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yoco :: College Basketball
(a sports weblog) news and commentary on men's college basketball and the ncaa tournament

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Big East 2005, How Did I Get Here (Part 2)

How did it come to this? The Big East will become a 16 team lumbering behemoth in basketball next year, and a 8 team weakling in football. Both seem ill-fitting. How did it get here? Where is it going? Arguably, the seeds for the present situation were sewn in the first 5 years of the Big East's existence. This is, disturbingly enough, Part 2 of something I've been thinking about for a while. Part 1 is here. It covers the time period of 1992 to now and the future.

Football and its money transcends all.

1992 saw the creation of the Bowl Coalition. The goal was to try and set things up for a true national champion without disrupting the bowl system (or conference alliances with particular bowls). The Bowl Coalition lasted 2 more seasons. It was scrapped after the 1994 season.

It was replaced by the Bowl Alliance, where 4 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big East and the Big 12 [technically, in '95 it was still the Big 8 and Southwest]), match-up the consensus #1 and #2 teams in a bowl game. The hitch was that the Big 11 and PAC-10 refused to join, preferring to stay with the Rose Bowl. The Bowl Alliance, like its forerunner, lasted 3 seasons.

This led to the formation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. This time all 6 conferences -- ACC, Big East, Big 11, Big 12, PAC-10 and SEC -- agreed to participate.

As for basketball, the impact of expansion for football began to be felt. For the 1995-96 season, the Big East basketball league went from 10 to 13 teams as Notre Dame, Rutgers and WVU became full members. The quality of the Big East had been suffering from the expansion. Too many teams near the bottom. Pitt, Rutgers, WVU, Miami and even ND at first were all not very good teams. You were also seeing the b-ball only schools start to drop in quality. The early to mid '90s was not a great time to watch the Big East.

The league was split into the BE 7 and BE 6 divisions in 1995. There was no logical split for the divisions. Providence and Miami were in the same division, but Pitt and WVU were not. That split was scrapped after the 1996-97 season.

Unfortunately, the divisional format was restored upon Virginia Tech's full admission into the Big East in 2000. They were not the same divisions as before, but they were still despised. The division format hurt the conference as a whole for getting teams into the NCAA Tournament. One division, invariably would be stronger than the other, and you would have them beating each other up. Less teams in the NCAA Tournament, less money for the Big East. They were scrapped after the 2002-03 season.

The Big East was still a big name in basketball, but the football money was just dwarfing everything. The BCS, for all of its faults, did what it really was supposed to do: generate lots and lots of cash for the participating conferences and schools. The #1 vs. #2 was incidental. That's what the public reason was, but really it was and is about the cash for the programs and departments. (Why else would you see such politicking and complaining by Cal and the PAC 10 about Texas getting the other at-large bid? It's not like it would affect the national championship. Follow the money.)

The money had gotten immense. So much so, that the ACC -- the conference everyone looks to when talking about all that is great about college basketball -- decided that it needed to get a bigger share of the pie. In the history of the BCS and Bowl Alliance, only 2 conferences failed to place an at-large team in one of the extra slots: the ACC and the Big East.

The ACC was looking at low TV ratings for its televised football games and reduced revenue on its next TV contract. Additionally, NCAA rules prohibit Conference Championship games without at least 12 members. The ACC, at only 9 members made a business decision. It needed to go to a 12 team football-first conference.

Miami and two other members of the Big East football conference were the logical choices. Really, they were the only choices. The other major conferences were very stable and quite lucrative in their revenue. The Big East football, though was even smaller than the ACC. Miami, of course was the linchpin. Miami had a traditional rivalry game with FSU, an ACC member, and was a geographical fit.

So the ACC, quietly, began sniffing around Miami. Trying to gauge their interest. Miami had interest, and quiet discussions ensued. Eventually, though, these things do not stay quiet. Too many people, too many institutions involved. By April 2003, the Big East Commissioner, Mike Tranghese, made it public what the ACC was up to. Unfortunately, that was about all he accomplished.

Tranghese merely put it out in the public. He and the rest of the Big East did not act decisively. They ditheredand made proclamations. I admit, as alum and concerned first, and foremost about Pitt, this can be seen as biased to the football/basketball programs. The plain fact, though, is that there had been a split coming between football/basketball athletic programs and the basketball only programs in the Big East. Even at 14 teams in the BE there were problems and grumblings on the basketball side about the schedule, about how football was too important, how the basketball tournament kept 2 schools at home every year, and that the basketball schools were having their interests ignored.

I was blogging about this for some time when it was going down.

For those unfamiliar with everything here's the condensed Reader's Digest version from after it became public that the ACC was looking to raid the Big East:

This boxed in the football-playing BE teams. They needed Tranghese and his personal ties to other BCS conference commissioners to help keep them in the BCS with an automatic bid. The other conferences could boot the BE easily enough if they hadn't dealt with the commissioner, but not if he was one of them. A guy who helped defend their little system.

Tranghese was making one last play to protect his school (Providence) and the basketball only programs. The basketball schools had been in a down period, as the balance of basketball power had clearly shifted away from the likes of Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova and Georgetown in the Big East. The power was with UConn, Syracuse, Pitt and even BC. At best, the basketball only schools didn't look much stronger than the Atlantic 10. The basketball schools needed to keep their association with the stronger members of the Big East.

So the only way to keep Tranghese and his connections was to remain in the BE with basketball only schools. At least for the short term. The b-ball schools weren't going to let themselves be put in an overwhelming minority position, since it was clear that sooner or later the BE football teams would split off. That is why, rather than look to replace Miami, VT and BC with Louisville, Cinci and USF; you had the Big East add 2 basketball only schools as well.

Next year, the Big East will begin playing its 16-team megaconference schedule. The Big East Tournament will still be limited to only 12 teams, so the bottom 4 do not even make it to Madison Square Garden. The system is built for pissing off the member schools.

To repeat, the whole point is to give both sides time to build up their strength, and prepare for another raid. The basketball only schools are not in the best shape. They need the new infusion of Marquette and DePaul (ND will be in this side of the sheet, since they are a football indy).

The dominance of basketball right now in the BE is on the side of the schools that also play football -- Syracuse, Pitt, UConn, and add in Louisville and Cinci.

By the end of the 2009-10 season, at the latest, the BE will officially split. You can expect the football schools to make one more run at ND (and fail) then expand to 12 with possibly Memphis, Marshall, East Carolina and/or Central Florida.

Likewise on the basketball side, you can expect them to try and keep ND and pick and choose over UMass, Temple, St. Joe's, St. Louis, Xavier and/or Charlotte.

The real battle will be over the rights to the name "Big East."

For the football schools, there is one other wrinkle that concerns their future. Expansion by another conference. The most obvious is the Big 11. They can maintain that they have no interest in expansion at this time. That they don't want a conference championship game. But sooner or later they will look for that 12th member.

Obviously they will take one more run at getting Notre Dame to join. Who knows? Perhaps by that point, Domer pride will have been hit long and hard enough that they will finally give up that cherished independence and join a conference. But I doubt it.

That would leave Pitt or Syracuse as their other choices. These are the only 2 schools in the Big East that would meet the athletic and educational standards required in the Big 11. Only Pitt and Syracuse are members of the Association of American Universities -- like all members of the Big 11 (Rutgers is also a member, but they offer nothing in athletics or tradition other than playing that first football game). Quite honestly, if either school received an offer, it would have to be taken. Conference stability alone would necessitate it. To say nothing about getting into a conference that is assured of always being involved in whatever college football post season format there is. The money would drive that decision. As it drives almost all decisions in big time college sports.