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Monday, January 14, 2013

By Danny Whitford
Publisher & Editor

Last stand for Big East

League must unify around a clear vision

By Danny Whitford
All Rights Reserved.

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After a decade of turmoil during which it was consumed as much by internal tensions as by the outside forces that were tearing it apart, the Big East Conference is down to its last, best chance. Now that the league's seven non-football schools have decided to bolt and its clumsy East Coast/West Coast ploy has begun to unravel, will the Big East finally be able to coalesce around a common purpose for the future?

The answer comes down to the makeup of the future membership roster. Success will be achievable if the conference reconstitutes itself in a geographically logical fashion with like-minded schools having football at the core of their athletic engines. Attractive television markets must be part of the equation.

So far, the jury is still out on whether that is the course the league will pursue. During its most recent tumult, the Big East's unwieldy gestures at defining its new brand left plenty of room for doubt about whether it has arrived at a solid plan for, first, achieving real stability, and, second, positioning itself for prosperity.

The so-called Catholic Seven were part and parcel with the all-sports schools in the convoluted western expansion strategy that envisioned the perpetuation of a discredited conference structure handicapped by divergent interests and wracked by intrigue and mutual suspicion.

It should be apparent to those with open eyes that the awkward pursuit of football-only associations with a few Mountain West schools was little more than a desperate Hail Mary to try to sustain the unsustainable. It was a reflexive attempt to prop up the same philosophy that long kept the Big East frozen in a virtually defenseless posture as raiders ransacked it.

Fortunately, all is not lost — yet.

The C-7's decision to go their own way and Boise State's annulment of its unnatural marriage to the league will mark a watershed moment in either the Big East's resurgence or its demise. The developments offer league leaders the chance to reboot their business model with new vision unclouded by the conflicting aims of non-football schools.

In order to put in perspective the Big East's options going forward, let's review the events as they unfolded since November:

  • After wave upon wave of defections and additions reshaped the league in recent years, a tipping point is reached when Rutgers and Louisville are annexed by the Big Ten and ACC. During and after this painful process, as had been the case since the football-driven conference realignment wars erupted in 2003, the Big East's football and non-football members continue to be motivated by distinctly different dynamics. The result is a failure to achieve a genuine consensus on specific actions going forward.

  • The conference once again looks to Conference USA for reinforcements, summoning East Carolina for football and Tulane for all sports. ECU and Tulane are the eighth and ninth members to vacate C-USA for the Big East in the last decade.

  • Alarmed at the pending dilution of the league's basketball power rating by the Green Wave's inclusion in the formula, the C-7 resolve to break up the Big East as we knew it by striking out in a mass exodus to form a league of their own.

  • The Big East's TV contract negotiations are sidetracked as Commissioner Mike Aresco and network executives are no longer able to quantify the product that will be at the core of a broadcast deal.

  • Aresco notes that discussions with the C-7 about the terms of their spinoff and the division of the league's assets are proceeding amicably. Only time will tell if that characterization holds true when the rubber hits the road on each party's bottom line expectations.

  • In a signal that a reformulation of the league's strategy may be underway, Aresco indicates that East Carolina's football-only membership invitation will likely be expanded to include all sports. The message seems to be that the conference aims to have a core of all-sports schools located east of the Rocky Mountains.

  • Western football import Boise State backs away from the Big East. As part of its agreement to return to the Mountain West Conference, the Broncos extract a pledge from the MWC to allow San Diego State to tag along if the Aztecs decide to call off their entry into the Big East.

  • Aresco suggests that the chaos may be winding down and that some clarity is returning.

  • If, as expected, San Diego State casts its lot with the Broncos, the Big East's grand western strategy will be effectively neutered. Contrary to popular perceptions, that is not a negative development for the Big East — more on that later.

  • Aresco and leaders from current and future Big East members meet last week in Dallas to plot strategies. Information filtering back from the meeting indicates that the league is no longer dead-set on western expansion.

  • League leaders realize they have reached a crossroads. They insist they are confident and unified going forward. The question is, which avenue at the crossroad will they choose to follow?

With uncertainty taxing the resolve of its present and future members and the clock ticking on scheduling issues and TV alliances, Aresco and school presidents and ADs realize the urgency of achieving harmony on the Big East's precise definition of itself and on the steps it will take to shore up its position.

One realistic option that would hedge against potential future defections, calm the nerves of its membership and enhance its TV profile is to bring on additional schools from media markets east of the Rocky Mountains.

With that in mind, unless there is some magic going on behind the scenes that is hidden from view, continuing to continuing to solicit San Diego State's loyalty in the wake of Boise State's defection would be a worrisome indicator that the Big East is still groping for a cohesive plan. Unless BYU or Air Force is realistically in play, bringing San Diego State into the fold makes little branding or economic sense for either the Big East or SDSU.

As for additional candidates, logic would seem to suggest that the Big East must endeavor to put down deep roots from Texas eastward, particularly along the East Coast. Massachusetts, Tulsa, Old Dominion and Charlotte, perhaps even Marshall and Southern Miss, are examples of the kinds of candidates that would help fortify the league's stability and offer promise for the future. Each of those schools brings either a desirable TV market or a meaningful reservoir of football credibility.

The relative newbie status in terms of gridiron culture of UMass, ODU and Charlotte should not be a factor in evaluating  their potential worth to the league. After all, Boise State, Connecticut, Central Florida and South Florida emerged from the Division I-AA ranks in the fairly recent past.

A common sense objective would be to establish a 14-to-16-team all sports/16-to-18-team football conference of two divisions that would be able to withstand the eventual loss to further realignment of several members without losing its sense of well-being. Such a composition would enhance the security of all members and answer questions about the league's viability.

The concern then arises that such a large collection of schools would dilute each slice of the financial pie. In reality, the reduction in shares doesn't have to be prohibitive if the new markets are selected carefully. Most importantly, any modest decrease in each school's take will be more than offset by security in an unsecure world and by the potential for ever-increasing long-term returns as the league's brand matures.

The mix of schools would likely produce a football breakout season by one or two teams on a fairly regular basis, and the league's potential bowl alignments would be quite attractive. As for hoops, Memphis and Temple will always be prominent teams and Charlotte, Tulsa and UMass have pedigree. If Cincinnati and UConn stay in the conference, all the better.

Based on present commitments, the league's chess pieces include the following 12 schools: UCF, Cincinnati, Connecticut, ECU, Houston, Memphis, Navy, San Diego State, USF, SMU, Temple and Tulane.

SDSU will probably accompany Boise State back to the MWC unless that league's reentry terms get in the way. ECU and Navy are currently on track to be football-only members, though the Pirates appear destined to join in all sports.

That leaves 11 pieces on Aresco's chessboard, only a handful short of the assemblage needed to establish one of the aforementioned setups. The first candidates to examine should be Charlotte, ODU, Tulsa, UMass, Marshall and Southern Miss.

Considering that the league's projected competitive posture on the gridiron now seems to be more in line with Army's scheduling philosophy than was previously the case, the timing might also be appropriate to escalate overtures to the Black Knights to accompany Navy into the conference as a football associate.

Other potential candidates that fit into the footprint and could blossom in such a league include Buffalo, Delaware and Georgia State. More examples are in the wings waiting to be recognized and cultivated into gems.

Meanwhile, fans are hoping that the Big East's next move will reflect the fortunate reality that — for the fist time in its existence — all of the conference's schools have football at the heart of their strategic agendas.

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01/14/2013 06:57 AM

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