Big East threatened by the TV ambitions on which it was built

September 26, 2011

The upheaval that threatened to destabilize college sports last week has quieted, with the Pacific-12 deciding against further expansion, Texas putting its conference-jumping flirtations on hold and the ACC seemingly content, for now, to pause at 14 members.

Amid the calm that may not last long, the Big East faces two options after its football-playing ranks were abruptly raided Sept. 17 for a second time in eight years.

One is to commit to rebuilding its football ranks. Down to seven schools that compete in the NCAA’s top division once Syracuse and Pittsburgh leave for the ACC, the league will be one shy of the eight required to retain its automatic Bowl Championship Series bid (assuming Texas Christian joins the league as planned in 2012). Retaining that BCS status is the only way to have any leverage at the bargaining table when its current TV contract expires and, in turn, prevent more football schools from bolting.

The other is to concede that its hybrid composition of football and non-football schools, cobbled together since 1991, no longer works. As a result, it could shed big-time football and recast itself as a basketball-only conference centering on Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova — perhaps extending invitations to like-minded institutions such as Xavier and Butler.

Big East Commissioner John Marinatto, whom some fault for not anticipating the defections of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, declined repeated requests for interviews on the topic.

But he presented a united front upon emerging from a closed-door meeting with leaders of the football schools in New York last week, saying the remaining Big East members had pledged to work together to recruit replacements.

On Monday, Louisville basketball Coach Rick Pitino addressed the Big East’s future in a provocative blog post, calling for the immediate admission of Temple, which the league kicked out in 2005. While schools such as East Carolina have issued news releases about their interest in joining the Big East, Temple has made its case on the field, thrashing Maryland 38-7 in College Park on Saturday and playing Penn State close earlier in the year.

Asked shortly before kickoff whether he felt Temple warranted consideration by a major conference, Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw said: “We’re committed to the highest level of competition, wherever that takes us.”

According to sources, the Big East has identified Navy and Air Force as its top choices for football membership. In addition to East Carolina, Central Florida and Houston are reportedly interested.

Georgetown Athletic Director Lee Reed said the Hoyas don’t favor a basketball-centric league but remain committed to building the strongest BCS-quality conference possible.

“We’re working on the football side of things, but the basketball remains extremely strong,” Reed said. “We’ll get through this and come out on the other end stronger. I’d be concerned if we didn’t have options. But we have options.”

‘No easy solution here’

Reed confessed that “it hurt” when he heard Syracuse was leaving for the ACC, given the passionate rivalry between the teams and the mutual (if grudging) respect among their respective fans. He added that he expects the rivalry to continue even after Syracuse leaves, saying, “We’re committed to finding a way to compete against Syracuse.”

But replacing what Syracuse and Pitt give the Big East in terms of football will be a massive challenge, according to former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, now a sports-broadcasting consultant.

“There aren’t many football-playing schools out there that bring a significant audience-factor with them; they’re all playing” in other conferences, Pilson said in a telephone interview. “The schools that are available now are the ones in the left-out category or the about-to-be-left-out category. There’s no easy solution here; there’s no quick fix.”

Complicating negotiations is the fact that no one’s confident which football-playing schools will stay in the Big East despite rhetoric about standing together.

Connecticut, for example, is openly lobbying for admission to the ACC, which is waiting to see whether Notre Dame will abandon its independent football status (it competes in the Big East in other sports). Landing Notre Dame would mollify a powerful faction within the ACC (Florida State, Miami, Clemson and Maryland, according to sources) that’s pushing for a major football power, rather than yet another basketball power, if the league expands to 16.

Meantime, the Southeastern Conference appears likely to seek a 14th member after its addition of Texas A&M beginning next year. The Big East’s West Virginia has a roaming eye. And it’s possible TCU could renege on its commitment to join the Big East.

Such uncertainty is problematic for the Big East because prospective members want assurances of just who will belong to the Big East before agreeing to join.

Reed thinks Navy, which currently competes as an independent, and Air Force, of the Mountain West, would be “extremely positive” additions.

“Not only do you add two incredibly tremendous brands, but you really bring stability to the football conversation that’s going on,” Reed said. “Basketball speaks for itself.”

Pilson sees merit, too.

“The service academies give you credibility,” Pilson says. “I won’t say they deliver an Ohio State audience or an Alabama audience. But they’re unique institutions and would bring credibility to the Big East.”

A basketball conference

Founded as a basketball-only conference in 1979, the Big East came of age with ESPN. Fashioned from basketball powers in major media markets (New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington), the Big East provided ESPN with programming and eyeballs when the fledgling cable network was desperate for both.

Georgetown, in particular, provided star wattage in the form of Patrick Ewing and Coach John Thompson, who won the NCAA championship in 1984 and lost the 1985 final to Big East rival Villanova.

“The Big East showed that you could create a conference around basketball,” said former Georgetown athletic director Joe Lang. “Of course the ACC and SEC existed then, but none of them had the TV markets that the Big East brought.”

Flush with revenue, the Big East added big-time football members in 1991. As the cost of competing in Division I-A football grew exponentially, the disparity between the budgets of the Big East’s members grew, too.

For a time, the leadership of Commissioner Mike Tranghese and the collegiality of the members was enough to keep rifts to a minimum. But in 2004-2005, three Big East football powers — Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College — bolted for the ACC, lured by the promise of more guaranteed revenue.

For Lang, a St. John’s graduate who spent more than three decades on the Hilltop, coaching track and field before becoming Georgetown’s athletic director, it has been difficult to see the conference in turmoil again.

“The collegiality that existed in the room throughout those years — not without tremendous arguing, but always respectful — was very unique,” says Lang, now associate athletic director for compliance at the University of the District of Columbia. “Can that be replicated? It may be. The Big East has always been very resilient through the years, so I’m rooting for the Big East.”

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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