When thinking about WVU's future conference situation these days, and specifically about the coming Big Ten expansion, the mental images are ominous: On the distant horizon are dark, towering storm clouds. Closer is the sound of a locomotive roaring down the tracks, its whistle blowing, and here we are, tied to the rails, with no rescue-bound cartoon Canadian Mountie anywhere to be seen.
What a nightmare. And, unfortunately, it might pretty well sum up our conference situation. That locomotive is Big Ten expansion, and it's coming. Soon. And its impact could be devastating to the Big East.
At this point only a few people, if any, know the specific details of what the Big Ten conference is likely to do, and so far they're not talking. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney says he's in a silent period, and his public remarks have not been illuminating. The few reporters who seem to have access to sources inside the conference, like Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, mention "Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut" as potential choices for the Big Ten, and write stomach-turning sentences like this: "Schools left behind -- say, Cincinnati and West Virginia from the Big East -- face an uncertain future."
Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich says he is "expecting the worst." Former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese has said, "If the Big Ten comes and takes multiple teams from the Big East, then I think the Big East is in trouble," and "It's a tough situation, because I don't think there's anything the Big East can do to prevent it."
Is the outlook really that bleak? Unfortunately, it may be.
The straws in the wind suggest that the Big Ten is no longer looking to expand merely by adding a single school to get to 12 and have a conference title game. Projections for Big Ten Network TV revenues from additional cable charges and advertising evidently are phenomenal, and seem to be pushing the Big Ten toward expanding to a 14- or 16-team conference. Commissioner Delaney evidently wants to make a big splash. Eyes are on the eastern television markets. Some reports indicate the expansion schedule has been "accelerated." And Joe Paterno, among others, is evidently pushing for the Big Ten to add eastern schools.
You can't really blame them, I suppose. Big fish eat little fish. If the Big Ten can destroy the Big East and make a fortune by doing so, why let a little thing like the best interests of other schools stand in the way? We saw the ACC do it. Now it looks as though the Big Ten may be coming to finish the job.
Obviously it's not yet a done deal. We don't know which schools the Big Ten will come after. And we don't know the answer to a most pertinent question -- WWNDD? What will Notre Dame do?
Notre Dame is the wild card in the deck. If Notre Dame were to decide to join the Big Ten, it's conceivable that the Big Ten would stop there, at 12 schools. Although even that could be but a momentary pause. It's equally possible that Notre Dame could be just one of three or five schools to be added. Or Notre Dame could try to maintain its independence in football and continue to ally with whatever remains of the Big East conference for its other sports.
In an article on April 19, Greenstein wrote of Notre Dame: "Unless Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick is trying to construct the mother of all smoke screens, Notre Dame will remain in a conference of one. During a weekend session with the school's alumni senate, Swarbrick said: 'Our highest priority is maintaining football independence.' A second priority, he said, is to support the Big East, home to the majority of its 26 teams. The Irish would add millions in TV revenue by joining the Big Ten and save millions in travel costs, but the move to any football conference would be wildly unpopular among students and alumni."
If Notre Dame says no to the Big Ten yet again, then it's entirely possible the Big Ten will move to add five schools and essentially close the door to the Irish. The other candidates most often mentioned are Rutgers, Pitt, Syracuse, UConn, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. Boston College and Maryland are also occasionally mentioned, and either of those schools could be in the discussion. Texas and Texas A&M are still mentioned by some Big Ten followers, but the chance of those two schools leaving the Big XII seems remote.
Of those nine (excluding Texas, Texas A&M, and Notre Dame), UConn and Boston College are the only schools which are not members of the American Association of Universities, an organization of leading research institutions. All current members of the Big Ten are members of that organization, and membership seems to be important to the Big Ten conference's presidents.
Whether the Big Ten decides to expand to 12, 14, or 16 schools is still anyone's guess. And which schools will be invited to join is equally up in the air. But the hammer should fall soon. This past Sunday Commissioner Delaney met in Washington, D.C., with conference presidents and other administrators, including Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon, chair of the conference's Council of Presidents/Chancellors.
This week, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conferences are holding meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona. It's possible that sometime this week Delaney will inform the other conference commissioners which of their schools the Big Ten is going to approach. We could know something soon, or this conference death watch could drag on for a few more weeks. With meetings of various conferences scheduled in May and early June, it's reasonable to surmise that the specific Big Ten targets will be made public by then.
A worst-case scenario for WVU and other non-selected Big East schools would be if the Big Ten takes Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers, and UConn. The remaining Big East football schools, WVU, Louisville, USF, and Cincinnati, then would be in a world of hurt. Even if, say, the Big Ten adds Nebraska and Missouri, along with three of those Big East Schools, the result will be devastating to the Big East conference. The Big East might be able to recover if it loses only two schools to the Big Ten. But if the Big East loses three or four football schools, then I don't see how the conference could continue to exist. The remaining football schools would have to find or create a new conference.
WVU football coach Bill Stewart was recently quoted as saying that WVU would come out of such a situation okay, that maybe we'd end up in the ACC or SEC. But while some people speculate that if the Big Ten expands to 16 schools, the ACC and SEC would automatically follow suit, that's not necessarily so. How would adding schools just to keep up, and dividing their revenue pie into more slices, benefit their current members?
The SEC signed a $3 billion, 15-year contract with CBS and ESPN in 2008. As Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, "If SEC schools now make $17 million each year [for each school], to add four teams there would have to be a minimum increase of $68 million (4 times 17) in revenue. Are there four schools out there that could bring in that much revenue?"
As for the ACC, Barnhart adds, "The ACC is currently in negotiations for its new television deals, and the proposed numbers from the TV boys are not great. To be perfectly candid, the ACC as a football conference is a little vulnerable right now." Would the ACC want to take on yet another expansion while it's still arguably having growing pains from its previous one?
Expecting the ACC or SEC to be our knights in shining armor seems far-fetched. Tranghese, who has great insight into matters like this, says, "I just don't see it that way at all. I just don't think that the ACC and SEC are going to expand."
At this point, maybe it's an appropriate time to review the five stages of grief, introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 book, On Death and Dying:
1. Denial. "The Big Ten isn't as unscrupulous as the ACC. They wouldn't do that to us. We'll be fine."
2. Anger. "This isn't fair! How can they do that to us? I hate all those schools."
3. Bargaining. "If the ACC expands to 16 too and takes us, I'll even root for Virginia Tech."
4. Depression. "What's the use? I'm not even going to go the the games anymore."
5. Acceptance. "Life will go on. WVU will still play football, and I'll still root for the Old Gold and Blue, regardless of who the opponent is. The Big East has been great fun while it lasted. Maybe we can at least stay in the same conference with Louisville and the other remaining Big East football schools. Maybe we'll still be able to schedule Pitt and Syracuse. And, hey, East Carolina and UCF and Memphis wouldn't be bad conference partners."
In an April 19 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, columnist Eric Crawford included a quote from Louisville AD Tom Jurich that we might do well to keep in mind: "The thing we have to do is we have to be resilient."
That might be all we have left.