Whether a little late or a little behind the eight ball, the Big East is set to expand.
Nine days ago, Conference presidents unanimously agreed that the time was right to expand to a likely 10 institutions from a board of directors meeting in Philadelphia.
Many Big East fans gave a deep sigh of relief and proclaimed, “It’s about time” after narrowly surviving a summer in which the Conference was ripe for the picking.
The reasoning behind the Big East’s decision to grow?
Strengthening their position as an Automatic-Qualifying (AQ) BCS Conference, fortifying themselves against potential future raids, and lessening the scheduling burden on its football members who currently only play a seven-game conference slate including a three-home, four-road schedule every other season.
Expansion is nothing new to Conference commissioner John Marinatto, who was a Big East associate commissioner in 2003 when the ACC poached Virginia Tech, Miami (FL) and Boston College forcing the Big East to realign itself with then-members of C-USA.
According to Marinatto, presidents, ADs and coaches have a lot at stake in their respective conferences, after all, they “made it work and have ownership in it.”
Based on leaks and rumors we are able to see the directions in which the conference may go. So just a few months after a polarizing summer shuffle we are set for what should be an interesting aftershock.
What They Won’t Do: Plus One
If there is one school added, the most likely candidate is Villanova, who last turned a cold shoulder to the Big East’s gridiron advances in 1997 and has played in the weak-sister division—aka the FCS—since 1985.
Sorry, Big East fans who still think Notre Dame will wink back at you, but the Fighting Irish’s roots to football independence are a deeply held tradition and the mortal sin of leaving it would not be committed to help a conference in need.
Of course there are two schools of thought regarding the Irish: 1) Confront them about joining the league in football instead of the using the league as a convenient home for its other sports or 2) Drop them altogether. However, the Big East has chosen not react in the past and will likely do the same.
The Wildcats, already non-football members since 1980, are the defending FCS Champions and hold fort in the prominent Philadelphia market in which the Big East would like to harvest, but scoffed at the notion of going to then Division 1-A—now FBS—based on a significant stretch and budget commitment for the small Catholic school.
There are other reasons for Villanova to say no including having to expand 12,000-seat Villanova stadium—3,000 seats below the FBS’ mandate of 15,000, which could cost the University a significant ante, or moving games a half-hour down the road to Lincoln Financial Field. Not to mention practice and other facility upgrades.
This time around though, the Cats, already given a standing invite and the end of the year in which to respond, may keep a stubborn resistance, but are more likely to say “let’s do it” based on the lure and potential big bucks—estimated seven million—of an AQ BCS Conference and a two-year provisional period in which to phase in.
"This is a complicated issue with numerous, multi-dimensional factors that come into play, and it is important that we investigate scenarios related to making—or not making—such a move," Villanova President Peter Donohue wrote. But sources close to ESPN’s Joe Schad said there was 60 percent chance Villanova would become an FBS member by 2014.
On the outside chance Villanova says no, the Big East turns to Central Florida, unless it wants to retry a football-only partnership with Temple (doubtful). No institution has made a more conceded effort to join a BCS conference by upgrading facilities and enrollment than UCF.
Seeing a potential emerging presence in the Orlando TV market and a partner for southern anchor South Florida, the Big East gives a light smile, but is far from content.
What They Probably Will Do: Plus Two or Three
Wanting to go to 10 members, the Big East doesn’t shut the door on Villanova who would still be accepted as an 11th member if they decided to make the jump. However, knowing the nation would likely shrug its shoulders without a big splash, they have been casting a watchful eye to the southwest and invite the flavor of the past few years, TCU, on top of flavor of the week, Central Florida.
Despite the odd match geographically, TCU and the Big East bridge a relationship out of necessity.
Already having enough of a presence in the Lone Star State, the Big 12 (minus two) has no interest in adding the Horned Frogs and the Mountain West, despite gaining Boise State, is coming off a summer in which it lost key members Utah and BYU, thus derailing its near future hopes of landing a coveted AQ BCS bid.
Besides, TCU is the only Mountain West Conference member in the central time zone and would have no penalty for leaving the Mountain West based on conference bylaws.
Under the thought, “If we are going to be in odd geographically-matched conference we might as well join one that has a golden ticket,” TCU makes the jump under one condition: TCU is invited as a full member.
Big East basketball coaches groan at the thought of further saturating a 16-team league and adding not one but two potential RPI drags. “Deal with it,” says unsympathetic conference officials. “The current Pac-10 plays an 18-game conference schedule and look at how South Florida elevated their basketball program in the conference. If you don’t like it, leave the best college basketball conference for the Atlantic Ten.”
Of course there are risks involved for the Big East who seek TCU’s current national cachet, but don’t exactly fit the conference’s geographic footprint. Could TCU maintain its national presence if Gary Patterson were to leap to another coaching job? How much of the Dallas-Fort Worth market do the Horned Frogs really bring in? How will current conference members accept the added travel?
But Marinatto accepts the risks as a cost to potential rewards.
In turn, now with a 10- or 11-team league, Marinatto considers conferring with the Big 12 to petition the NCAA with them to have a championship game as a 10-team league. It’s a tough sell though; Mack Brown and Bob Stoops were never very fond of having one. Not to mention the somewhat small traveling fan bases in the Big East wouldn’t make the game much of a cash cow.
Still, the conference has satisfied its main goal of added national presence and a scheduling ease to current members. The rest would just be potential icing on a cake.
What They Could Do: Plus Four
After plucking three schools to get to 11 conference members, Marinatto sees it as a no-brainer to add a 12th school to get a conference championship game and another well-populated area. In addition to adding TCU, UCF, and Villanova, he casts an invite to Houston, furthering crippling C-USA.
The move gives a partner to distant relative TCU and adds another promising television market as well as an up-and-coming football program. Not to mention a further presence in talent-rich Texas.
Close to casting a white flag after the Mountain West courts SMU, UTEP and possibly Tulsa, C-USA is forced to reconstitute itself with members of the Sun Belt and the WAC or retreat and split to smaller conferences unless it goes after Army and Navy.
Marinatto should feel some sympathy for its weaker little brother after being poached by the ACC seven years ago and already pillaging the conference once. But it’s a dog-eat-dog world and the conference arms race is about survival.
What it All Means and Why This is Still a Risk
The Big East may give itself more national identity for the time being, but while other conferences are picking off established markets and programs, the Big East is forced to take risks on emerging teams in well-populated markets, in process, hoping things will pan out.
Obviously, by example, this is unlikely to change and this venture could amount to changing chairs on a sinking ship.
Looking into the crystal ball, many believe 16-team super conferences will still happen and, if the fortunes are true, the Big East is unlikely to survive.
Then consider that while football trumps basketball in terms of revenue, much of the Big East’s marketability is based on basketball and to disrupt and tip the balance may cause unforeseen consequences.
Still, through all this, you can’t fault Marinatto and the Big East for trying. This is Marinatto and conference officials lifeblood and reputation.
But whether or not this will work? Stay tuned, only time will tell...
Colin Lobdell is an alum of Kansas State University and a B/R Writing Intern. He resides in the Kansas City area.
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