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Big East's jilted 5 gang up for future staff report with wire contributions

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STORRS, Conn. — Officials from five embattled Big East schools have joined forces to create new leverage that might bolster their athletics programs' interests on two diverging fronts.

Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Connecticut say they will pursue a united effort to prevail in a tug-of-war with the Atlantic Coast Conference over a trio of Big East linchpins.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's online edition, the schools have agreed they will turn down ACC overtures to fill the void if Syracuse and Boston College peel away from the ACC's primary target — Miami — and decline to join a three-way package migration.

In various reports during the ACC's deliberations about expansion, most if not all of the shunned schools in the newly-formed informal alliance had been among a number of colleges mentioned as alternative candidates to join the encroachment-minded conference that now stretches from Tallahassee, FL, to College Park, MD.

Tech, WVU, Pitt, Rutgers and UConn would be the Big East's only remaining football-playing members if Miami, SU and BC are swayed to become a part of an expanded 12-team ACC that would span the Eastern Seaboard from New York to South Florida.

In the event the programs coveted by the ACC cannot be kept in the Big East fold, the move towards solidarity positions the group as the controlling core of a reformulated alignment of all-sports schools that would likely seek to protect the league's slot in the Bowl Championship Series by attracting other Division I-A programs of respectable stature into the conference.

Among the variables bean-counters would consider in identifying prospective members would be geography and TV markets.

With football driving the dynamics in current-day expansion formulas, a high-priority consideration for any program to be seriously courted would almost certainly be its fan base and its track record of success on the gridiron.

If such a scenario plays out, prime targets for joining the Big East holdovers would likely come from Conference USA. East Carolina, Louisville and Cincinnati are among programs ripe for targeting to get the league back to its recent level of eight football-playing members.

If a remodeled Big East opts to expand to 12 members, consisting of two divisions in order to meet the requirements for staging a football championship game, the economics of geography and travel expenses will complicate, but not necessarily derail, the formula.

Memphis (C-USA), in western Tennessee along the Mississippi river, would stretch the travel budgets of non-revenue sports and expand the physical boundaries of the conference by hundreds of miles, but the Tigers would bring a high-profile basketball program with rich tradition.

Other schools that might be considered could include Marshall (MAC), which overlaps a TV market with WVU, and South Florida (C-USA) and Central Florida (MAC), which would involve geographic disadvantages but would offer the potential to reestablish the Big East in the Florida market vacated by Miami.

Inevitably, other leagues could be caught up in a chain reaction and the specter of falling dominoes would become more than theoretical, as the long-anticipated realignment of the college football landscape accelerates.

Still, the Big East's stated preference is to maintain the status quo by keeping Miami, Syracuse and Boston College in the loop. If those schools snub the ACC, a restructuring of the conference into an association of all-sports schools would almost surely follow, resulting in the spinning off of a number of members which do not field football teams and the possible addition of as many as four new all-sports schools.

Connecticut Athletic Director Lew Perkins said Thursday he's hopeful the united front by UConn, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Rutgers is enough to persuade the three to stay put. A decision is expected by June 30, he said.

``We're willing to do whatever we can do to convince them,'' said Perkins, who recently returned from four days of Big East meetings in Florida. ``We're loyal to the Big East. This is how we grew. Sometimes you have to stand up and say those kind of things. The four other schools are prepared to say that, too.''

Perkins said the three schools sought by the ACC, regardless of their decisions, still have to participate in the Big East until 2005.

The ACC made the first formal moves last week towards extending invitations last week to the three schools. Boston College and Syracuse are waiting for Miami to make its decision first.

Miami has reportedly determined that it feels it could do better financially in the ACC, which distributed about $9 million to its nine teams last year in revenue-sharing cash. That league's officials believe they can command bigger money in their next TV negotiation with a 12-team league and a football championship game.

Perkins would not comment on specifics of the meetings but said Big East officials did discuss revenue distribution in response to the schools' financial concerns.

``We gave them ways we thought we could help,'' he said.

UConn, on track to replace Temple as a football-playing Big East member, is in its fifth year of Division I-A football and technically won't join the conference until 2005.

Should the five Big East teams end up together in a refashioned Big East, they still present a potent group. Virginia Tech and West Virginia have played for national championships.

``If Miami goes, there's nothing we can do about it,'' Perkins said. ``But who's to say we can't continue to play Miami?''

The decision to join the ACC rests with the university presidents of the three schools. Perkins said he hopes the future of women's athletics is taken into account when the officials make their decisions.

``I hope as those three schools make those decisions that it doesn't come back and haunt them because they have to make other cuts to make it work,'' he said. ``I hope it's not a setback for college athletics, Title IX in particular.''

Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

02/23/2007 10:36:30 AM

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