At 7 am on a December morning, the radar station at Opana sounded the alert – unidentified aircraft were inbound from the north. Management noted the warning and then proceeded to ignore it. Three hours later, the core of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, caught at anchor in port, lay sunk or crippled in Pearl Harbor. A day that will live in infamy. The United States, ill prepared for war, took two years to recover from that devastating surprise attack.
On the morning of April 17, 2003, the New York Daily News sounded the alarm – the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) was launching a surprise attack upon the Big East Conference. After years of rumors about a potential ACC raid, the alert was signaled by none other than Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese. Under the light of investigative journalism by newspapers up and down the east coast, reports emerged that the ACC was not only again courting the University of Miami, but was also wooing Boston College and Syracuse along for the ride. Apparently, Miami wished to maintain its presence in the northeast and the ACC desired the lucrative New York and Boston television markets to subsidize the expansion (with the assistance of a $10-$12 million conference championship football game). As preposterous as the realignment appeared – two Yankees in Dixie league – the alarms continued. The story would not die even after Tranghese publicly revealed the plot. Yet management proceeded to ignore its own alert. Two-and-a-half months later, the Big East lay immolated. Ill prepared for war, the Big East may never recover from the debilitating surprise attack.
As the ACC maneuvered, the Big East blustered. Relentlessly led by its determined commissioner – John Swofford – the ACC kept probing for an opening in the Big East's defenses. Under the uninspiring "leadership" of Mike Tranghese, the Big East merely sought to parry each ACC thrust. Not once did the Big East counterattack. Eventually, the ACC found the weak spot and decapitated its northern neighbor in a bold stroke. The ACC considered one, three, and even four team expansion scenarios. ACC member schools vacillated between support and opposition. All the while, Swofford kept up the pressure. A compromise solution among ACC schools surprisingly emerged – the obviously desirable Miami Hurricanes and the heretofore-neglected Virginia Tech Hokies accepted invitations to join the ACC. Now the remnants of the Big East must regroup to face an uncertain future.
But what of contingency plans? Contingencies? The Big East has a storage room full of them. Forget Backup Plan B. We're working on Plan G.
Plan A was developed in response to the ACC's initial selection of Boston College, Miami, and Syracuse on May 13th during the annual ACC meetings. Miami was obviously the linchpin although Boston College was soon revealed to be an eager accomplice. Syracuse was caught in an untenable situation with Virginia Tech waiting anxiously in the wings – an outcast in the ACC or Big East refugee. The Big East member schools hocked their equality in a $45 million bribe to allay Miami's financial motives for leaving the conference. It wasn't enough. As the annual Big East meetings commenced on May 17th, Miami smugly evaded attempts to address its concerns. The meeting concluded a day early, with the secession a fait accompli.
Tranghese unveiled Plan B in a press conference at the close of the annual Big East meetings. In a stinging tirade, Tranghese blistered the Miami administration – particularly President Donna Shalala – for its disloyalty, dishonesty, and disingenuity. Notre Dame basketball Head Coach Mike Brey reportedly was mystified by the complacency that the conference leadership demonstrated in the face of the assault. A temper tantrum was the best the Big East could muster? Plan B failed disastrously as it irreparably burnt the bridge with Miami. Miami and Boston College proceeded with a reluctant Syracuse in tow, through the formal ACC expansion process. ACC leadership conducted site visits to Miami, Boston College, and Syracuse between May 29th and June 3rd, preparatory to the formal membership offers. The tours proceeded with a smugness that rendered the destruction of the Big East was a mere procedural matter. Or was it?
Plan C blindsided the ACC, which merrily had been dismantling the Big East as an "unintended consequence" of its own paranoid fear for self-preservation. On June 6th, the five remaining Big East universities sued Boston College, Miami, and the ACC for conspiring to cause "irreparable harm" to the Big East. The Big East supplemented the legal assault with a public relations blitz and political maneuvering. In daily press conferences, various members of the affected Big East schools – coaches, ADs, presidents, and trustees – denounced the predatory and cutthroat tactics of the ACC. The governors of Connecticut and Virginia joined the chorus. The attorney generals of Connecticut and Virginia added their names to the lawsuit. Stung by the hailstorm of public criticism, support within the ACC for the planned expansion buckled. Presidents at several ACC schools – most notably Duke and North Carolina – publicly questioned the wisdom of expansion. The ACC denounced the lawsuit as without merit. Most crucial to the defensive strategy was the support of Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. University of Virginia President John Casteen politically could not support the merger at the expense of Virginia Tech. During two separate conference calls on June 10th and 11th, Swofford could not muster the requisite seven votes to offer membership to the three Big East targets. But Swofford wasn't finished.
Plan D entailed replacing Boston College, Syracuse, and Miami while rebuilding around Virginia Tech – nationally prominent and a recent fixture in the Top 10. Though substantially weakened, the Big East could add three schools and still maintain its automatic Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bid. The ACC's targeting of both Boston College and Syracuse rather than Virginia Tech was integral to the survival of the Big East. Meanwhile, Swofford – stonewalled by Duke President Nan Keohane, UNC Chancellor James Moeser, and Casteen – embarked upon a campaign of expansion at any cost. Economics were no longer the issue. Testosterone was. The biggest penis would win. The barbarians were at the gates. In a June 18th ACC conference call, Casteen suggested extending an additional invitation to Virginia Tech. The ACC offered to consider Tech's candidacy if Tech dropped the lawsuit.
Plan E – the Armageddon Plan – was forced to consider the possibility of replacing Boston College, Miami, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech. The Big East could rebuild without Miami but not without Miami and Tech. Resurgent Pittsburgh and West Virginia would be the flagship programs of a gravely weakened conference. The loss of the automatic BCS bid in 2006 was almost certain at the end of the current BCS contract. But the ACC would choke itself if it attempted to swallow all four Big East schools. If the economics of a three-team expansion were suspect, a four-team expansion was a budget buster. First, Tech refused the ACC's inquiry, holding out for an official invitation. Duke's Keohane and Carolina' Moeser rebuffed Swofford's transparent attempt to force their votes on a three-team expansion to avoid an even less desirable four-team expansion (with Virginia's Casteen now free to support expansion). However, even more opposition emerged against the four-team expansion scenario. After a fourth ACC conference call on June 20th, the ACC was in disarray. Schools advocated conflicting expansion scenarios (or no expansion) and couldn't reach a consensus. Florida State was threatening to leave unless expansion was approved. The grand ACC expansion plans appeared to have been blunted. Plan D faded as Keohane and Moeser held firm. Plan E fizzled in the face of reason. But the Humpty Dumpty that was the Big East – once fractured – could not be put back together again.
Plan F considered the loss of only Miami to a 1-team Big East. Miami had crossed the Rubicon. Too much acrimony existed. Especially with Miami and specifically with Shalala. Her differences with the Big East and Tranghese were irreconcilable. Rutgers AD Bob Mulcahy proposed a compromise solution by which Miami would leave the Big East for the ACC while Boston College and Syracuse would remain in the Big East. With the ACC presidents deadlocked, it appeared to be the only solution. Peace in our time. The Big East could replace Miami with another school – most likely Louisville, the first school mentioned in every rebuilding scenario. Virginia Tech was still a marquee program. The Big East would maintain its stature in the BCS. But Swofford wasn't done.
On June 25th, after a fifth ACC conference call, a shocking consensus emerged among the ACC presidents. The ACC formally extended invitations to only Miami and Virginia Tech even though a two-team expansion would leave the ACC short of twelve teams, without the opportunity for a lucrative championship football game. After the flowery courtship, the ACC kicked Boston College and Syracuse to the curb. ACC officials quickly visited Virginia Tech on June 26th and Tech formally accepted the invitation on June 27th. Ever disingenuous, Miami patronized Boston College and Syracuse for two more days with much-contrived public deliberations before announcing on June 30th the decision it had also made June 27th – acceptance. And so it was done.
Which brings us to Plan G. Armageddon, Jr. Replacing both Miami and Virginia Tech. Truth be told, these were the most logical teams from the Big East for the ACC to target. Both are southern schools that fit geographically within the borders of the ACC. That the ACC neglected Tech until expediency forced its hand is unfathomable. Boston College and Syracuse didn't belong in a southern conference. Their inclusion was driven by Miami's conflicting desires for a more regional alignment that wouldn't sacrifice its northeast ties. Only annexation of the Big East could accomplish these apparently mutually exclusive goals. The structural weakness of the Big East was manifested in the willingness with which Boston College and Syracuse embraced the new order. Yankees in King Swofford's court. But the notions that Boston College and Syracuse brought with them the Boston and New York television markets, respectively, is laughable since neither school has a dominant presence in its "home" market. The notion that Virginia Tech brought only the miniscule Roanoke market was equally foolish since Tech has a national profile – courtesy of their regular appearances on ESPN – plus a large following throughout the state of Virginia. Unfortunately for the Big East, the ACC was forced to extend invitations to the only two schools that made sense. And were the most damaging to the Big East. So, what is the contingency plan for Armageddon, Jr? Plan G?
The Big East is left with six "football schools (Boston College, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, and West Virginia) and six "basketball" schools (Georgetown, St. Johns, Notre Dame, Providence, Seton Hall, and Villanova). The emulsion that has constituted the Big East still exists. How do the football and basketball schools reconcile themselves to the previously elusive stability? How secure is the future with the ACC still one team short of the desired twelve? Can the trust shattered by Boston College and Syracuse be repaired? With an NCAA mandate for conference membership of at least eight teams, will the football schools disband or expand? Is disbanding viable? How many schools would be included in expansion? Who are the likely targets? What role, if any, does Notre Dame have in the future Big East?
The next article will review the current membership of the Big East, will discuss the impact of secession on each member, and will attempt to answer these questions. The last article will review the candidates for membership in a rebuilt Big East.
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