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Pirate Notebook No. 468
Monday, August 15, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Pirates face uncertain future

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

If there is merit to the rumblings about a major restructuring of Football Bowl Subdivision conferences — and it sounds like there is — Terry Holland has to be anxious.

The potential for a massive makeover among college football’s power brokers could again leave East Carolina on the outside looking in. Especially if the aftermath of any conference shakeup leads to three or four 16-team football conferences, a scenario that might not bode well for East Carolina.

ESPN’s report this weekend that Texas A&M, Florida State, Clemson, and Missouri are potential future targets for the Southeastern Conference is the first sign that the NCAA Apocalypse is upon us. If true, it will set off a tsunami of activity that will permanently alter the landscape of college athletics as we know it.

Conferences will pillage other conferences. Schools will bolt good situations for better ones. And league commissioners will try to one-up one another by securing more space on the television dial while commanding paychecks that could put a serious dent in the national debt.

Historic rivalries will be fractured. Road trips will be longer. Any sense of regionalism will likely be lost as conferences seek to expand their brand.

It’s what could have occurred last year had Texas decided to bolt the Big 12. Instead it is occurring as part of the aftermath of the Longhorns’ decision last year to stay put and secure their own lucrative network, which has prompted A&M to seriously consider a future move should an opportunity become available.

That opportunity won’t come today, as many originally reported over the weekend, but it could very well occur in the near future. If it does, others are certain to follow, setting off a mad scramble as other leagues desperately seek to keep pace with the SEC.

The question for East Carolina is where it could potentially land when the dominos fall.

You’ll find no shortage of scenarios floating around, ranging from a slot in the rebuilt Atlantic Coast Conference to a new configuration of Conference USA standouts and Big East and Big 12 football orphans. If either were to occur, it would no doubt be a competitive upgrade from the Pirates’ current scenario.

But there’s also no denying that the Pirates could get burned again. Considering how ECU was overlooked on three previous occasions when the Big East expanded, you can certainly understand why Holland might have some anxiety over the potential fallout of the looming upheaval.

I know I would.

And it has nothing to do with how the Pirates have or haven’t improved their profile since the last major restructuring. Because it is clear ECU is much better positioned for a jump to a more high-profile conference than it was the last time around.

Competitively the Pirates are a more appealing outfit than when the Big East overlooked them and instead poached Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida from C-USA. With five consecutive bowl appearances and league championships in 2008 and 2009, ECU is widely considered among the five most competitive programs outside of the BCS-AQ leagues.

The Pirates also present an attractive non-conference scheduling philosophy that would generate appeal to any league’s television package. There also have been major upgrades to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — heck to all of ECU’s athletics campus — that would provide a more-than-sufficient gameday setting for any major conference.

As for attendance, East Carolina outdrew two-thirds of the new-look Big East and half of the ACC last season. Only Brigham Young outdrew ECU from the non-AQ ranks.

And while ECU’s television market might be perceived as a concern, consider what should ultimately matter when it comes to the tube: the Pirates are pretty big draw, and even drew higher ratings in major in-state markets than rival N.C. State for televised games against BCS-AQ opponents over the past two years.

(ECU drew a 7.4 rating in Raleigh-Durham during 2009 and 2010, while N.C. State posted a 6.6; the Pirates had a 5.4 rating in Charlotte, versus 4.0 for the Pack. Source: ECU)

Rest assured, Holland has pitched those and many other factors to administrators from other leagues. So, he’s more than done his job in preparing the Pirates for a potential next step.

But at this stage there isn’t much left for Holland to do other than to wait and see how the first dominos fall and strategically plan for a response. The Pirates’ next conference home depends as much now on the final destination of other schools as it does on their own résumé.

So much uncertainty would make anyone uneasy.

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08/15/2011 03:04 AM

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