In making the move, the basketball schools formally acknowledged what has become increasingly apparent: Their interests are no longer best served by what has become a football-driven conference. Rather than allow their basketball profile to be further eroded and their voice in conference affairs become more irrelevant, they are better off forming a league of their own.
“There has been thoughtful consideration to our membership in the Big East Conference — what that has meant to us, Georgetown University — and they are never easy decisions,” Georgetown Athletic Director Lee Reed explained. “But we thought it was the right time to make this decision.”
It’s unclear how many members the new league will consist of, although it will expand beyond the current seven Catholic schools, with Butler and Xavier (based in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, respectively) considered front-runners for an invitation. Under league bylaws, which mandate a 27-month waiting period without paying an early exit penalty, the seven schools would be eligible to depart June 30, 2015. It’s also unclear whether it will pursue rights to the name “Big East” and the privilege of holding its men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden.
But there’s no doubt the exodus of seven schools from the 15-team Big East, whose membership has been a revolving door since 2004, will further destabilize a college landscape marked by fault lines and call into question the very viability of the league they’ll leave behind. They bring to 17 the number of schools to have left the conference since 2004, when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left for the ACC.
The vote was taken on a noon conference call among the institutions’ seven presidents, who issued a joint statement through Georgetown’s administrative office saying they planned “to pursue an orderly evolution to a foundation of basketball schools that honors the history and tradition on which the Big East was established.”
Georgetown was a charter member of the Big East, founded in 1979 to leverage the major media markets of the Northeast and provide a nascent cable network, ESPN, with programming built on storied basketball rivalries.
But Georgetown men’s basketball Coach John Thompson III expressed no wistfulness over the move when speaking to reporters following the Hoyas’ 81-68 victory over Western Carolina at Verizon Center, which concluded just as the presidents issued their statement confirming the breakaway.
“This is a decision that is not an emotional decision,” Thompson said. “Getting to this point had nothing to do with Georgetown’s position as a charter member and not wanting to pull apart because of those ties and allegiances. I think at this point, based on the collegiate landscape, our leadership believes this is the right thing to do. And we believe this is the right thing to do.”
Thompson and Reed fielded questions for about 20 minutes, with Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr., who led Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA championship, sitting in, as is customary during postgame news conferences at home games.
Georgetown football will continue competing in the Patriot League, Reed said. Its other 28 varsity sports will compete in the new league. And as the new league takes shape, it won’t necessarily remain exclusive to Catholic schools.
“The common philosophical link is not religion, it’s basketball,” Thompson noted.
Approached in the arena hallway, the elder Thompson declined to weigh in, saying he had been asked not to comment publicly.
The breakaway that had been expected was couched in civil terms on both sides, with the seven Catholic schools expressing gratitude for the “exceptional leadership” of Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco and saying they had been “honored to be associated with the outstanding group of institutions that have made up the Big East.”
Aresco, in turn, recognized the contributions of the seven basketball schools in his own statement confirming they had sent notice of their plan to withdraw. He struck an optimistic tone about the league’s future without them.
“The 13 members of the conference are confident and united regarding our collective future,” Aresco said. “We have a strong conference with respected national universities, and are working together to forge the future.”
If litigation follows in the months to come, in which the logistics of the Big East’s schism will be ironed out, it will likely be over the conference name, its claim on Madison Square Garden and, above all, money.
Millions of dollars are at stake.
Under a provision inserted in the Big East bylaws in the wake of the defections of 2003, the seven Catholic schools don’t have to pay the $10 million exit fee per school because they are leaving as a group. They also will be able to keep the valuable “units” that reflect past performance in the NCAA basketball tournament, on which the payout for future participation in the NCAA tournament is based.
But there is ample room for debating how much — if any — of the $70-plus million in existing exit fees due the Big East (from outgoing members Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers) the breakaway schools are entitled to.
In many respects, the breakaway is a risk, however calculated and thoughtfully deliberated. Amid the overheated scramble for college football programming, it’s unclear what broadcasters will pay for rights to a basketball-centric league that hearkens back to an earlier era. And it’s unclear if the breakaway schools can attract members — whether one, three or five — that can both elevate their basketball profile and add heft to the major media markets they already claim or at least abut: New York (St. John’s, Seton Hall), Philadelphia (Villanova), Washington (Georgetown), Chicago (DePaul), Milwaukee (Marquette) and Boston (Providence).
But the alternative of standing by while the Big East’s basketball brand was diluted and its like-minded purpose undermined proved increasingly intolerable. To compensate for the loss of big-time football members West Virginia, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville, the Big East in the past 15 months added such far-flung schools as Boise State and San Diego State, with East Carolina and Navy signing on, as well. And efforts to compensate for the basketball cachet it will lose by adding Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, Southern Methodist and Tulane were received even more poorly.