Big East Realignment Ruins the Fun

NEW YORK – In a normal year, there would have been tremendous pride and recognition of last year's national championship team. Instead the UConn Huskies were sort of mentioned in passing by commissioner John Marinatto at Big East media day.

COMMENTARY

In a normal year, there would have been much chest bumping and high fiving over the selection of 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 – and perhaps an unrealistic discussion of getting more bids in 2012. But Syracuse and Pittsburgh have their bags packed for the Atlantic Coast Conference. That took a lot of wind out of those sails.

There were 22 seniors in the ballroom at the New York Athletic Club Wednesday. In this day and age, the so-called one-and-done era of college basketball, that's a remarkable collection of experienced talent. Four seniors (Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom, Syracuse's Kris Joseph, West Virginia's Kevin Jones) and a graduate student (Tim Abromaitis of Notre Dame) made the preseason All-Big East first team. That should have been a feel good moment.

Instead, the topic Marinatto tried so hard to table ended up dominating the entire week.

Conference realignment was the only thing anybody wanted to discuss.

I've been attending Big East media days since 1985. The one on Wednesday was the strangest of all. We used to gather at the Grand Hyatt. Then the event moved to Madison Square Garden, the most famous arena in the world. The Big East and MSG always seemed a perfect marriage. They don't play football at the Garden, but renovation forced the conference to find another location for this year's media day.

The New York Athletic Club provided an upgrade. Men were required to wear jackets. That's a lot to ask of most sports writers and broadcasters, so the new digs made it different. But the questions and answers were the reason behind this strange sensation.

All the uncertainty and instability surrounding the Big East shifted the subject far away from basketball.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't need much prompting. From the moment he walked into the room, he was ready to rip into Syracuse and Pittsburgh for skating to the ACC.

"This was not a football decision," Pitino said, taking a stand opposite of almost everyone who discusses conference realignment. "This was a basketball decision. It's a lot different than what you see around the country. So don't be fooled. For years the premier conference in basketball was the ACC. I'm sure they want to get back to that and what better way than to steal two premier basketball programs. Smart move. They don't like the fact that the Big East has been the premier basketball conference."

In the history of the Big East, there's never been a week quite like this one.

On Monday night, the presidents of the Big East schools unanimously voted to increase the league's withdrawal fee from $5 million to $10 million – a proposal that works hand-in-hand with the execution of the plan to expand to 12 teams in the football conference.

On Tuesday Marinatto held a conference call with reporters and said all the current Big East members are operating in "good faith" with one another. (Remember, Marinatto started Big East football media day back in August saying the conference had never been better positioned for the future.)

"The exit fee is a sign of stability, but it's not the only thing we're looking at," Marinatto said. "Everyone, given the environment that we're all in, is looking for one thing: stability."

Stability. I guess that's why Louisville and West Virginia could still go the Big 12 and UConn still yearns to join the ACC. Stability is often discussed in conference alignment but, in reality, it is nowhere in sight.

And that brings us back to Pitino.

"Louisville had played in the Metro and Conference USA," he said Wednesday when asked how the Cardinals might fit in the Big 12. "Louisville is a Midwestern town. I can picture the Big East without Pittsburgh or Louisville. I can't picture it without Syracuse."

Then he demonstrated some mock excitement.

"Syracuse is playing Clemson tonight on TV!" he said. "It's not Syracuse-Georgetown."

No, it's not. Pitino admitted he was letting his inner fan show through just a bit. But that's exactly what made his comments so refreshing and honest. That's exactly the way fans think and there isn't a president or chancellor in Division I willing to be that candid.

"Geography is such an important factor in the whole equation of alignment and they've left the most important factor out," Pitino said. "This talk, ‘We want to align ourselves with other research universities.' . . . Is it going to help your research? It's not. It makes no sense."

Thursday, at women's basketball media day, it was UConn coach Geno Auriemma who made the headlines. Again, he chose his words carefully and shared a thought so common and so simple; one that every Big East fan has asked at one point or another.

Everything could be solved, Auriemma said, if Notre Dame decided to become a full-member by joining the football conference.

"The only thing you're sure of is they don't play [football] in our league and never want to play in our league," Auriemma said. "For a lot of us, it's a huge problem.

"They've been in our league something like [17] years. How long are we going to date before we just decide this ain't working? I'm not happy about it. That's not the opinion of UConn, the Big East Conference, my president, my AD. That's just Geno Auriemma's opinion. I'm pissed about it."

Everyone should be pissed.

Auriemma brought up the issue of long-term dating. Pitino chose that path too, although it might have been ill advised in his case.

"My problem is not them leaving," Pitino said of Syracuse and Pitt. "My problem is that they did it in 48 hours. Don't run away with a girl after one date. You've dated this woman for 30 years, show her a little respect and think about it for two or three weeks."

The analogy is on target, but not the best coming from Pitino, who has been in and out of court and was involved in a well-publicized extortion case after cheating on his wife of more than 30 years. You might say there was a slight credibility issue. But that was just his bad.

In the opposite corner of the room, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was totally out of character. After speaking his mind the first few days after the Orange announced the intention to move to the ACC, Boeheim was the only who actually tried to follow Marinatto's request not to talk about realignment.

"I'm here to play in the Big East," Boeheim said when asked if he found the media day scene strange. "I'm not worried about anything else. I'm going to say that about 100 times. I should just tape it."

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said his father, originally from the Bronx, was upset when he got the news the Panthers were moving to the ACC.

"I've settled him down and hopefully I can settle down a few other people," Dixon said of his father. "But he's reflective of a lot of people's opinions."

It was clear this men's basketball media day would be different when Marinatto's opening statement included a quotation from the book, "The Precious Present."

"We're planning for the future, but focused on the present. We cherish the past, but we're focused on the present."

How very fitting. But Marinatto just as easily could have chosen the famous quote: "In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined."

That's the world of college athletics right now.

Unfortunately, the coaches who spoke so much truth this week are not the ones making the decisions.

"Clearly this is about helmets and shoulder pads, so there is a helplessness there," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Do I have an idea who I think we should play against? I do. Do I think I've earned the right to share that? I think we have. But that's not the way things are right now. So no, I don't feel like I'm in control."

The controllers are the presidents, the chancellors and the commissioners – people driven by money, greed, and panic, not to mention the television revenue and big payouts from the BCS. They are the ones concerned about eating, in order to avoid being eaten.

In the process, they cannot see how much damage is being done. It's all very odd. And it's all very sad.

It would have been so nice just to talk about basketball again. Maybe some day.

P.S. If you thought this was a bad week for the Big East, just wait. If the SEC actually offers membership to Missouri, that could be the end of the Big East as we know it. Stay tuned.


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