The Kinder Garden - Conference Issues

Subscribers of Sports Illustrated who read Steve Rushin's <I>Air & Space</I> column this week will understand how I feel in writing about conference issues.

In that column, Rushin describes his distate for reading and writing about issues that have been beaten into the ground.

To be quite honest, I'm starting to feel that way about the "conference issue". I'm much more concerned with what happens on the field that in the president's offices. Just get it over with, and let's play some more games!

Of course, I realize the importance of making the Big East as strong as it can be. I know that the member schools can't just take a few teams, say 'we're done' and expect to have a viable league. It's just that the entire process has become a lightning rod for shots to be taken at college athletics, which I hate to see.

Therefore, I'll try to put aside the old personal feelings on this one and share some tidbits of info, thoughts, and opinions on where all this is going.

First, I don't think that the Big East will add a "football only" member along with Louisville and Cincinnati. There had been some discussion of possibly adding a Florida school such as Central Florida or South Florida to the mix, possibly as an offset to Notre Dame, which still appears to be reasonably solid in the 16 team confederation (more on that in a minute). However, talk on that issue has cooled among those forumlating the new conference plans.

That doesn't rule those schools out of the mix, of course, if the ACC grabs another school from the Big East, or if the Big East football side eventually splits off into a conference of its own. Boston College has been mentioned as a likely target for another ACC raid, and should the Eagles continue their back handed courtship, the Big East would need another football school.

I still maintain that Temple would be a better candidate, owing to the Owls' ties with eastern schools and their presence in the Philadelphia TV market. (And yes, I know that their ratings are probably miniscule, but television networks still look more at the total market size than they do with the number of people who watch the games in that market. That's why Syracuse still continues to get lumped into the New York City market.) But, let's see how Temple does after moving into their new stadium in the next couple of seasons.

Second, I still hope one day that the Big East will split into separate conferences, with the football schools going one way and the non-football schols the other. The biggest reason they are staying together now, of course, is NCAA basketball tournament money.

That money, which is earned in units (one unit for making the tournament and one unit for every round advanced) stays with the conference, not the individual schools. WVU, along with the other football schools, can't afford to walk away from that money right now. So, they will likely stay together in the 16 team confderation for at least a couple of seasons.

I can see your hands waving now. 'Isn't that just delaying the problem', you ask? 'Won't that still be an issue in two or three years?'

Good questions, and that's one of the issues that has likely been holding up announcement of the Big East's future plans. It appears that some sort of deal will be struck where future units earned while the Big East is still together might be prorated out in some fashion to allow the football schools to leave in the future with at least some of the TV dollars they have earned. Of course, there are a number of issues to be worked out in that area, and those appear to be one of the main sticking points in the process.

Finally, Notre Dame. I don't think Notre Dame will ever fully join any conference until they begin taking a financial hit for being an independent. That's not likely in terms of attendance or merchandising, which only leaves television. Would three or four straight losing seasons cause the Irish's ratings to plummet, thereby affecting their TV contract the next time around? Perhaps. But until that time, the Domers will continue to get preferential treatment by the conferences.

With existing bowl ties and an existing conference affiliation, the Big East does have something of an inside track with the Irish. The question is, where would Notre Dame fit in if, or when, the football and non-football schools part company? In that case, Notre Dame would still be more closely aligned with the basketball playing schools, and perhaps less inclined to continue the relationship with the football side of the house. The bowl agreement that the current Big East football conference has with the Irish extends through 2005, the same as the current BCS contract, so unless something is done to extend that relatinship, Notre Dame could be a free agent again on the football side of the equation.

I'll be the first person to admit that I don't like kowtowing to the throne in South Bend. However, if it means an extra bowl game or two for the conference, it's a necessary evil.

Finally, there has been speculation that the Big East breakup/expansion cycle won't stop at this point. Beginning in 2006, eight football schools is the bare minimum for a Division 1A conference, and with the prevailing view being "strength in numbers" the thought is that the Big East will try to get to 10 or 12 football playing schools.

One of the stated reasons to get to 12, of course, is the conference championship game. That's what is also sparking renewed talks of more ACC expansion following recent reports that the NCAA has "denied" the right to hold a playoff game for conferences with fewer than 12 teams.

The only problem with that line of reasoning is that it's based on a faulty report. The only thing that has happened in that regard is that NCAA advisory committees have recommended against such a move. However, the issue won't be voted on by the NCAA Management Council until next spring, and that's the vote that counts.

So, where does this leave us? Pretty much back where we started. The Big East will expand. It's almost assuredly going to be Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette. After that, there's going to be another long break while the NCAA rules on championship games and the conference figures out how to eventually make itself into a two team league. Once that happens, this whole process could start all over again. Leaving us all to write more columns about the same issues.

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