In 1941, the battleship was the queen of the seas and nine WWI era dreadnoughts were the core of the US Pacific Fleet. From its naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the US Pacific Fleet was positioned to oppose any Japanese attempt to expand southward into the Pacific. The Japanese surprise attack against Pearl Harbor by with naval aircraft on December 7th caught an ill-prepared US Pacific Fleet at anchor. Over the course of two hours, the balance of power in the Pacific changed dramatically as the Japanese smashed the battleships that were the core of the US Pacific Fleet – sinking four and damaging four. As the sun set on December 7th, the US Navy had to assess the damage inflicted upon the Navy at Pearl Harbor, assess Japanese intentions, and evaluate potential counter measures. The Pacific Fleet was on the defensive for nearly a year, reacting to each Japanese move.
The Big East Conference finds itself in a similar situation. Four short months ago, the Big East was smug and very secure of its position in college sports. Miami had just played for the national championship in football, the third such instance for a Big East program in the previous for seasons. And the Big East was pre-eminent in basketball, with Syracuse and Connecticut wearing the men's and women's crowns, respectively. But the Atlantic Coast Conference launched a surprise attack on the Big East, which it caught ill-prepared. Over the course of two months, a conference that was basking in its glory was humbled as the ACC plundered from the Big East its two flagship programs – Miami and Virginia Tech. As key deadlines loom – renegotiated television contracts, renewal of the BCS contract, and minimum conference membership – the Big East must assess the damage inflicted by the ACC, assess the potential for further restructuring of the college football landscape, and evaluate potential responses. The Big East is on the defensive and must regroup before it can fully fight back.
The previous article, Infamy, reviewed the maneuverings that ended with the defection of Miami and Virginia Tech. This article will assess the state of the Big East at the present time.
Let's begin with the ACC, whose paranoia triggered this mess. The ACC generates more revenue, on a per team basis, than any other conference in the nation. The $9+ million that the ACC distributes annually to each member institution exceeds that of the mighty Southeast Conference (SEC), Big XII, and Big 10. The ACC had $49 million in basketball revenues last year, including a $32 million per year basketball television contract with Raycom Sports, the most lucrative in the nation. The ACC had $48 million in football revenues last year, including a $25 dollar per year football contract with ABC Sports.
A three team ACC expansion would require an additional $27 million in conference revenue just to enable the incumbent schools to break even. Very optimistic ACC revenue projections estimated that a 12-team ACC could generate at least $27 million per year – a $10 to $12 million conference championship football game, a second Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game (at $4.5 million) on the backs of Miami and Florida State, additional football bowl games, additional NCAA tournament bids, and a more lucrative television contract reflecting the increased value of Miami football coupled with the northeast television market.
The current two-team expansion to an 11-team conference likely will decrease revenues on a per team basis. While a second BCS bid is often likely, a conference championship football game is not allowed under existing NCAA rules for leagues with less than 12 teams. Furthermore, while Miami and Virginia Tech upgrade the quality of football, neither delivers the northeast television market. Therefore, the ACC is likely to expand again to 12 teams to qualify for that crucial championship football game. And the ACC is likely to do so as soon as the new members join (i.e., two years from now). Who are the likely candidates for expansion?
The addition of Miami and Virginia Tech has raised the profile of ACC football considerably. Notre Dame reportedly is the ACC's preferred choice as a twelfth member. The potential disintegration of the Big East has Notre Dame looking to secure a home for its basketball and Olympic programs. The ACC could offer this stability. However, Notre Dame is unlikely to compromise its independence in football. Translation – it isn't sharing its money from NBC or the BCS. So, unless the ACC offers to make Notre Dame more equal than the rest of the league membership, Notre Dame is unlikely to join the ACC. The ACC won't offer Notre Dame a home for its basketball/Olympic sports without also gaining Notre Dame football because the ACC needs that twelfth football member.
Boston College and Syracuse again are possible candidates. Syracuse brings the better football and basketball programs although their football program has been in a four-year slump. Syracuse also offers access to the New York television market. Boston College offers easier if not less expensive logistics. As well as access to the Boston television market. However, each school is less attractive without the other. And each would be a poor fit culturally and geographically with a southern league as a solitary island in the northeast. Plus, Syracuse likely will not offer the luster of the defending national champs two years hence. Therefore, the ACC likely will pass on both Boston College and Syracuse. But the ACC was willing to pursue a bad fit before in considering both for membership ahead of Virginia Tech, so an offer to either Boston College or Syracuse wouldn't be a surprise.
West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and Connecticut also could be potential if unlikely candidates. West Virginia is a good regional fit but economically can't justify its inclusion. West Virginia draws well and travels well but its television market is miniscule. Pittsburgh has better television prospects but, like Boston College and Syracuse, doesn't fit geographically or culturally. Rutgers is the best fit geographically after West Virginia. Rutgers also offers access to the lucrative New York and Philadelphia television markets. But its football and basketball programs don't pull their own weight. Connecticut could be the dark horse. Connecticut approached the ACC – along with Virginia Tech – when the ACC expansion stories first broke in April. Two years hence, Connecticut football will be better established with its own stadium. Connecticut offers two of the premier men's and women's basketball programs in the nation. And Connecticut has a rabid in-state following, with access to the New York and Hartford television markets. If the ACC again targets the Big East, Connecticut could be its choice.
The ACC could also expand without touching the Big East. South Carolina, a former member of the ACC, would be the most obvious candidate. South Carolina is a good fit regionally and culturally. South Carolina offers Clemson a strong in-state rivalry. South Carolina has struggled in the SEC –even with Lou Holtz as their football head coach – and may find the ACC more appealing although the ACC lineup can now stand alongside the SEC as an equal. Georgia and Florida would also fit in the ACC but are highly unlikely to leave the SEC. Vanderbilt is another possibility and culturally would fit nicely with Duke and Wake Forest. Vanderbilt would also bring the ACC into the Nashville television market. Louisville could be another strong possibility. Louisville's football and basketball programs would be solid additions and Louisville would bring the ACC into the Bluegrass State, where Kentucky basketball is king but Kentucky football is weak. Fringe schools such as East Carolina, South Florida, and Central Florida are redundant and don't offer enough economically to justify their inclusion.
One last option could be the US Naval Academy. That's right, Navy. Navy could join the ACC as a football only member. Navy is a good fit regionally and has a national following. Football-only membership would leave a void in other sports, including basketball. The ACC could fill that void with Notre Dame, providing football independence but a home for basketball and their Olympic sports. A loose football affiliation (e.g., four games per year against ACC opponents and inclusion in the ACC bowl lineup) would enhance the television appeal of the ACC.
I don't think that the Big East will suffer further privations from the ACC. The ACC will offer membership to either South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Louisville, or Notre Dame/Navy. When expansion reports first emerged, I speculated that Miami, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech would be the best fit. I still stand by that assessment. However, ACC expansion has been anything but logical.
Miami is heading where it belongs. Miami was always a poor fit geographically in the Big East. The Hurricanes had to travel 900 miles to face its nearest conference opponent – Virginia Tech. The nearest surviving Big East school – West Virginia – is 1150 miles away. Travel costs for most Miami sports programs – not just the football team – were excessive. The ACC offers Miami much better logistics. The furthest ACC opponent is closer than the nearest surviving Big East opponent. The ACC offers Miami a home for its in-state rivalry with Florida State. The ACC offers Miami a home for its nationally prominent baseball program. The ACC also offers the comfort of several other private school members – Duke and Wake Forest. Although the ACC is a better fit for Miami geographically, the Big East may have been a better fit culturally. Miami is not a true "southern" school. Miami heavily recruits students – not just athletes – from the northeast. The Big East is also composed of more private schools, if the basketball only schools are included. The number of big state universities is limited to only three – Connecticut, Rutgers, and West Virginia. Miami can't be blamed for concluding that the ACC is a better fit economically, geographically, and culturally. However, these sound reasons do not justify the deceptive manner in which Miami has behaved towards its former partners. The behavior of President Donna Shalala and Athletic Director Paul Dee has been shameful and unethical. All the worst that college sports has to offer.
On the other hand, Virginia Tech is heading where it always wanted to be. Virginia Tech has been striving to gain admission to the ACC for 50 years. The ACC always treated Virginia Tech as a misfit cousin who wasn't good enough for inclusion in the family. Furthermore, the Big East didn't treat Virginia Tech much better. Virginia Tech had to wait over 10 years to gain admission to the Big East for all sports. During that period, football head coach Frank Beamer built a national championship contender whose success provided the leverage that Virginia Tech needed to finally force the Big East to open its doors fully. Once the news of the ACC raid first broke in April, Virginia Tech energetically lobbied the ACC to be included in the planned expansion. Once rebuffed, Virginia Tech assumed the role of Big East loyalist, even proposing that all members excluding Miami sign an agreement to stay with the Big East. Virginia Tech President Charles Steger and Athletic Director Jim Weaver publicly professed their loyalty to the Big East and no further interest in the ACC. But, when the ACC extended an invitation because Virginia wouldn't support expansion without Virginia Tech, both Steger and Weaver performed an immediate volte face. Virginia Tech belongs in the ACC. It is a perfect fit regionally and culturally. Unfortunately, the university sullied itself to get where it wanted to be.
THE FOOTBALL REMNANTS
Let's take a look at the remaining football schools in the Big East, starting with the two left standing at the alter – Boston College and Syracuse.
Boston College is in a very awkward situation. It wouldn't be surprising if other Big East AD's thought that Boston College conspired with Miami and the ACC to annex college football in the northeast. Initially looking as if they were entirely dependent upon Miami, Boston College eventually emerged as a partner wholly committed to the defection. Boston College's leaders foolishly thought the secession advanced their interests when instead the defection quickly would have reduced Boston College to a companion for Wake Forest football and Clemson basketball in the ACC cellar. The surprise jilting by the ACC left Boston College in an awkward situation – crawling back to the league it had almost destroyed. Boston College shattered its credibility among its Big East peers. That broken trust will be a substantial obstacle to rebuilding because one can reasonably assume that Boston College still has its eyes on the ACC. Only a complete turnover of the Boston College leadership – President Reverend William Leahy and AD Gene DiFilippo – can salvage Boston College's stature within the conference. Until then, we have our nominees for the role of the piss boy at future Big East meetings.
Syracuse was caught in an untenable situation between Boston College and Virginia Tech. Miami was leaving. Boston College was following willingly. Both wanted Syracuse to join them while Virginia Tech eagerly waited as a replacement if Syracuse decided it didn't belong in a southern league. Basketball Head Coach Jim Boeheim denounced the move but it was simply a football-driven decision. AD Jake Crouthamel correctly assessed the situation when he reportedly told Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver during the annual Big East meetings, "If we don't go, you will!" Syracuse couldn't hold the Big East together by itself. It was forced to choose between a future as an outsider in a southern league or as a leader of a group of refugees. Truly a no win choice. Reluctantly, Syracuse chose defection. Only to be betrayed by the ACC. Syracuse does not have the credibility issues that Boston College has. However, Syracuse's decision to defect cast a vote of "no confidence" for the long term future of the Big East. A league that Syracuse helped to form and eventually led. How committed will Syracuse be to rebuilding? Or will their priority be jockeying for position in the next round of consolidation?
Pittsburgh continued its renaissance under football head coach Walt Harris last year by finishing in the Top 25. Meanwhile, departed basketball head coach Ben Howland directed his program to the Big East Tournament championship and a second NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance. At this time, Pittsburgh is the most prominent football program among the remnants of the Big East. That shouldn't be a surprise because Pittsburgh's athletic successes has generally been disproportionate to its economic clout throughout its history. While Pittsburgh has a strong presence in western Pennsylvania (one that Temple lacks in eastern Pennsylvania), Pittsburgh is still the little brother to Penn State. Pittsburgh football doesn't draw well and doesn't offer attractive television ratings outside of Pittsburgh. Harris has been considered for several vacant head coaching jobs in recent years. He will listen closer this year and likely will not return. Meanwhile, AD Steve Pederson departed and interim AD Marc Boehm replaced the departed Howland with assistant coach Jamie Dixon. Can Pittsburgh continue its renaissance with all the turnover in its leadership? How committed will Pittsburgh be to rebuilding as the flagship school of the Big East? Or will Pitt's priority be gaining admission to the Big 10?
West Virginia, after a rough first season under head coach Rich Rodriguez, roared back to national prominence last season. A middling Big East program in the final years of former head coach Don Nehlen, West Virginia stunned its peers with a surprising second place finish in 2002. West Virginia has the best home attendance and home field advantage in the conference. Unfortunately, West Virginia has a miniscule television market and doesn't carry any clout with the networks. These factors probably ensure that West Virginia won't be invited into greener pastures because the Mountaineers will be more trouble athletically (competition, not violations) than they're worth economically. That is a huge strike against West Virginia. West Virginia basketball has also been downtrodden in recent years. While West Virginia may not help the rebuilt Big East with its revenue generating potential, the Mountaineers could help re-establish the conference's credibility with its play on the football field.
Connecticut may be the key to the long-term success of the Big East. Former athletic director Lew Perkins established Connecticut as a national powerhouse in basketball – both the men and the women. The Connecticut administration has demonstrated its commitment to excellence in the high profile sports it has pursued. Connecticut has only been a Division IA football for two years – competing as an independent with a schedule filled with Big East and Mid America Conference opponents. Connecticut is coming off a surprising 5-6 season that included an upset of bowl-bound Iowa State. Connecticut opens a new 40,000 seat stadium this season and has accelerated its move into the Big East one year – to 2004. Connecticut has a rabid following within the state. A good foundation has been laid. The rebuilt Big East desperately needs Connecticut football to succeed quickly. If Connecticut can at least match the recent success of Boston College (lower tier bowl every year), the Big East will have a stronger northeast presence and its top teams will be more credible. The concern is that the ACC will find Connecticut's growth potential attractive and snatch them away. As a popular State U in a populous and wealthy state, Connecticut could emerge as the most valuable program in the Big East.
Rutgers will also be crucial to the long term success of the Big East. As a large State U in a densely populated state, Rutgers – second only to Connecticut – has the greatest potential value of any program in the Big East. A large following, plus access to both the New York and Philadelphia television markets, are the potential fruits of a successful Rutgers program. Nurturing and harvesting that fruit has been the problem as Rutgers has traditionally failed to invest in the infrastructure to grow that crop. Poor leadership has also killed crop after crop. Secession has increased the pressure on football head coach Greg Schiano to start producing. Patience is no longer a luxury. An automatic BCS bid is unlikely unless Rutgers can develop into a Top 25 program. For an institution that can't stay out of its own way, that is a lot to ask at all, much less quickly (i.e., three years).
Lastly, there's Temple. Ousted from the conference two years ago but with a stay of execution until 2004, the defection of Miami and Virginia Tech offered Temple renewed hope. However, Temple's detractions remain. Temple still doesn't have control of a football stadium for home games. The Phillies baseball team has priority at Veterans Stadium during baseball season. Decrepit Franklin Field, on the Penn campus, is Temple's alternate. Temple's negotiations to lease the new Lincoln Financial Field that will open this fall have stalled. Home attendance is terrible, with vastly inflated statistics and scalped end zone seats readily available for $5. Temple's television ratings in the Philadelphia market are atrocious. Philadelphia is Penn State territory and Temple is just a squatter. Temple would be appealing if they could emulate Pittsburgh's success in Penn State's shadow. But Temple can't. So they remain unappealing even in the Big East's hour of desperation.
THE CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
Former Providence athletic director Dave Gavett founded the Big East in 1978 as a northeast urban basketball league. Urban areas in the northeast are home primarily to private schools. Especially Catholic schools. The original Big East was principally composed of Catholic schools – Boston College, Providence, Georgetown, St. Johns, Seton Hall, and Villanova – plus Syracuse. The league added Pittsburgh and Connecticut shortly thereafter. An early relationship with an embryonic ESPN – based in Bristol, CT – gave the Big East national exposure. The Catholic schools (plus Syracuse) dominated the 80s. Georgetown won the national championship in 1985. Villanova – one of three Big East schools in the Final Four – won in 1986.
The Big East experienced an upheaval in the early 90s as a result of the expansion of the SEC, Big 10, and Big 12. The basketball league formed a football league to soothe the jitters of Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. The basketball league added Miami, who immediately legitimized the new football conference. Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia were members only in football. The Big East granted Rutgers and West Virginia full membership in 1995. Next, the Big East gave Notre Dame a home for all teams except football. The most recent expansion occurred in 2000 with the inclusion of the Virginia Tech as an all-sports member.
The 90s witnessed the Big East morph from a basketball league to an all-sports conference where the interests of football outweighed those of basketball. The 90s also saw the decline of the Catholic schools. Connecticut supplanted Georgetown as the dominant program while Syracuse remained an annual contender. As marquee coaches Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino, and John Thompson retired, St. Johns, Villanova, and Georgetown each languished under their successors. Entering the new millennia, the football schools were also the dominant basketball schools – Boston College, Miami, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh (with Connecticut planning to join the football league).
The Catholic schools have chafed at the increasing influence of football in league affairs but secession was not viable as their influence waned. The Catholic schools have become junior partners in a league that they created. The secession of Miami and Virginia Tech brought scrutiny to the heterogeneous culture that has plagued the Big East since its inception 25 years ago. The Catholic schools have tired of the upheavals, the instability, the insecurity, and the disenfranchisement. The Catholic schools appear prepared to restructure with more culturally similar schools.
The next article will review the issues that the Big East faces as it moves forward. The last article in this series will review in detail each of the prospective candidates for membership in a rebuilt Big East conference.
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