Today, as we commemorate that special day 229 years ago that officially declared our great country a free nation, the University of Cincinnati is celebrating a monumental occasion of its own. While we, as United States citizens declare our support for the independence our flag represents on this July 4th, three days earlier UC and the Bearcat faithful officially pledged their allegiance to the Big East Conference.
The July 1st celebration of UC's joining the Big East kicked off in a great fashion. First off, out of all five schools that were inaugurated into the Conference on the day, Cincinnati was the school that had the privilege of kicking off the long-term partnership with Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese. Bearcat Insider had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat about the decision-making process between the Commissioner and the Conference Presidents that led to embracing Cincinnati as part of its new class of admitted members.
Tranghese, who is getting ready to begin his 16th year as Big East Commissioner, made it known that the marriage between UC and the Big East was a mutual one from the start.
"I would say that it was a mutual coming together of the two parties," said Tranghese, who threw out the first pitch at Friday night's Reds game. "At first we only needed two schools, Cincinnati and Louisville where our choices from the start. There was no real apprehension on my behalf to come and speak with Bob [Goin]. Nancy Zimpher hadn't even started yet."
As you all know, the Big East was forced to make some difficult decisions with regard to its membership after the unexpected departure by three of the Conference's more prominent members (Miami (FL), Virginia Tech and later Boston College). After the relative Diaspora that saw Big East conference teams bolt for the lucrative offer of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East and Tranghese were forced to make many difficult decisions with regarding to how they were going to keep their conference afloat.
"A lot of what was heard was all newspaper hype. There was no real truth behind some of the reported directions that we were looking to travel in as a conference. Things like the all-Catholic league; they were all attempts to sell newspapers. We knew what course of action we wanted to take from the beginning; we just were professional enough to suck it up for a year to make sure we were doing things the correct way."
The end of Tranghese's comment is a direct shot at the way the departing school presidents and ACC Commissioner John Swofford handled the situation. However, when it came time to search for replacements Tranghese had no apprehension about courting universities to join his Conference and possibly earning the "home wrecker" label that he helped bestow upon all those involved in the Atlantic Coast Conference scandal.
"There is a right way and a wrong way to handle certain situations. When we lost those schools originally it was a last minute thing. It took us by surprise completely. It was so late in the process that there was little we could do at that time to save our Conference at the time," said Tranghese about the shady undertaking that led to the Midnight flight by his former Big East compatriots.
"It was a difficult time for the Conference. There were some definite questions about our future at times and we saw a lot of our fans and colleagues have doubts about the direction we would take. It was hard because we had known about what our course of action would be for over a year. We had to suck it up for an entire year before saying anything to anyone. We wanted to make sure we handled this the right way. We were in discussion with Britton Banowsky from the start. We wanted to make sure they were not left in the same situation that we were."
Because of the communication between the conference chairs, the C-USA was able to rebound from their four-school loss to the Big East (the University of Cincinnati, DePaul University, University of Louisville, and Marquette University) by reeling in some top schools of their own. Banowsky recruited Marshall, Rice, SMU, Tulsa, UCF and UTEP to join his conference for the upcoming 2005-6 campaign.
With all the new faces that will line the inside cover of the upcoming Big East media guides the idea of keeping fans interested in match-ups and making them familiar with there new conference foes is a crucial part of making this move a successful one.
"UC bring with it several great rivalries out of the conference. Ohio State, Xavier, Miami, and some of the other MAC schools or schools in this region spark a regional interest in Cincinnati fans that we look to continue to build upon. Those rivalries can help spark interest in the Big East by fans from this region. It is definitely a potential asset we can take advantage of. It is a great chance for us to expand our market and for fans in the Midwest to become familiar with a great conference," said Tranghese. "But UC will also have the added benefit of bringing some of their Conference USA and local rivalries with them to the Big East. Bringing Louisville with them for football and basketball will help, but also having Marquette and DePaul for basketball season will give Cincinnati fans a few familiar faces on their schedules."
Tranghese also sees a definite possibility for UC to build new rivalries that are on par with any preexisting hate fests that Bearcat fans live for year-in and year-out.
"Cincinnati always puts out competitive teams. We plan to create new rivals within the region with schools like Notre Dame, but the new rivals will be mainly a product of quality competition. Nobody cares how close a school is to you if there isn't a compelling contest that follows with it. I expect to see a lot of fans that really get excited about seeing UC on their schedule and visa versa for the fans of Cincinnati."
For Tranghese, the bright future that UC has on the football field was one of the obvious reasons why the Conference believed that Cincinnati would have a quality member. "They've shown a dedication and an overall commitment to winning in football in recent years and the future only looks bright for the program and the University."
"This move obviously appears to mean a lot to football and securing our BCS positioning as a conference, but that does not mean that we think of UC as a football asset alone. We have a great basketball conference already, a "murder's row" of sorts. When I told our athletic directors who we were looking to add to the conference they all gave me a funny look like "thanks a lot". It is obvious we didn't need any help in basketball, so football was definitely a big part of the criteria for finding a new member."
With what was seen as a failure to "commit to putting forth their best effort on the football field," Tranghese had no choice but to kick Temple University (a football-only member) out of the conference. So it makes sense that locating programs with the will and the resources to put a winner on the football field was a crucial part of the Tranghese's search for new members.
"We believe that with the improvements to the facilities UC is making and the great foundation of coaches and players the Bearcats have, we really see UC as building a quality program for years to come. They have the players and coaches in place, and we knew that, we just wanted to make sure that the University had the commitment to football that we needed it to have. This is a great opportunity for the university and we want to make sure they take advantage of it."
With that being said, Cincinnati basketball has been one of the obvious reasons that the Bearcats have been able to make an impact on the national level. While in college sports football may pay the bills, basketball is what typically brings the thrills. So when you mix the excitement of UC basketball with the Big East's history of excellence on the hardwood it would make sense that the Big East sees this as more of a basketball move, right?
"Is there really basketball or football conferences out there anymore," said the Big East's head honcho. "We don't consider us a basketball or football conference, just a conference as a whole. We have had success at many sports in recent years and have a long tradition of having quality programs in all of the sports we sponsor. I mean, look, they don't look at the ACC and ask whether they are a football or basketball conference, despite the obvious connection they've had with basketball. They are simply an all-around conference. That is what we feel we are, a quality conference overall."
The desire to build and maintain the overall quality of the Big East sporting roster is something that UC's fringe sports should take note of.
"We've shown the ability to compete well on a national level in all of our sports. We've had champions in basketball and football in recent years, but we've also had highly competitive teams in sports such as track and field, field hockey, and lacrosse, just to name a few." In all, the Big East has brought home 24 championships (six sports) to their offices in Providence in since opening its doors in 1979. The league can also claim 122 student-athletes that have won individual national titles as being members of Big East schools.
For UC, the well-rounded nature of the conference should do good things for sports such as baseball and volleyball, which have been on the cusp of achieving greatness in recent years.
"We believe that UC has a lot of great programs and they've done a great job at making sure each of them is competitive. From the new Varsity Village to the new baseball, soccer and other facilities, the administration is dedicated to putting winners on the field. We think that joining our conference will have a positive impact on UC's other programs, like volleyball. They have achieved a lot as a program already, but we think we can help push them to that next level."
The Big East will also have an impact on the baseball team, as performing in a region with similar climate-based limitations could help put the Bearcats on equal footing with the competition.
With that being said, this is far more than a move based on sports alone. The Big East expects excellence not only on the playing field but also in the classroom.
"[Cincinnati's] performance on the playing field got their name in the door, but if their performance in the classroom was not up to par I can tell you right now I would not have made this move," said Tranghese, who has seen his conference have more than 300 student-athletes earn the label of Academic All-American. "If my presidents were not comfortable with UC's academic performance they would not have received an invitation to join, plain and simple."
Even though academics have been a focal point of Tranghese's search, some of the negative associations that have been made between the classroom and some of UC's athletic programs, namely basketball, did not scare off the Commissioner.
"I did my research and I feel comfortable in my decision to bring the school into the mix of our new conference. If I didn't think all of the athletic programs were in good shape I would not be there. Neither the conference nor I have ever been driven by media perception. "
However, the media's perception of the UC is something that they are looking
for to improve the institution on all levels. Tranghese recognizes the potential
impact this move could have on UC as a whole.
"The basketball team should be amongst the best in the country. The football program should now be able to recruit the top local talent every year. This was not just a monumental day for Bearcat sports but also the University of Cincinnati," said Tranghese. "However, this is not just a move on the playing field. Athletics helps promote a university. National television and radio broadcasts will bring positive attention with them that will help build a strong association with the name Cincinnati."
The last statement by the Commissioner exemplified how big this marriage between UC and the Big East can be. This truly affects the whole city.
"The Big East recognized that Cincinnati is an unrecognized champ. The Big East is located within some of the largest media markets in the country, if not the world. This is a great opportunity for the whole city of Cincinnati. The biggest part of this day is the growing partnership between Cincinnati as a city and a university."