NEW ORLEANS — Every day, Warde Manuel says a little prayer: “Thank you, God, for Geno.”
Or, if he doesn’t, he should.
Since becoming athletic director at the University of Connecticut in February of last year, Manuel, a Brother Martin graduate, has seen his new school face a raft of misfortune:
- An NCAA tournament second-round loss to Iowa State in 2012 that turned out to be the end of Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun’s career, although he didn’t announce his retirement until September.
- Being ineligible for this year’s tournament because of APR deficiencies, the first major power to be so punished.
- Being passed over in favor of Louisville for membership in the ACC after earlier defections by Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh sealed the Big East’s fate as a major football league. Notre Dame, a Big East member in everything but football, also departed.
- The football team having its second straight losing season under Paul Pasqualoni after winning the 2010 Big East title under the departed Randy Edsall.
- The breakup of the rest of the Bye East when the Catholic 7 announced they were splitting — and taking the Big East name with them despite the reported best efforts of UConn President Susan Herbst to get them to stay.
- Trying to sell fickle UConn fans on a far-flung league with a new name — American Athletic Conference.
Small wonder Manuel is glad to be in his hometown this weekend, accompanying the Huskies and Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma to their record sixth straight Women’s Final Four.
“This last year has certainly had its twists and turns,” said Manuel, who arrived with the team and the rest of the official UConn party Thursday. “But it’s nice to know we have a great coach like Geno Auriemma who has us back in position to win another national championship, and it’s especially nice for this to be a homecoming for me.”
Manuel, a Parade All-America football player at Brother Martin whose career at Michigan was cut short by a neck injury, won’t just be rooting on the Huskies and catching up with friends and family while he’s in town.
He’ll be visiting with Tulane President Scott Cowen (a UConn alum) and Green Wave Athletic Director Rick Dickson, his new conference mates whose membership starting in 2014 was announced in November the day before Louisville got the nod from the ACC — one that was widely expected to go to UConn.
Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich, who has his women’s basketball team here and his men’s team at the Final Four in Atlanta, was widely perceived as having outmaneuvered the less-experienced Manuel, who had been athletic director at Buffalo for the previous seven years.
“Tom’s a great AD,” Manuel said of Jurich.
Meanwhile, Manuel has to steer a ship that’s left adrift.
Instead of nearby football games against Syracuse and Rutgers, the Huskies will be visiting the likes of Tulsa and SMU.
Instead of men’s basketball games against Georgetown and St. John’s, the Huskies will be taking on East Carolina and Central Florida. There’ll be no conference tournament in Madison Square Garden, either.
And instead of women’s basketball rivalries like the ones against Notre Dame and Louisville, the Huskies will be hoping for challenges from Houston and Tulane.
That is, unless something else happens and the ACC — or maybe even the Big Ten — throws UConn a lifeline.
Until then, Manuel said he is focusing on making UConn the best sports department it can be while working to make the AAC function as well. UConn is considered the league’s bell cow.
“The decisions have been made,” he said. “You adapt and move forward.”
And don’t forget to thank God for Geno.