Viewpoint An exit interview with outgoing UConn president Susan Herbst
STORRS — Since Susan Herbst was named UConn president in December 2010, the Huskies have won nine national championships. The school also has endured disappointment, karmic and financial, in becoming arguably the biggest loser in college conference realignment.
“I can assure our fan base that nearly every single day of my life as president of UConn, I have either thought or worked on our conference situation,” Herbst said in her second-floor office at Gulley Hall. “If you did a cross section of my brain, where UConn is in the conference landscape is an embarrassingly large chunk. Every day. It’s relentless. I believe athletics is central to this university.”
As she prepares for her final day as president on July 31, Herbst allowed us to explore that large chunk of her brain dedicated to UConn athletics.
How disappointing is it to find yourself outside the five conferences that control billions in football media revenue?
“Very disappointing,” Herbst, 56, said. “There is no question the advent of the Power Five has been unbelievably impactful to a place like us. University presidents are continually amazed at how much money is involved in these media contracts. A lot of us feel pretty helpless. People think university presidents are so powerful — well, not in light of corporations that want to make money.
“UConn is in the craziest kind of perfect storm. Here we are, such a powerhouse left out of the Power Five. I think we are the single best program in the country — bracket football for a moment — not in the Power Five. Our goal now is to win in our conference and show the world we’re on top, no matter what conference.”
Let’s take football out of those brackets.
“I think we still have to give football a chance,” Herbst said. “Football is a struggle for us. No question about it. We got in it so late in the game (as an FBS program). That’s a struggle. The part of the country we’re in with so many pro teams, that’s a struggle. Probably the biggest struggle is it’s not on campus. Rentschler is a beautiful field. It’s just wrongly placed. It wouldn’t take too much imagination to fantasize about football being on the Storrs campus. What kind of numbers and excitement it would bring. That’s a thing I didn’t understand before I came here. It was baffling. It’s a problem. It’s hard to get students down there. Get on the bus. Wait for the bus. It’s too far.”
What do you say to UConn fans who want to drop football and get basketball back into the Big East?
“We’ve put too much into it to abandon it now, because we’ve had losing seasons,” Herbst said. “I was at Northwestern. Northwestern was the laughingstock of the Big Ten for decades. They got to the Rose Bowl (in 1995) and turned the program around. I have seen with my own eyes how that can happen. There are other examples. If we hadn’t poured all this interest and money and effort into it, it might be something to look at. UConn, we’re not people who give up on things very easily. Not that long ago, it was a really wonderful part of our athletic portfolio.
“We had some tough coaching situations. Randy Edsall is a guy who knows how to win here. He has to have time to get the program rebuilt. People have to have some patience. Most of all, we’re trying to get people to come to the games to enjoy it, even if we’re struggling. That’s what separates struggling programs from the good and great ones, that fans are into it no matter what.”
The Kevin Ollie situation? It’s ugly.
“There’s a lot going on with the NCAA side of it and the arbitration/contractual side of it, I can’t really discuss it,” Herbst said. “I will say Kevin’s place as a UConn champion, as a terrific ambassador to the university, that’s solid. That will never change for this place. Winning a men’s national championship is tremendously hard. He did that with our guys, that showed tremendous talent and leadership. That’s not going anywhere. That’s not diminished.”
Should college athletes be paid?
“I’m still open-minded about it,” Herbst said, “but right now when I look at all the argumentation, I lean against it. It’s a big conversation among presidents. I’m on NCAA boards. What athletes are provided right now in terms of scholarship money, cost of attendance — which I think was a game-changer — I think it’s pretty fair right now. I haven’t heard the really compelling case for it yet.”
Within months of Herbst arriving at UConn, Syracuse and Pittsburgh left the Big East. Then West Virginia. TCU was in the conference for a minute. The entire conference split.
“It was traumatic, there’s no other way to put it,” Herbst said. “It was a tough first year. It wasn’t because I was a new president, it was tough on everybody.
“I have to say those presidents (of the schools that left) are good people. They’re not sneaky or sleazy. They were doing the best for their place, which is what we always will do. I don’t hold it against them. It’s business. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of sadness, because there was.”
Do you feel you did everything you could in conference realignment?
“Yes,” Herbst said.
When Herbst arrived, she said she was “shocked” to discover UConn doesn’t have Division I men’s lacrosse.
“That was a little disappointment,” Herbst said, “but we have a lot of sports, maybe too many, given our budget issues.”
Which leads to the national high $42 million subsidy of UConn athletics. Something the school has called “unsustainable” and speaks to where she leaves the athletic department.
“A big chunk of that, about $15 million, is scholarships, real students getting degrees,” Herbst said. “So that part isn’t worrisome. Some universities have a system where student-athletes from out of state, their costs automatically are in-state tuition. We don’t have that. That’s something we’re studying. That would bring the number way down.
“We have costs associated with the XL Center and Rentschler. The payment structure (with the state) doesn’t seem to make sense, yet it counts to our deficit. We try to lobby about it. Whether that changes or not, we hope people at least understand that sector of our deficit. If they do, I think they will feel a little better about it.
“Obviously, we have a deficit because our media contract doesn’t pay much at all. That will get better with the new American contract. UConn, for better or worse, we were never in sports for the money. We always knew we would have to invest to become great, and we did. Call it a deficit. Also call it an investment. At the end of the day, it’s something that pays dividends for our brand, to keep our alumni excited. So many departments and administrative units at the university don’t make a profit. We care deeply about them, just as we do about athletics. That’s not an excuse. We can do better. Football is where we can start. If we would fill the Rent every home game, we’d be in pretty good shape.”
What kind of athletic advice will give incoming president Thomas Katsouleas?
“We’ve talked,” Herbst said. “He comes from places that have big athletic programs. I think he generally knows what to expect. He was at Duke and Virginia of the ACC. He’ll have to have some adjustment to the American, but, honestly, we act in all ways like a Power Five. I think he’ll find the whole thing very familiar.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t shift gears if we decide to. When I say we spend all this time thinking about conferences: It doesn’t look like there’s a lot of fluidity from the outside right now. Things look pretty settled. There’s plenty of fluidity. There’s a lot going on with media and cable and digital. While we’re worried about women’s basketball broadcasts — it is serious — the general notion of ESPN+, apps, it’s the future. No question. We hope in coming months to work on the women’s basketball piece. It’s super disappointing to us. We want our fans to be able to access it as easily and painlessly as possible. SNY has been one of the best partners we’ve ever had. When we hired them, they said they would over-deliver, and they did.”