Part II: Big Ten Expansion Doom For Big East?

A number of writers have suggested a divorce between the schools of the Big East which play football in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), what we know as the Big East football conference, and the rest of the Big East schools. That would yield an eight-team all-sports conference of WVU, Pitt, Syracuse, UConn, Rutgers, Louisville, Cincinnati, and USF.

In Part I of this analysis, we looked at some of the moves the Big Ten could make in conference expansion. today, we look at some of the possible Big East responses and the future of the league.

That's been talked about by Big East fans over beers for a long time. And it's very appealing. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik recently wrote approvingly of the idea. It may not happen, though. Conference administrators and college presidents seem to generally have a conservative, go-gently approach to change. Plus, there's a lot of history in the Big East basketball conference, and rivalries of value. And, thinking like an administrator rather than a fan, there's also the financial draw of the Big East basketball TV contract to consider.

So what about this? What if, rather than a complete split, the Big East were to create separate divisions for the football and non-football schools? The eight current football schools would form one Big East division, and the other eight, including Notre Dame, would form a second division, with Notre Dame remaining independent in football and continuing to help the conference land its bowl contracts. The two divisions would play round-robin basketball schedules within their divisions, with sufficient cross-over games to retain established rivalries (think Georgetown and Syracuse), and the conference would retain its great basketball contract and the marvelous circus of the Big East basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden.

With that structure, the football schools could add a ninth member (for all sports) -- probably either Central Florida (UCF) or Memphis. Either would bring a desirable TV market into the conference. Orlando and vicinity constitute the 19th largest market, and Memphis is 48th. UCF would give the football schools (other than USF) additional access to Florida recruiting -- a road trip to Florida and the visibility of that every year instead of every two years. And if the choice were Memphis, that school would bring a basketball program that would make the Big East even more ridiculously good in hoops.

Since this is my fantasy conference scenario, I'd stop at having nine schools in the Big East football division of the conference. Each school would play every other conference school every year in football, four games at home and four away. I love the idea of a full, balanced, round-robin schedule in football. Call me a traditionalist.

The problem with this scenario is, if the Big Ten and Pac-10 both go to 12 teams, I don't know if a 9-football-school Big East would be able to retain its slice of the BCS pie. Maybe it could, mostly because of its geographic presence where there are a lot of TV sets, but also because it does have some decent football programs. I don't know how the BCS could exclude Pitt, Syracuse, WVU, Rutgers, etc.

If the Big East had to go to 12 teams to keep its BCS status, and assuming the Big Ten doesn't peel off one of its schools, then maybe it would need to add East Carolina and perhaps Navy in addition to UCF and Memphis. East Carolina would at least add recruiting visibility in part of North Carolina, and Navy would bring the national cachet of a service academy. (Pipedreams about luring Penn State or Maryland or even Boston College are no more substantial than wisps of smoke. Forget such nonsense.) Perhaps if UMass were to try to make the leap to the FBS, as UConn successfully did, it could be an interesting addition. But I don't know if comparable dollars and institutional intention are there.

Even with 12 football teams, possibly the current Big East schools could stay together with a division alignment. The football division could subdivide into two cells (grainy high school biology films come to mind), with a conference championship game played in the new stadium in the Big Apple. If the Big East had to split into two distinct conferences to retain its BCS status, however, then the complete split from the non-football schools might finally have to happen.

My biggest concern for the future of the Big East is if the Big Ten would take more than one of the Big East schools. I don't at present see how it's financially advantageous for the Big Ten to expand beyond 12, but maybe I'm just not thinking on as grand a scale as the Big Ten officers, presidents, and athletic directors might. It's conceivable that the Big Ten could invite two or more Big East schools in order to run the Big East out of the BCS -- a hostile takeover of the eastern TV market. It could happen, if the Big Ten's number-crunchers figure out a way that the Big Ten could make more money and increase their political power by expanding to 14 or 16 schools.

If the Big East were to lose more than one football school -- say two or three out of UConn, Rutgers, Syracuse, and Pitt -- then I'm not sure it could continue as a BCS conference. The conference was able to survive the ACC raid because Louisville, Cincinnati, and USF were able to gain respectability pretty quickly, as did UConn. (And, oh yeah, we beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. That win, followed by Louisville's win in the Orange Bowl, and then our win in the Fiesta Bowl -- three BCS wins in three consecutive years -- certainly helped the Big East conference.)

Maybe UCF, Memphis, and ECU could similarly boost their programs. It's my understanding that some or all of those schools are upgrading their facilities. As noted, both UCF and Memphis have top-50 TV markets. And Memphis has retained former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese specifically to help get Memphis into a BCS conference.

It's going to be very interesting to see what happens. It's possible that the future could bring a result that we can't currently envision -- maybe even the demise of the BCS or its transformation into something else.

My nightmare: The Big Ten decides there's more power and money to be had by expanding to 16 teams and adds Rutgers, Pitt, Syracuse, UConn, and ... Missouri. Buh-bye, Big East football. And WVU is left in limbo, "an abode of souls barred from heaven through no fault of their own."

My guess, however, and it's only that, is that the Big Ten will move more conservatively and add just one school to get to 12 members. That will enable it to have the financial windfall and TV presence of a conference championship game, and it won't have to divide its revenues into 14 or 16 shares. If not Notre Dame, and not Texas, then I think the Big Ten would add the University of Missouri rather than Rutgers or one of the other Big East schools. Don't bet a lot of money on the accuracy of my crystal ball, however.

A friend and Ohio State alumnus who follows the Big Ten closely cautions me there's another possible outcome: The Big Ten could decide to not expand at all. That's been the outcome before, but this time the public nature of their announcements makes me think they'll make a move.

In the coming months, the Big Ten and Pac-10 will make their decisions, and the Big East and Big 12 may have to react. We'll see if the Big East is still standing when the music stops, and if the conference still has a seat in the BCS circle.

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