The Big East Conference yesterday announced formation of an eight-team Division I-A football league that will play for a championship this fall, ending three decades of attempts to band together the major football-playing eastern independents.
Rutgers, West Virginia and Temple of the Atlantic 10 Conference and Virginia Tech of the Metro Conference -- all independents in football -- will become associate members of the Big East for football only, joining the league's four major football schools: Miami, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College. Those teams have won the national championship four times in the past 15 years: Pitt in 1976 and Miami in 1983, 1987 and 1989.
"This is a historic day for the Big East," Commissioner Mike Tranghese said about the 11-year-old made-for-television conference that pushed eastern basketball into the national limelight. "We have an excellent group of institutions that are steeped in football tradition. We're going to be very aggressive."
Tranghese said that the Big East plans "to take an immediate and active role in pursuing a bowl tie-in," and the Sugar Bowl's Mickey Holmes said yesterday the league could have a bowl connection lined up well before the league's first snap this fall.
But he also said, "Freelancing with that group could be an awfully viable potential. They've done awfully well in the past."
With the exception of the Fiesta Bowl, which has no conference tie-ins, and the Rose Bowl, which has two, the other big-money New Year's Day games -- Orange, Sugar and Cotton -- have one each. By taking a second conference, one of them could preclude an appearance by Notre Dame, television's most wanted team.
The formation of a football league assures the survival of the basketball league, which brings in $15 million annually in television revenues. The addition of Miami in October took Syracuse, Pitt or Boston College out of the ongoing realignment game.
The Atlantic Coast Conference reacted coolly to a football amalgamation, and the three Atlantic 10 schools, which previously wanted full Big East membership or nothing, started talking in earnest, as did Virginia Tech, which may benefit most from the grouping.
"I think the climate this time around almost forced the issue," Syracuse Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel said at yesterday's news conference in Providence, R.I. "We're talking about the integrity of the schedule and the need to play games. When you put it in that context, you get a little shaky-kneed."
Eastern college basketball went through the same metamorphosis a decade ago, and Rutgers Athletic Director Fred Gruninger said football independents have become "an endangered species." Previously, Penn State, which had blocked the formation of an eastern all-sports league, joined the Big Ten, setting off the realignment scramble in which Florida State went to the ACC and South Carolina to the Southeastern Conference.
In the announcement yesterday, Tranghese said that each school will play a minimum of five league games by 1995, giving Miami the flexibility to retain its national schedule. Many of the eastern independents already were playing each other, but Miami and Virginia Tech will have only one league opponent next season. A conference source said scheduling changes are possible because of other realignments.
Officials at Virginia Tech were especially delighted. "This marks a new day in the competitive life of the athletic program of this university," said President James D. McComas.
"For many years," said Hokies Athletic Director Dave Braine, "Virginia Tech has operated at a disadvantage in football, competing as an independent in an area where a big shadow is cast by the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference. Now we have the advantage as we compete in a conference which we believe to be even stronger in football than the ACC or the SEC."