Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Where does UMass fit in sudden conference realignment?

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The news broke suddenly last week, and ultimately, it took nobody by surprise.

The University of Connecticut did what its fan base has been screaming about for years, and made a "triumphant" return to the Big East. By leaving the American Athletic Conference, UConn has left its moribund football program on an island. The AAC won't bring UConn back aboard as a football-only member.

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, UConn Nation is turning its eye toward the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts to see if its football team can survive as an independent the way UMass has been surviving.

Surviving does not mean winning a lot of football games, which the Minutemen have not. Surviving does mean that athletic director Ryan Bamford has managed to piece together fairly attractive football schedules for the next several years, schedules that include several so-called Power 5 teams. This year, the Minutemen will play at Rutgers and Northwestern. Bamford even has SEC team Missouri coming to New England in 2024.

The default position among UMass fans is that with UConn bailing from the AAC, that UMass would be a good fit in the conference.

Not so fast.

"We'll consider a 12th school, but unless that school helps our strength and really enhances our brand, why would you do it?" AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Houston Chronicle. "We're not going to do anything that dilutes the brand and diminishes us at all."

Aresco took it further in a question-and-answer article with CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd.

In response to a question about replacing UConn, Aresco told Dodd: "It's not something we have to do. Unless you can get somebody who enhances our brand and our strength, it's not worth doing. Geography is a factor but not the biggest factor. We didn't take Wichita State [in basketball] because they happen to be close to our schools. We took them because they're a tremendous basketball team. I think we'll have a serious discussion. If we can't find anyone that makes sense, we would stay at 11."

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It would certainly be fun to see UMass in the AAC. Renewing one of the great basketball rivalries of the 1990s with Temple would be worth the price of admission. It would also give new football coach Walt Bell a series of rivals. UMass, however, is not quite ready to enhance the American's brand.

Much like UConn was when the last seismic shift of conference realignment, UMass is in that spot right now.

If the men's basketball team, as coach Matt McCall reminded me when we met in Amherst earlier in the month, had more than one NCAA Division I tournament appearance in the last two decades, maybe the school might be more of a candidate for the American.

Had Mark Whipple's team had won more games during his second tenure as head football coach, maybe the Minutemen would be more attractive to Aresco and the other schools in that conference.

If the move back to the Big East for Connecticut is the precursor to another round of conference shifting, then Bamford and UMass had better be ready for it. If it is a one-off move, then the current college athletics landscape will remain the same.

One thing is for certain, UMass and UConn football will be linked together for the foreseeable future. After all, both are now independent, and after this fall, the Huskies are going to need teams for their schedule. There won't be an automatic slate of conference games.

If UMass and UConn are going to start playing each other annually, maybe there should be a trophy that goes to the winner. Call it the Yankee Conference Bowl, in honor of the former Division I-AA conference that had every smaller college team in the Northeast under one umbrella.

When, or if, there is another round of conference musical chairs, Massachusetts will need to be good enough to be one one of those chairs when the music stops.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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