CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
The clouds and misty rain that shrouded Kenan Stadium for most of Saturday afternoon were an apt metaphor for the ever-changing world of college athletics. Less than 24 hours after Big East founder Dave Gavitt had died, the ACC was preparing to gleefully announce a raid that could signal the death knell for the league Gavitt created.
While word was quickly spreading Saturday that Syracuse and Pittsburgh were on the way, four current ACC teams were hosting the kind of games the conference presumed it would regularly be part of when it added Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College seven years ago.
The results of those games — a split for the ACC, with wins for Miami and Clemson and letdowns for Maryland and Florida State — served as reminder: All these football-motivated moves don’t do nearly as much to help the ACC as they do to hurt the Big East.
Florida State’s loss to top-ranked Oklahoma likely means, once again, no ACC school will seriously contend for the mythical national title. More likely, the ACC champion will play a three-loss Big East champion in a bowl no one really wants to watch.
Adding Pitt and Syracuse doesn’t really change the league’s football profile at all. They are no different and certainly no better than Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Maryland et al: teams that will win a lot of little ones but not very many big ones.
The new schools are certainly positive in men’s basketball, especially at a time when the ACC has become essentially a two-team league in that sport. No ACC team other than Duke or North Carolina has been past the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 since 2004.
Only Texas can change the ACC’s football image and, remarkably, that isn’t out of the question. The Pacific-12 and the Big Ten likely won’t want the Longhorns and their overpriced TV network because they have networks of their own. The Southeastern Conference isn’t taking them after accepting Texas A&M. The Big 12 likely will cease to exist unless it goes into business with the now equally desperate Big East.
That might leave the ACC, which would put out a burnt orange carpet for Texas football Coach Mack Brown to walk down, as the last suitor standing. The addition of the Longhorns would be enough to make the ACC matter in football for the first time this century.
For the Big East, the question isn’t whether it will matter but whether it will exist. The league thought it had taken a step that would ensure its survival in football when it recruited TCU a year ago. TCU’s arrival as the ninth football-playing school turned an unwieldy 16-team basketball conference into a ridiculous 17-team basketball conference, but that didn’t seem to bother all the decision-makers, who are fixated solely on football TV revenue.
Now, with Pitt and Syracuse fleeing, the Big East will be down to seven football schools, and if the ACC can’t pick off Texas and another Big 12 team to get to 16, it might come back to pillage the Big East yet again, with an eye on West Virginia and either Louisville or Connecticut.
If the ACC goes that route, the league still won’t be any better in football, and the Big East’s only chance for football survival will be to join forces with what is left of the Big 12.
That would leave the seven non-Bowl Championship Series schools in the Big East — Georgetown, Providence, Villanova, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Marquette and DePaul — with a conference not unlike the one Gavitt first conceived a little more than 30 years ago: basketball schools in big markets that could make an impact on the game by banding together. Helping that cause could be Notre Dame, which is essentially basketball-only in that it remains steadfastly independent in football. So far.
In the Big East’s sixth season, three of those schools — Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s — reached the Final Four. When Gavitt retired, he handed the league over to his protégé, Mike Tranghese. Tranghese saved Big East football after the ACC’s last raiding by recruiting Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida to take their places. Now, Tranghese has retired, and his protégé, John Marinatto, faces what might be an even more daunting task.
And so, the maneuvering and backroom dealing will continue with the games each Saturday providing an occasional respite from the mud-wrestling match for money being conducted on a daily basis. Of course, as this past Saturday reminded us, on some weeks even the games can’t stop the rain— and the pillaging.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.