It all began 10 years ago, when the Big East was plundered by the ACC in a desperate — and futile — attempt to improve its football profile. Commissioner John Swofford and the ACC presidents initially lured Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. When that didn’t work, the ACC went back for more: Syracuse and Pittsburgh first, then Notre Dame (sort of) and Louisville.
The ACC still isn’t any good in football.
And now, seven soon-to-be former Big East schools are about to do the same to the Atlantic 10 — and perhaps others.
According to several people with knowledge of the situation, the group that has come to be known as college basketball’s “Catholic 7” will eventually grow to 12 — perhaps not all of them Catholic — when they formally begin play as a conference.
The man who has been charged with piecing together the new league is Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, a job handed to him, according to those who know, in large part because of a lack of interest on the part of the presidents of St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall, DePaul, Marquette and Providence.
There has been a good deal of speculation about who the other schools in the new league might be since the Catholic 7 informed the Big East in December that they were leaving the floundering league. In all likelihood, four schools are virtual locks to be invited: Dayton, Xavier, Saint Louis and Butler. The first three are Catholic schools. DeGioia and friends would probably be willing to make an exception for Butler because the school has become a national basketball power and would make the league’s television package a good deal more lucrative.
The conference leaders want six eastern and six western — really, midwestern — schools. The eastern division of the league will consist of Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, Providence and either Richmond (also a non-Catholic school) or Siena — a late entry but a potentially appealing one because it’s a Catholic school that (more importantly) plays in a 15,500-seat arena in Albany, N.Y.
The western conference would consist of Marquette, DePaul, Saint Louis, Xavier, Dayton and Butler. If Butler decides not to leave the Atlantic 10 — which it joined only this season — or if the presidents decide to go with Catholic schools only, the University of Detroit Mercy would come into the picture. Creighton, another Catholic school considered a potential candidate, is considered too far west (Omaha, Neb.) for teams in non-revenue sports to travel.
If Xavier, Dayton, Saint Louis and Butler were to leave the Atlantic 10, it would be devastating for that conference, which would suddenly go from a 16-team league with a solid group of basketball schools to a 10-team league (Temple is leaving for the Big East and Charlotte for Conference USA after this season). It would still have Virginia Commonwealth, but no other school that has been a serious player on the national map in recent years.
Two Atlantic 10 teams that will not be asked to join the new league are Saint Joseph’s and La Salle, because Villanova would block any move to add another team from Philadelphia.
DeGioia has also targeted a potential commissioner: George Mason Athletic Director Tom O’Connor.
O’Connor is 66 and is in his 19th year at George Mason. He has one year left on his contract but has told friends he has no interest in retiring and has, in fact, been talking to the school about an extension. O’Connor would be a good fit for the new league because he is a basketball lifer: he coached at Dartmouth and Loyola-Maryland and was the AD at Loyola, Santa Clara and Saint Bonaventure before being hired at George Mason in 1994.
Two things in his background undoubtedly make him attractive to DeGioia: He was chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee in 2007-2008, meaning he has a lot of contacts in the television world and has been involved in network negotiations in the past. He’s also Catholic, which probably is not a requirement but is a plus for a group dubbed the Catholic 7.
Not surprisingly, O’Connor didn’t want anyone labeling him a candidate this early in the process. “I’m not a candidate,” he said earlier this week. “As far as I know they aren’t even at a point where they’re identifying candidates — me or anyone else.”
That might be technically true but, according to people with knowledge of the situation, DeGioia, through an intermediary, has felt out O’Connor about the job.
“I’m very happy at George Mason,” O’Connor said, confirming he’s not planning to retire anytime soon. “But everyone has an obligation to keep their options open and look at opportunities if they should come up.
In non-political speak, that means if DeGioia and the new league offer O’Connor a job likely to pay $1 million a year or more with national visibility and the chance to put a stamp on what will be a national entity, O’Connor would be hard-pressed to say no. He currently makes $300,000 a year at George Mason.
The other name that came up almost as soon as the new league was announced was Mike Tranghese, the retired commissioner of the Big East. Tranghese, 69, ran that conference for almost 20 years and was there at its creation as the right-hand man to Dave Gavitt. But he was apparently eliminated by the Catholic 7 presidents because most hold a grudge against him for bringing football into the conference in the 1990s.
DeGioia declined comment through a Georgetown spokesman on Friday.
College presidents are glorified fundraisers — none more so than DeGioia. The new league is his chance to put a financial stamp on the school he has run since 2001. The irony in this story is that it was the greed of the Big East presidents almost two years ago that led to all of this. Presented with a new ESPN contract that would have more than tripled the money the football schools were receiving and doubled the money the basketball schools were receiving, they voted against accepting the offer — going against the advice of then-commissioner John Marinatto.
When Marinatto couldn’t get a better TV offer, they fired him and then began deserting the rapidly sinking ship — first Syracuse and Pittsburgh, then Notre Dame, then Rutgers and Louisville, and finally the Catholic 7.
Now it appears that the Catholic 7 may launch as early as next season as a two-division, 12-team league with a TV contract that will probably be comparable to what the former Big East schools would have made if they had accepted ESPN’s offer.
In the next few months, the league will formally decide what schools it will invite to join, no doubt after first learning which ones will accept their invitation. It must also resolve two issues with its former conference: who gets to keep the Big East name and who might play their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. The smart money is on the remaining Big East teams hanging on for dear life to the conference name and MSG preferring the new league, which will have a number of glamour teams, to be its March tenant going forward.
Of course, everyone involved will insist that those battles aren’t about money. Which is exactly what they are about — period.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein