boils down to. Football rules, and while a successful basketball program is nice, it doesn't much affect the bottom line. And, ultimately, that's all that matters.
“Can they [the American] steal a few teams to come to their conference?" Blair asked. "Who knows, that’s beyond my pay scale. But I’ll tell you this, we [UConn and Texas A&M] will play each other [in the regular season]. There’s many teams who won’t, but we will.
“The respect Geno has in the game is why people will play him. It’s good for the game. I’d love to play him every year, in the Elite Eight or Final Four, that is. But I wouldn’t mind starting another series with him and I am sure you will eventually see Tennessee back with them, too.
“Geno does not need to play non-conference games against the bottom half [teams] in major conferences. He needs to play teams in the top third of the six major conferences, not including his," Blair said.
But if the women's sport is to grow, more needs to be done to raise awareness.
“And what we need to do for parity is play games like this in January and February for television’s sake," Blair said. "I know it's going to hurt us more than it will hurt him. All Geno needs to do is play three games in a week to have one great one to make his team better. But that’s no sweat off his back. He will figure it out, don’t worry.”