In 1941, in the event of war with Japan, American war plans instructed General Douglas McArthur to fortify and hold the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines until the powerful Pacific Fleet could fight its way across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to relieve the besieged McArthur. That plan was rendered immediately obsolete on December 7th with the devastation wrought on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor. Japanese naval aircraft destroyed or damaged the battleships that were the core of the US Pacific Fleet. The US Navy had to rethink its strategy in the absence of a mighty battleship fleet. Admiral Chester Nimitz reorganized the US Pacific Fleet around the resources at hand – three surviving aircraft carriers that weren't at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. The reconfigured US Pacific Fleet – built around aircraft carrier task forces – resumed the fight and eventually fought its way nearly to the shores of Japan. A strategy born of expediency revolutionized naval warfare.
The Big East faces a similar dilemma. Big East contingency plans came and went as the ACC raid progressed. Plans were often obsolete before they were fully developed as a result of the ebb and flow of the raid. Plan A was essentially bribing Miami to stay. Plan B was Mike Tranghese using the bully pulpit to shame Boston College, Miami, and Syracuse into staying. Plan C was suing the ACC, Boston College, Miami, and Syracuse for allegedly conspiring to destroy the Big East. Plan D was the replacement of Boston College, Miami, and Syracuse. Plan E was the replacement of Boston College, Miami, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech. Plan F was the replacement of only Miami. The Big East is now developing Plan G to replace Miami and Virginia Tech. Miami and Virginia Tech were the flagship football programs of the Big East. Their defection at the behest of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has devastated the Big East. The mismatched amalgamation that was the Big East must regroup around the strongest of the surviving programs – or disband.
The previous articles, Infamy, reviewed the maneuverings that ended with the defection of Miami and Virginia Tech. The next article, Damage Assessment, reviewed the state of the Big East at the present time. This article will address the issues – first raised in Infamy – that the Big East must address as it considers rebuilding in the wake of the defenction.
- How do the football and basketball schools reconcile themselves to the previously elusive stability? The Big East cannot survive in its present form as an ersatz all-sports entity whose members don't participate in all sports. A single conference cannot serve the conflicting needs of basketball-only and football schools. Mike Tranghese should not be judged harshly for the current situation. Representing both constituencies was impossible. The football schools needed an all-sports conference for all members and, as such, didn't need the basketball-only schools. The basketball-only schools needed the football schools to their basketball programs negotiating clout. Given Tranghese's roots with Providence, where he served as the sports information director, it should not be surprising that he essentially sided with the basketball schools in trying to preserve the status quo. The Big East Confederation proposed by former Big East commissioner – and Mike Tranghese mentor – Dave Gavett is ample proof of the desperate attempt to keep the basketball-only schools relevant. The leaders of the football schools are the ultimate culprits in the Big East's current plight. These leaders failed to appreciate that Tranghese and the Big East were not representing their best interests. Miami bolted and Virginia Tech followed because the football schools failed to actively pursue the league's football interests. The Big East Confederation is, at most, a temporary measure. Sharing basketball revenue 16 ways makes less sense than a 14-piece pie. The 14-team Big East rarely received NCAA bids for even half of its membership, which every other major conference considers a birthright. A 16-team conference won't ensure more bids. The Big East Confederation is too unwieldy to last. As was the Big East.
- How secure is the future of the Big East with the ACC still one team short of the desired twelve? The defection of Miami and Virginia Tech has crippled the Big East as a football entity. While rebuilding is definitely feasible, maintaining the Big East's status with the Bowl Championship Series (or future permutations) is much less viable. As such, it's a safe assumption that the "every man for himself" spirit that Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech practiced will still be present. And will be an obstacle to rebuilding. Pittsburgh or Syracuse likely would bolt for the Big 10, if offered. Boston College or Syracuse likely would forgive and forget if the ACC again courted either. However, I think that neither scenario is likely. The ACC won't expand north to add one team. And the Big 10 likely won't expand east because both Pittsburgh and Syracuse are poor fits culturally. ACC expansion could affect the Big East indirectly. Louisville is the obvious first choice for a rebuilt Big East. Louisville has aggressively solicited itself for membership in a BCS conference. The ACC could offer membership to Louisville, although South Carolina and Vanderbilt are more likely targets. But if either of those two schools joins the ACC, then Louisville is the obvious candidate for the opening in the Southeast Conference. Louisville's relationship with the Big East could be a brief one. Or a passing one. Otherwise, the Big East should be safe from further incursions.
- Can the trust shattered by Boston College and Syracuse be repaired? The mistrust and self-interest cultivated by ACC expansion will be the single biggest obstacle to rebuilding the Big East. The ACC raid demonstrated the Big East needs more prohibitive exit penalties. But toughening the current exit penalties will be impossible if members are still eyeing the door. Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse likely won't support such needed changes if they plan to bail at the first opportunity. Furthermore, a continued lack of unity may hamper the Big East in attracting new members. Prospective applicants face greater risks if they leave a less prestigious but more stable conference for a Big East on the verge of disintegration. That isn't a great selling point. If the Big East is to continue as a football conference, the remnants must re-commit to each other and to the conference. The interests of each are best served with a strong northeastern conference. They must embark together in a plan to realize that vision.
- Will the football league maintain, disband or expand? Upon the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004, the Big East can continue to operate briefly as a 6-team conference. Current NCAA and BCS rules contain no criteria for the minimum allowable conference membership. However, recent NCAA rules to strengthen the criteria for Division IA membership include a provision that establishes the minimum allowable conference membership at eight, effective in 2006. Therefore, the Big East can operate as a 6-team league for two seasons before it must either expand or disband. Such a strategy would maximize revenues on a per team basis. But it also could leave the Big East reacting to subsequent expansion moves by other conferences, most notably the ACC, Big 10, or SEC. The Big East must weigh the short-term benefits against the long-term risks. If Louisville moves elsewhere in the interim while the Big East delays expansion, the long-term costs of losing Louisville could outweigh the short-term gains of a six-way revenue split.
- Is disbanding possible? Sure. Two options exist for disbanding the Big East. First, several schools could elect to join Conference USA rather than rebuild. When the ACC first targeted Boston College and Syracuse with Miami, this alternative was less unlikely because Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh were regional and cultural fits for Conference USA. The obstacle to such a bold move by Conference USA was its lack of an automatic BCS bid. Such a move might doom the defectors to perpetual second-class status. The willingness of Louisville to leave Conference USA to improve its lot further weakened Conference USA's bargaining position. The loss of only two Big East schools and the retention of Boston College and Syracuse preserves the northeast flavor of the Big East. It also gives the remnants a stronger center of gravity with four quality programs – Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia. The Big East still offers the surviving programs the best prospects of rebuilding for the future.
Second, the football schools could secede from the Big East and form a new conference, much as the Mountain West Conference members did when its teams seceded from the unwieldy 16-team Western Athletic Conference. In all fairness, the Big East name should reside with the basketball schools that comprised the bulk of the original league – Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. Johns, and Villanova. Therein lies the problem. The BCS contract is with the Big East. If the Big East no longer has a football league, will the BCS contract be voided for the former football-playing members of the Big East? Possibly. However, Big East bylaws state that the name of the conference stays with the largest group upon a breakup. If Notre Dame aligns with the basketball-only schools, the Catholic schools likely would keep the Big East name. But Notre Dame more likely would prefer to align its basketball and Olympic programs with the football schools with whom it has stronger rivalries. So, the football schools could claim a legal right to the Big East name. From a public relations perspective, such a maneuver would be a disaster for the football schools, whose needs ultimately would destroy the conference that the basketball schools founded and would leave the basketball-only schools homeless. Not a pretty picture. But from a legal perspective, it would be necessary to ensure the football league maintains its legal right to the automatic BCS bid for two more years.
A compromise stopgap solution would be Dave Gavett's Big East Confederation. The Big East would add two football schools and two basketball schools and break into two 8-team leagues. Each league would have a double-round robin schedule. The season would open with an inter-league challenge and end with a combined championship tournament. The football conference could immediately change its name (e.g., Eastern 8). Such a name change with the existing composition (including Miami and Virginia Tech) would give the new league a legitimate claim to the Big East's automatic BCS berth. With that secured, the Eastern 8 could then formally secede from the Big East. Sure, they would temporarily lose the automatic NCAA basketball tournament bid. But they would gain the automatic NCAA tournament bid in three years and the deserving teams would still get at-large bids in the interim.
- How many schools would be included in expansion? The expansion plan that has been most frequently discussed is Dave Gavett's Big East Confederation brainchild. This is nothing more than a desperate attempt at relevance in the interest of the waning basketball programs of the old guard Big East. Not surprising considering Gavett's roots and role in founding the Big East. A 16-team league is impractical. Revenues are spread too thinly. Television exposure is too infrequent. And the size of the league adversely impacts the prospects of member schools for at-large NCAA basketball tournament bids, which further hurts the revenue stream. A Big East Confederation is a colossal mistake waiting to afflict the football programs if they are foolish enough to embrace it on anything more than a temporary basis. No, it is time to dispense with the cultural dysfunctionality that has plagued the Big East for 25 years. It is time for the football and basketball schools to go their separate ways and pursue their separate interests.
The football remnants of the Big East conference are faced with four football expansion scenarios – two, three, four, and six team expansions.
If the Big East elects merely to replace Miami and Virginia Tech – maintaining membership at eight – the league could choose the two strongest candidates. An 8-team league would meet the pending minimum criteria for conference membership while maximizing revenue and competition, better enabling the rebuilt league to consolidate with the goal of retaining the automatic BCS bid.
During the early stages of the ACC raid, Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver advocated that a 9-team league was the most cost effective conference model. A 9-team league would offer ideal scheduling – an 8-game league football schedule (with 3 or 4 non-conference games) and a 16-game basketball schedule. However, a three-team expansion could dilute the league – both competitively and economically – if the third candidate is significantly weaker than either of the first two candidates.
Several weeks ago, the ACC formally proposed to the NCAA a lowering of the minimum league membership threshold for a conference championship football game from 12 teams to 10 teams. Under such a provision, if approved, the Big East could add four candidates to qualify for a conference championship football game as a 10-team league. The most obvious regional candidates are weak athletically and economically. The current state of Rutgers and Connecticut football necessitates avoiding additional weak programs. Therefore, regional boundaries would be further stretched to avoid diluting the quality of the expanded league.
If NCAA rules for conference championship football games remain unchanged, six teams would be needed to enable a reconstituted 12-team Big East to conduct a championship football game. But will the pursuit of such a goal help or hurt the league given its already precarious position? While four suitable candidates might be available for a 10-team league, a six-team expansion is scraping the bottom of the pool of candidates. There are not six quality all sports programs east of the Mississippi that offer strong athletics and economics. The larger the reconstituted Big East, the more closely it resembles a mid-major conference.
- Who are the likely targets? Louisville is the obvious top choice. Though a stretch geographically, Louisville is otherwise very desirable. AD Tom Jurich is committed to getting Louisville into a BCS conference. The Louisville football program enjoyed success under recently departed head coach John Smith – including a nationally televised upset of then No. 1 Florida State. Louisville basketball is resurgent under head coach Rick Pitino and should be a regular national championship contender. Louisville draws well in both football and basketball. Furthermore, a traditionally weak – and recently sanctioned – Kentucky football program offers Louisville the opportunity to become the primary football team in an otherwise basketball crazy state. Cincinnati is another obvious choice. Before the formation of the Big East Football Conference in 1991, Cincinnati was a regular opponent for many Big East teams – Rutgers included. A competitive football program and a nationally prominent basketball team sit in a metropolitan market – much like with Pittsburgh. Central Florida and South Florida each have growth potential. Both draw well for football and offer access to the Orlando and Tampa media markets. Although South Florida's basketball program is respectable, Central Florida has a mid-major program. Both are stretches geographically and would subject the Big East to the same risks associated with Miami.
Geographically, Temple is a perfect fit but the economics and football team are a disaster. Temple is still without a home for its football team with the start of the 2003 season less than a month away. Buffalo is geographically redundant with Syracuse and is terrible athletically and economically. Marshall is geographically redundant with West Virginia. Therefore, it likewise has a miniscule television market that negates the quality of its athletic programs. East Carolina is a stretch geographically. Like the two Florida candidates, East Carolina has a competitive football program that draws well locally. However, it has no sizeable television market and a second rate basketball program. Memphis has a mid-major football program and a competitive basketball program under Head Coach John Calipari. Memphis is a much poorer version of Louisville – a poor fit regionally with athletic programs that aren't as strong. Furthermore, Memphis has had past brushes with NCAA enforcement and the hiring of Calipari – whose Massachusetts teams were sanctioned – hardly sends a message that Memphis has cleaned up its act.
Navy is another good fit geographically but is weak athletically (especially in basketball) and economically. Army football is a total mess right now, dropping to such an embarrassing level that one fan labeled them a glorified flag football team. Navy and Army recruit in a competitively disadvantaged market and, as such, draw from a much smaller pool of candidates – kids who are militarily inclined but typically below the top notch athletically. Army has already conceded to the inevitable and has announced it intention to withdraw from Conference USA, in which it is a total misfit culturally and athletically.
- What role, if any, does Notre Dame have in the future Big
East? Notre Dame is not joining the Big East as an
all-sports member. Period. Any such notions are delusional.
Football is a cash cow for Notre Dame – a separate television contract with NBC
and easy access to a $13 million BCS bowl. Only a total collapse of
football – avoided with the firing of Bob Davie and the belatedly obvious hiring
of Tyrone Willingham – would force Notre Dame into an all-sports conference
alignment. And then Notre Dame would accept a more lucrative membership in
the Big 10. Does the reconstituted Big East need Notre Dame? That's
a tough question. The Big East's current predicament was caused by a lack
of homogeneity – the football and basketball-only schools had conflicting needs
that were irreconcilable. Adding Notre Dame as a non-football member would
perpetuate the failed culture. That's a good reason for excluding Notre
However, the rebuilt Big East is weak economically. Bowl attendance and television ratings are not compelling. Maintenance of the loose affiliation with Notre Dame will boost the appeal of the Big East to the television networks and bowl committees. While such an arrangement has short-term appeal until the rebuilt Big East can consolidate and re-establish itself, a relationship with Notre Dame would be permanent because Notre Dame would be a non-football conference member. Terminating that relationship wouldn't be easy. So, the Big East will have to embrace or abandon Notre Dame. The abandonment of Notre Dame will push NBC-U closer to joining an all-sports conference because the basketball and Olympic programs likely will be relegated to a second tier conference. And anything that forces Notre Dame out of its unfair financial advantage will benefit the Big East and all of Division IA football.
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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