"The Mediocre East?"

Say it ain't so.

If you want to know the current state of the Big East football conference, just go to Google.com and search on "we're screwed."

This is depressing.

Losing Miami was expected. Losing Va. Tech was sustainable. Losing a third school to the ACC -- whether it had been BC or Syracuse or Pitt -- is crushing.

Even after the Big East had lost Miami and Va. Tech, the Big East could have survived and even prospered as the northeast's regional college football league. The ACC in the southeast and the Big East in the northeast could have coexisted as first-tier football conferences. But losing a third school to the ACC, and especially one of its premier northeastern schools -- again whether it had been BC or Syracuse or Pitt -- is a devastating blow to the Big East.

The cold, hard fact now is this: The Big East is no longer a major player in college football. Now there will be five dominant conferences in the country: The SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten, and ACC. The Big East is reduced to being a second-tier conference along with C-USA (which is on life support), the WAC, and the Mountain West. It's still a step above leagues like the MAC and the Sun Belt Conference, but that ain't sayin' much. There's a visible pecking order in NCAA Division 1A football, and the Big East just fell down a peck.

Could this have been avoided? I don't think so. I honestly don't see how. The Big East was the victim of a mugging by John Swofford and the ACC. I believe the Big East's league office, presidents and chancellors, and athletic directors have diligently tried to defend the league against the attack, but I don't think it's realistic to say the conference could have prevented it.

Some people will say that if the Big East had only been proactive, it could have brought in Penn State, Notre Dame (as a football member), Florida State, and Georgia Tech, and been the top dog on the east coast instead of letting the ACC poach three Big East schools. But I think that's an unrealistic view based mostly on baseless internet bulletin board material. It's counterintuitive.

Notre Dame has no need to join any conference for football. There's been no indication that either Georgia Tech or Florida State had any desire to leave the ACC. Yes, Penn State should have been voted into the Big East two decades ago, before it joined the Big Ten, but at that time there was no Big East football conference, and Penn State added nothing in basketball. Clearly that was a terrible mistake on the part of the Big East members at that time, and one that the Big East football schools are paying the price for now. But Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John's et al. had no reason to vote to add Penn State. And there evidently were too many animosities in play.

The foundation for a strong Eastern football conference could have been laid in the 1970s, if the Eastern football schools -- Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, BC, and West Virginia -- all could have agreed to work together. But they didn't. Water over the dam. Spilled milk.

So what now?

Syracuse and Pitt might be sitting by the phone, waiting for a call from the Big Ten. It's not likely to come, in this decade or the next. Nor will the SEC be ringing up the WVU athletic director's office. WVU has a hard time even scheduling a two-game, home-and-home series with an SEC opponent, yet some WVU fans think the SEC is going to invite WVU? I doubt it, bucco.

The fact is that all the remaining Big East football schools can do is to try to pick up the pieces and move ahead. We'll probably add Louisville and Cincinnati, maybe South Florida and Central Florida, maybe East Carolina or Navy. Maybe we'll un-uninvite Temple.

None of those schools is ranked number two or number three in this week's polls.

Yet adding Louisville and Cincinnati will be the first step to making the conference better.

At some point, maybe the Big East football schools will slip away from the non-football Big East and form a separate all-sports conference. But for now, the remaining football schools -- and we're down to WVU, Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers, and UConn -- probably need the comfort and sustenance of keeping the Big East basketball conference intact. And although this might be a lesser distinction in the heart of football season and in terms of TV revenues, the Big East remains one of the premier basketball conferences in the nation. With the addition of Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul, it might have no basketball peer, especially with ACC basketball now being watered down by adding Virginia Tech.

Losing BC by itself would not have been a big loss. UConn may be a stronger football school in five years. But losing three football schools the caliber of Miami, Va. Tech, and BC seriously damages the Big East. It turns the Big East conference from at least the sixth of six premier football conferences into a second-tier "mid-major."

Plenty of schools -- in C-USA, the WAC, the Mountain West, etc. -- will not have much sympathy for WVU and Pitt and Syracuse. Or maybe they'll say, "Welcome to the club." Welcome to lower revenues, a tougher time recruiting, fewer bowls, lower rankings, and less prestige.

It could be that another bowl, and thus two more slots, will be added to the BCS pool. And if that happens, it could be that the Big East will continue to have access to the BCS, if not necessarily a guaranteed slot, beyond 2005. We'll see.

I hate to be pessimistic, but any way you look at it, this hurts. The growth of the Big East had been a source of pride. The sense of being a member of one of the six first-tier conferences in the country was gratifying.

My loyalty will always be to WVU, no matter our conference affiliation or opponents. But having WVU be a member of a mid-major football conference is going to take some getting used to.

There's nothing to do now but pull together and move ahead. Let's Go Mountaineers.

Greg Todd has maintained his loyalty to West Virginia University despite a number of years spent in the heart of Nittany Lion country. The views expressed here are his own.


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