A Big East Split? "Never can say good-bye..."

The Big East football schools need to do what's best for themselves, not what's best for Big East basketball.

In his recent opinion piece "Say No to 'Nova", Dale Miller has it right. He makes the argument that many Big East football fans would heartily agree with: It's time for the split.

Mr. Miller writes that applying the brakes on Villanova's admission to the Big East in football may be "the first sign of sanity from Big East football schools." Right on. He goes on to argue that the Big East football schools should split from the non-football schools and add UCF, Houston, and Memphis to get to twelve members, which would enable a conference championship game and its presumed revenues.

The only point where I disagree with him is that I want to see us take East Carolina instead of Memphis. ECU has a good football stadium now and a large, avid fan base. They have a sufficient level of support that with a little nudge (admission to a BCS conference) they could easily rise to the level of an NC State. They're at that level now in football, and I have little doubt they could rise in basketball as well. Memphis just seems stale. ECU is vibrant and growing.

Adding UCF seems like an easy decision, and Houston also has something to offer. Each would bring a terrific TV market to the conference, and the pair would bring natural geographic rivals for USF and TCU. Adding them would further cement the Big East's presence in fertile recruiting grounds.

Like Mr. Miller, I think adding Villanova for football is a horrible idea. How does it help Big East football? As far as I can tell, not at all.

Villanova's climb to raise itself up to the level that UConn has achieved would be monumentally difficult and expensive. Nova doesn't have the facilities or the fan base. Philly is all about pro sports and Penn State. Nova would add nothing to Big East football, now or in the foreseeable future.

One of the arguments for adding Villanova in football is that the Big East is too big now, with no room to add additional football schools from outside the current conference. Well, there are multiple ways to skin that cat. Some Big East football fans would suggest that the conference has too much deadwood in schools like Providence, DePaul, and Seton Hall. Yes, there's solid basketball history there, but that's looking backwards, not forwards.

I'm delighted that some of the football schools, rumored to be Rutgers, Pitt, and maybe WVU, have put the brakes on Villanova's admission for football. The fan in me hopes that the current football schools stick together and have the spine to finally split from the Providence-centric and basketball-centric Big East leadership.

The fan in me says it's time for the football schools to stand together in their own all-sports conference, and time for the eight parochial basketball schools to go their separate way.

Unfortunately, the fan in me doesn't have all the facts necessary to support that decision.

It seems apparent that in the event of a split, the Big East football schools would retain their BCS status, particularly now that TCU is on board. And any conference with Syracuse, UConn, WVU, Pitt, Louisville, and Cincinnati would be extremely attractive in basketball, too. It's hard to imagine that we couldn't get a TV deal at least in the range of what the Big East is currently negotiating (with the starting estimate reported to be $110 to $130 million per year, triple what the conference is now receiving). Notre Dame probably would want to stay with the basketball schools and remain independent in football, which would be fine -- at least that situation finally would be resolved.

Here's the problem for fans, though: All of us outside the offices of the associated school presidents, athletic directors, and conference officials don't know the financial details of the current discussions, so our ability to judge the wisdom of any move is extremely limited. Put more simply, we fans are ignorant. We don't know the determinative facts. And those economic projections almost certainly will be determinative in the votes being cast and the decisions being made.

The key to any decision to expand or to split will be a very simple one: per-school revenues. Will adding Villanova for football, or adding any other school, result in greater revenues for each conference member in the future? Would adding UCF, ECU, and Houston, even with the introduction of a conference football championship game, make economic sense? Without seeing the spreadsheets that the school and conference officials are seeing (or at least should be seeing), we fans can't know.

Even without knowing those figures, however, it seems clear that the football schools need to be united and visionary going forward.

If a complete split doesn't make economic sense because of the value of the basketball contract or the continued presence of Notre Dame, or if consensus simply can't be attained on a complete split -- if the votes aren't there -- then maybe a compromise would be for the conference to divide into a confederation. Essentially this would be two divisions allied under a single Big East umbrella.

The current eight football schools and TCU would constitute one division, and would have the freedom to add three additional schools to get to twelve. The non-football schools (and Notre Dame) would have their own division and might want to add perhaps Xavier and another non-football school to get that side of the house up to ten members. Each division would have its own commissioner and its own scheduling, with a few traditional and cross-divisional rivalry games retained, such as Syracuse-Georgetown.

The Big 10 has its "Leaders" and "Legends" divisions. The Big East could have an Ernie Davis Division and a Dave Gavitt Division.

In such a scenario, perhaps a single basketball TV contract would cover both divisions. Each division could send eight members to the Big East basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden, with the winner of the football side of the bracket playing the winner of the non-football side of the bracket in the championship game.

Such a compromise might offer the best of both worlds if the Big East members don't support a complete split, or if the financial projections truly don't justify it. This would mean dividing the basketball contract into more shares. But the result might still be better for all members than splitting the conference apart completely. The fact that the revenue pie will be bigger in the next contract could still mean sizable increases for each member school.

This plan would allow the football conference to grow in size, strength, and marketing appeal without being required to take in Villanova, and without destroying the current Big East. Villanova could remain successful in the FCS, continue to play football in Villanova Stadium, and not have to raise and spend vast amounts of money. Notre Dame could keep its current Big East status. Traditional basketball rivalries could be maintained, and the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden could perhaps even be enhanced.

Those who argue that the conference is too big now probably wouldn't be pacified by the notion of the league growing even bigger, but the division concept would address that problem. You've heard of "addition by subtraction"? This might be "multiplication by division."

Would this plan lay the groundwork for an eventual complete split? Maybe. Or maybe it would be a way to keep the historical Big East members allied in the same conference for the long term.

In any event, the existing Big East football schools need to do together what's best for themselves.


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