Big East Eyes Expansion Candidates

Election Day brought an announcement from the Big East Conference which signaled a formal evaluation process has been undertaken to expand conference football membership. "Today, our Board of Directors affirmed a set of key strategic initiatives, including expansion, designed to enhance membership stability and maximize our value," stated [Big East]Commissioner John Marinatto.

Marinatto said the conference will refrain from commenting further on the expansion process.

It has been widely reported that the Big East has targeted at least four possible candidates for football membership, Villanova, TCU, Houston and Central Florida (UCF).

The move is probably being driven by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a graduate of Georgetown, which plays all of its sports other than football in the Big East. Tagliabue became an advisor to the Big East earlier this year, after it appeared that a number of Big East FBS (I-A) football-playing members looked to be prime targets for other conferences, primarily the Big Ten, who were looking to expand.

Let's take a look at the primary contenders.

Villanova - the Wildcats are easily the best fit from a number of standpoints. They have fielded a very successful FCS (I-AA) football program for many years, and just this past season they won the championship game in Chattanooga. Nova plays in the toughest I-AA conference in the country, the Colonial Athletic Association. They're also already a Big East member, and play in the fourth largest media market in the country (Philadelphia), which is the largest media market of any of the teams the Big East is currently considering.

The downside to Villanova's entrance is the size of the school, small alumni base and no stadium to play their games in. They'd also have to make the commitment to upgrade to I-A. They've been offered the same chance by the Big East before back in 1997 but politely declined at that time. The Villanova administration is currently evaluating which way they plan to go, and expect to make a decision before the end of the current academic year. Nova would probably have to make a deal with the University of Pennsylvania to play their home games at Franklin Field, since it's unlikely they've got the resources for construction of its own 30,000-seat stadium, which capacity is required by the NCAA for FBS status.

TCU - ah, yes, that's Texas Christian University, the school with the Top 5 football program that just knocked the stuffing out of Utah. TCU would be an absolute no-brainer choice for Big East membership. The entire athletic department is under the administration of a young, up-and-coming athletic director in Chris Del Conte, and they're presently the best major college football team in the entire state of Texas, and one of the best in the country. And, they're dying to get into a BCS conference with an automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl bid. They presently play in the Mountain West Conference, but recent defections from that league (Utah, BYU) have crushed and shattered any hopes that it might become the seventh BCS automatic qualifying league. Geography is the only weird thing about this marriage, but since money is the No. 1 consideration for all parties concerned, forget that TCU is located in Fort Worth. It's part of the fifth largest media market in the country when you consider the entire Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. That would give the Big East a presence in four of the top five media markets in the country, and the Big East has always been all about media markets - the bigger, the better.

Houston - If Villanova elects to remain at the I-AA football level, this program is worth some consideration. It's a sleeping giant which once had a place among the elite schools in college football during its early glory days of membership in the now defunct Southwest Conference. Houston finished ranked as high as fourth in the country during the mid to late 1970's. After long time head coach Bill Yeoman was forced out in the mid-1980's due to NCAA violations, the program has had it's ups and downs, mostly downs. Being in Conference USA hasn't helped while sitting in the middle of a football crazy recruiting region, but since hiring former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin as head coach two seasons ago, the Cougars are regaining some of their former glory. They were nationally ranked in the teens during several weeks of the 2009 season. This year, Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum was sidelined with an ACL injury in an early season game at UCLA, but this is a team and a school with a lot of potential. It also doesn't hurt that they play in the nation's 10th largest media market and boast an enrollment of close to 40,000 undergraduates. The knock on Houston is that the student body consists largely of commuters, and ancient Robertson Stadium is badly in need of a wrecking-ball whacking, but the administration seems committed to building a new stadium.

UCF - The Golden Knights would be a perfect rival for present Big East member South Florida, due to the animosity that already exists between the fanbases of the two schools, separated by only 80 miles or so of Interstate 4. The problem is South Florida would probably beg the Big East administration to look elsewhere for expansion teams. Putting UCF in a BCS automatic qualifying league would give South Florida even more competition than they already have to deal with in the talent-laden Florida high school recruiting market. For this reason, it seems unlikely that UCF will get the nod, though they will be very proactive in putting forth their best efforts to join. Orlando would give the Big East the nation's 19th largest media market, which is not anywhere near as large as the teams mentioned above can deliver, but still very respectable. UCF is also one of the largest enrollment schools in the country at over 40,000, and they just built a brand new football stadium. They've also got the best football team in Conference USA at the moment.

Other schools which might receive some consideration for Big East membership include Temple, East Carolina and Memphis. Temple was formerly a Big East member for football only, but due to horrific attendance and moribund, perennial, dead-last-in-the-conference performances on the field, they were sent packing after the 2004 season. I expect the Owls, who are presently enjoying an upsurge in football fortunes thanks to charismatic head coach Al Golden, would kiss and make up if the Big East ever comes calling again. They currently play in the Mid American Conference (MAC), which doesn't get an automatic BCS bowl bid for its champion. East Carolina has a decent football program but Greenville/Washington/New Bern, NC is the 100th media market in the country. They just don't have enough eyeballs to make the cut. Memphis has hired former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese as a consultant to advise them how best to curry favor with the Big East administration, but the football program plays a distant second fiddle to their popular basketball program, and Memphis plays before sparse crowds at the 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl Stadium.

If another round of conference realignment occurs after this academic year, you might have to throw all of the above out the window. Where the Big East could really help itself would be to pick off a couple of existing BCS automatic qualifying conference teams. That wish list would include Penn State, Maryland, and the ever-present question of the day: will Notre Dame ever give up its independent status in football to join the Big East for all sports? The answer to that question has been, is and always will be no.

There is still going to be speculation about whether the Big East will remain together in its strange, hybrid relationship between major football playing and basketball-only schools. Ten football members means there would be more votes at the table on the football side, something the basketball-only schools have feared since the league was forced to expand in 2005 as a result of the defections by Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC. That could be the beginning of the end of the present relationship, with the major football schools going their separate way.

At the recent Big East Basketball Media Day, UConn head basketball coach Jim Calhoun talked about the influence that Connecticut's upgrade to FBS football status has had on his school.

"Since football's come, we've had less and less influence. That's good in many ways. I love football. But the league is set up to be very good for football and it's become so much more difficult for basketball. For basketball, you've really created a nightmare for coaches. The 18 games continues to be a nightmare for me personally. Always will be."

The Big East basketball conference has consistently been one of the best if not the best league overall in the country during most seasons, but Big East football has never garnered or earned much national respect. That makes for a very uneasy relationship between the schools on both sides of the equation, and it makes Big East major football schools prone to being pilfered by bigger name conferences which can deliver more bang for the buck.

There may be a long way to go before conference realignment settles down. Big East schools like Connecticut may find themselves searching for another BCS automatic qualifying league to join if the football conference fails to survive.

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