In four months on the job as commissioner of the Big East, Mike Aresco has become acutely familiar with the tumult of conference realignment, receiving departure notices from 10 members since September: Notre Dame, Rutgers, Louisville and now Georgetown and the six other Catholic schools that don’t play top-level football.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Aresco voiced confidence the Big East will remain a viable league, partly by expanding west of the Mississippi. He also shed light on the rationale behind the Catholic seven’s breakaway. And he said he expects issues such as who gets the “Big East” name and privilege of holding its basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden to be negotiated amicably.
Here’s a partial transcript of what Aresco had to say:
Q. What’s your level of confidence that the Big East will remain a viable conference?
A. We’re obviously confident. We have 13 very good schools that play football and basketball or football only. East Carolina, in all likelihood, will end up playing basketball as well as football in this configuration. We have Navy, Boise State and San Diego State set to play football only. And we have some significant basketball brands in Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis, Temple, South Florida, with Larry Brown at SMU and Houston with historically a terrific program. We think we have a lot to build on in basketball and have always positioned ourselves as having football with significant growth potential.
Q. Officials at Tulane and East Carolina have said they remain enthusiastic about joining the Big East despite the basketball schools’ departure. Are Boise State and San Diego State equally committed?
A. Obviously they are farther away but have been committed to the model, very much so. We’re going to move forward now and work on TV. I asked as commissioner, ‘Do we want to stay together and make this model work?’ And the response has been yes, and they have been very firm.
Realignment is the world we live in now. We know the winds are buffeting everyone, so one hesitates to make predictions. But our group has been firm. We feel we have a very good league. We’ve got some real assets in this league, although we probably have to let people know. When you go through what we’ve gone through, it’s not easy to get the narrative in the place you like it.
Q. Presumably you envision further expansion?
A. We certainly have room, as a 13-team league with Navy coming in in 2015, to add a 14th team. My guess is we’d look west. There are western schools that have asked to join us. I don’t know if we would be a 14- or 16-team conference.
Our goal is to hold together. We know realignment may not stop, but you can’t not forge the future because various shoes might drop in realignment. So looking out west — we have a western presence, and it would fit in with our Texas presence. And there are western bowl games that would have an interest in us.
Q. Will the “Big East” name still fit your league after the Catholic seven leave?
A. We’re going to look at all of that. Obviously the Big East name is important. Obviously the basketball group would want to form its own conference and keep an automatic qualifying for the NCAA tournament; our group obviously wants to do the same. We’ll have to see where the name fits in with that. We’ll definitely sit down with the other group and work this out.
Q. Staging your basketball championship at Madison Square Garden is a high-profile asset. Is that also up for discussion with the departing basketball schools?
A. That would also be part of the conversation. As you know, we’ll have tournaments there this year and next. Syracuse and Pitt will leave after this year, but we expect our full complement of teams next year.
In terms of the Garden, our deal is in place. Our two groups will sit down, rolls up their sleeves and discuss it. I expect it to be entirely amicable. We understand the reasons for the basketball decision, and we want this to be amicable. We would have preferred everyone stayed together, but we understand the underpinnings of this.
Q. Could the Catholic seven leave one year earlier than Big East rules provide, in June 2014 rather than June 2015?
A. After the 2014 season, if teams did want to leave early, our group would at least entertain that at some point. Both groups might feel it benefits them; or it might not.
Q. In the days between the Dec. 9 meeting in which presidents of the basketball schools informed you they were considering leaving, and their Dec. 15 announcement that they were doing so, were efforts made to preserve the league?
A. The Sunday meeting was a culmination of a series of discussions we had been having. Louisville’s departure hit very hard. What the basketball schools were concerned about was that realignment might not be stopping. Their feeling was that realignment had been football-driven from the beginning, and it had cost the Big East many schools over the past decade.
We thought there was a period of calm. Then all the sudden, the Big Ten took Rutgers and Maryland, and that created another move by the ACC [taking Louisville from the Big East].
Their feeling was that the winds were buffeting them, and it was football-related, and if they went back to their roots as a basketball group, they wouldn’t have to worry about that. We had several discussions about that, and we talked about ways we could keep the conference together.
I had proposed some scheduling moves that would have had the schools playing more in their neighborhood. But ultimately, their feeling was if they could control their own destiny, they wouldn’t have to worry again about realignment being driven by football and not basketball.
After the meeting on Sunday, we had subsequent discussions, trying to figure out a way we could save the model. I was obviously hired to protect that model. But that model changed with the departure of Notre Dame one week into my tenure and then Rutgers and Louisville.
Ultimately the basketball group felt that they had the ability to withdraw as a group. They felt it was best for them. We’re now going to roll up our sleeves and work out the various issues.
Q. Where do you stand on negotiations for the next TV contract?
A. We had to take a brief pause after the Rutgers and Louisville negotiations. We needed to step back and re-evaluate things. Now we’re ready and will be meeting as early as tomorrow with the networks. It’s getting into December, and we want to have something in place for 2013-14.
Q. How will the exit fees that are due from departing schools be shared with the Catholic seven?
A.We’re going to figure out a fair resolution. We have some significant revenues, though it’s not the kind you want to have. There would have to be an equitable distribution. Some of it will depend on the timetable — when schools are going to leave.
Our goal is to make this amicable. There are a lot of longstanding relationships among the football and basketball schools, and there are great people involved all around. It behooves all of us to do this in an orderly and dignified way.