Big East: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

The Big East has become Sid’s house from Toy Story. Sure, there are some great football teams left and yes, a few elite basketball programs remain. But when you stick them all together in one conference, it looks like a nightmare

There’s good news, Big East fans. Your redemption draweth nigh. After years of being poached and then growing back with inferior limbs, a simple split can solve your identity crisis.

News out of the conference commissioners’ summit last week means that a simple solution is nearer than you think.

It’s ain’t no lie, AQs are bye, bye, bye

The shred of dignity the Big East had left hinged on its status as an automatic qualifying conference for football. That is now gone, and the basketball schools—long-rumored to be dissatisfied with the direction that football was taking the conference—don’t need the weakening finances of the football schools.

Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Marquette, DePaul, and Notre Dame are self-sufficient as a solid basketball conference from day one. Call them the Eastern 8—easy to manage as basketball-dominate league, culturally similar, geographically near.

Notre Dame, however, is far more high-profile of a school than the rest (not just in football but the other Olympic sports as well) and might not want to stick with the other seven. They could find a home in the Big 12 for their non-football sports while remaining independent in football, or—gasp!—they could join a conference like the Big Ten and ACC for all-sports.

In that case, UMass would be an easy replacement for Notre Dame. They fit in very nicely with the other schools culturally and would slightly enlarge the “Eastern 8’s” TV market in the New England region.

The cupboard isn’t bare

Without the basketball members, what would the new Big East look like? Maybe we should start off with what it WON’T look like.

UConn, Rutgers, and Louisville are all likely candidates for expansion by the ACC, Big Ten, or Big 12. The three schools have strong academic programs, rich histories in basketball (except for Rutgers), and solid football traditions. They might stay in the new Big East for a year or two, but it’s likely that they’d be gone sooner than later. By the time they exit, however, Navy would be a league member (scheduled for 2015).

That would leave a whopping two members of the current Big East on the rolls—Cincinnati and USF. Temple (so glad to be re-admitted from its exile) is slated to return to a much different conference than it left, but even with the Owls, that’s still just four teams (including Navy).

Six new teams have been annexed over the past year: two from Texas (SMU and Houston), two from the West (Boise State and SDSU), and two from the South (Memphis and UCF). That’s a very solid football conference, superior to all but the major five conferences. And that gives the league ten teams going forward.

Stability at Last

Without any members that could entice one of the five major conferences for futher expansion (sorry Cincinnati fans, I know that hurts), the ten football-playing Big East schools could actually negotiate a decent TV deal and have some stability going forward. At that point, adding two more teams of sufficient value wouldn’t be too hard.

Air Force and BYU could still be on the table. If you add Air Force and already have Navy, why not snag Army? I’m sure I’m missing others, but you can clearly see that a road back to 12 teams and a conference championship game isn’t preposterous by any means.

The Big East power-brokers have no one to blame but themselves for all of this. With such rich basketball traditions among their members, they never could operate like an elite football conference. If they had known in the eighties the behemoth that college football would become, they surely would have made different administrative decisions.

Joe Paterno saw it coming. He wanted to create a football conference in the northeast. But the basketball powerhouses like Villanova and Georgetown (picture Ed Pinckney and Patrick Ewing in those tight shorts) didn’t want a basketball lightweight like PSU around. So they passed. They made a run at football (Pittsburgh, then Miami, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech) but all those additions are gone now (to the stronger football of the ACC), as are founding members Boston College and Syracuse.

But that’s in the past. The future could be bright for the Eastern 8 basketball schools and the 12 Big East football schools. Bright and stable–something they haven’t been able to envision much the past decade.

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