Evaluating the Big East Defections

How have the schools that defected from the Big East over the years fared? We decided it might not be a bad idea to check them out.

The Big East Conference has gone through a number of changes since its inception in 1979.  The first addition was Villanova to the original seven members, and the most recent was Butler, Creighton, and Xavier in 2013. Starting with the initial defections of Miami and Virginia Tech, followed by Boston College, through the more recent upheaval and split from what is now the American Athletic Conference, there has been a range of opinions on who won and who lost.  This will be an attempt to analyze each of the schools, and their standing today compared to the time of defection.  While many sports were affected, the focus here will be on football and basketball, the two revenue producing sports.

Boston College – Boston College was the initial defection that bothered the conference membership the most, mainly because they were an original member of the conference, and because the initially denied that they were in conversations with the ACC.  On the field, it is impossible to consider the move a success.  Their basketball team went from being a regular contender in the Big East, including 11 NCAA trips from 1981 – 2005, to an ACC team that hasn’t been back to the tournament since 2009, with no prospects of changing that anytime soon.  Similarly, their football team was a regular contender as an independent and in the early years of Big East football.  They did have early success in the ACC, mainly with players recruited from their time in the Big East, and during a period where Florida State and Clemson were both down.  Since 2011, their best seasons were back to back 7-6 records in 2013 and 2014.  Also, attendance in both sports has dropped, especially in basketball, with the exceptions being Providence, North Carolina, and Duke.  These games are bolstered by fans cheering for the opponents.

Boston College makes the argument that finances and academics also played a role in the move.  Their TV contract is much better in the ACC, but expenses in travel have risen as well.  The president of BC at the time of the move (Fr. Leahy) cited the admission of Louisville and Cincinnati as members of the Big East as an example of his concerns for the academics, which is ironic since Louisville is now in the ACC.  The unanswerable question is how much would the Big East football schools have gotten in 2010-11 if Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College were still in the league.  For reference, they were offered about $11 million without these schools, and the ACC got $18-20 million per school with them.

Virginia Tech – Virginia Tech was not an original choice for membership in the ACC, but when Syracuse balked at jumping, the President of the University of Virginia lobbied his colleagues at North Carolina and Duke, and got them to support the bid of Tech.  It is hard to argue against the benefits of this move, since their football program has performed at a similar or higher level, and their basketball team had a few decent years after being primarily a bottom feeder in the Big East.  Their attendance has grown, and they have been able to upgrade their football schedule in non-conference games, as well.

Miami – Miami had some of the best teams in football at the turn of the century, and they had been perennial national contenders in football from the time of their admission into the Big East until their departure.  Since then, they have had multiple probations and have lost ground in their local recruiting base to Florida and Florida State, as well as national programs like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Ohio State making greater inroads into the Miami area.  Their basketball team has improved in the ACC, with a couple if NCAA bids, and another one likely this season.  Attendance in both sports is dismal for a school that considers themselves a national program (especially in football), and some luster has come off their reputation.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh – I put these two together because they left together and they have somewhat similar stories. Their football teams have had similar success (or lack thereof) since leaving the Big East.  Pitt was a second tier program for most of their time in the Big East, and continues at that level now.  Syracuse hasn’t had sustained success in football since the graduation of Donovan McNabb, and appears stuck in a rut in the ACC.  The basketball programs are a different matter.  Pitt has been a borderline NCAA team in the ACC after being a solid top 6 seed in the NCAA’s for a good part of their Big East tenure.  Syracuse was one of the top programs in the country with a national championship in the Big East, and now appears headed for their second consecutive miss of the Big Dance (They pulled themselves from consideration last year due to sanctions, but their resume would not have gotten them a bid anyway).

As an aside, there was extra bitterness toward Pitt from some members, since they (along with Georgetown) spearheaded the plan to vote down a lucrative TV contract offer from ESPN while simultaneously negotiating for admission into the ACC.

Louisville – Louisville made great strides in their football team in the first decade of this century to go with a national basketball program, which gave them an invitation to the ACC, replacing Maryland.  Originally, the membership of the ACC wanted UConn, but Clemson and Florida State threatened to leave if another weak football program was admitted.  They have since won a national championship in basketball, and kept their football program at a solid if not high level.

Rutgers – This was the easiest decision, as Rutgers had been a non-factor in basketball, and had already begun to slide from their peak in football.  The Big 10 invitation was considered a surprise by many people, and appears to have been done only to allow the conference access to New York basic cable placement for their network.  Whatever the reason, Rutgers will shortly reap the full financial benefits of membership, and the new TV contract for the conference is expected to break records, with both ESPN and Fox looking to bid on it.

West Virginia – This is the most complex school in terms of analyzing their situation since the move to the Big 12.  The benefits are obvious.  Their football team has struggled a little, but they are still competitive, and the struggles most likely have to do with the increase in competition than anything, and the basketball team remains at a similar level to when they were in the Big East.  The Big 12 also has one of the best TV deals, giving each member in excess of $25 million per year. 

The problem for West Virginia is that there are no natural rivals in the Big 12, and the closest school to them is Iowa State, which is nearly 1000 miles away.  This has created logistical nightmares for scheduling, especially in non-revenue sports, as well as basketball.  Student-athletes have missed much more class time there than any other school (feel free to insert a joke about the quality of academics at West Virginia, but it is an issue).  The rumored result of this is that any proposed expansion of the Big 12 will attempt to address this, which probably means good news for Cincinnati and/or Memphis, and bad news for UConn.

AAC Schools – UConn and Cincinnati were two major schools that were left out of the expansion Merry-Go-Round.  Both had high profile basketball programs, and football programs that had seen significant investment from the respective universities.  They both had liabilities involving quality of their football program (UConn), and too small a fan base footprint (Cincinnati) to make them viable to the major football conferences.  Both basketball programs have continued to perform at a high level, while their football programs have not grown in the AAC.  They are still trying to get into a higher conference, as their current TV contract is only worth about $2 million per year. UConn’s travel budget has skyrocketed, as Temple is the only school between them and Ohio, which is a major problem for their non-revenue sports. Through expansion, the AAC has become a southern based conference. Considering everything, though, the AAC has been better for them in the short-term than first appeared.

South Florida’s appeal to other conferences is primarily their location, and the fact that they play in an NFL stadium.  Whether or not that is enough to attract the Big 12 remains to be seen.  With minimal exceptions, their basketball program was a non-factor in the Big East, and continues at that level in the AAC.

Big East Basketball Schools – There was a lot of fear and trepidation as the Big East basketball schools split and went on their own.  Given a generous TV contract with Fox, the Big East has continued to be a major national player on the college basketball stage.  They got four and six teams in the first two NCAA tournaments, and expect to be in that range again this year.  They do need more March success, however, to cement their status as one of the elite basketball conferences in the country.  Despite rumors to the contrary, Fox and FS1 are pleased with their Big East partnership, and hope to add more college (Big 10) and pro sports to fuel growth of the network.  This group of schools has clearly been a net winner in the realignment carousel, and this was not a guarantee when all of this began.

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In my opinion, the clear winners are the remaining Big East basketball schools, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Louisville (especially considering they were in Conference USA until 2005), and West Virginia.  The biggest loser was probably UConn, with the other schools having a mixed result, although most schools who left would probably do it again in hindsight.

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