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Hurricanes blow over nervous landscape

[ Originally posted 07.01.03 ]

• Friendly merger of leagues makes sense
• Survival in question for hybrid conferences
• Miami Makes the Leap — Now What?
• Hurricanes rage over nervous landscape
ACC, Big East on edge about Miami
• Leagues caught in eye of the Hurricanes
• Media rises to task in ACC-Big East feud

• VPI in; Miami ponders; ECU sees opening
• ECU chancellor keen on developments
• Miami calls timeout to huddle with Big East
BE plans "up front" and "proper" expansion
• ACC door cracked open for ECU...?
• Mountain West preparing to pounce
Chalk one up for the non-BCS schools
• Big East-ACC peace plan in the works?
• ECU poised to ride out ACC-Big East storm
ACC deliberations at crossroads
Big Top needed for this circus
Where are you, Governor Easley..?

By Danny Whitford

When Miami changed seats, passengers on the college football bus tightened their seatbelts and held on. Monday's announcement by the Hurricanes that they will squeeze their considerable hulk into a different space produced an immediate sequence of new realities:

— The Atlantic Coast Conference arrived at an expansion destination far short of the one it had mapped out.

— The Big East was left fretfully gripping its remaining bus tokens.

— The boss of the NCAA didn't like the bumpy ride and demanded it not be repeated.

— A number of schools started fine-tuning their engines and polishing their resumes in preparation for an impending ride on the bumper cars.

Rejecting concerted overtures from Big East officials to remain in their league, University of Miami president Donna Shalala said the school will take up residence in the ACC after one more season in its old home.

The Hurricanes will bolt the Big East with Virginia Tech after several weeks of controversy and a steady drumbeat of media criticism over what many commentators have characterized as a brazen grab by the ACC for money and power, without regard for potential consequences to other conferences.

NCAA president Myles Brand, who has insisted he lacks the authority to intervene when one conference raids another, was nonetheless critical of the ACC's tactics.

"I am disappointed the issue has been as disagreeable as it has been," Brand said in a statement. "The integrity of intercollegiate athletics demands that we handle conference alignments and related matters in the future in a better way."

The new ACC configuration leaves it lacking the ubiquitous northeastern market presence it hoped to secure with its original plan, which figured on Boston College and Syracuse — instead of the Hokies — leaping to the league with Miami.

The snubbed conference keeps key assets — including BC and the Orangemen — but is left with only six football-playing schools and faces the dual tasks of convincing holdovers to refrain from jumping to other leagues while recruiting at least two new members to replace the Hurricanes and Hokies.

Adding members is not a luxury, but a necessity, in the view of the chief executive of a prominent Big East school which has recently experienced a resurgence of its storied football program — a program which now sees its future threatened.

"By the year 2005, our conference has to be larger," West Virginia president David Hardesty said, according to The Associated Press.

In the pre-Bowl Championship Series era, the Mountaineers challenged for the mythical national championship as recently as 1988, compiling a perfect regular season record before losing to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

Conference USA members Louisville, East Carolina and South Florida are among roughly half a dozen all-sports schools likely to be considered by the Big East for membership. Geography indicates that other programs which might be in the mix might include include Army of C-USA, independent Navy and MAC football member Central Florida.

If ECU, a longtime football independent until until three years ago, decides it is willing to seriously consider moving to a new league — which is by no means a certainty — the school's attractiveness to the Big East is enhanced by history. The Pirates have had longstanding scheduling relationships with Big East stalwarts Syracuse and West Virginia as well as with departing programs Miami and Virginia Tech. The games have been marked by demonstrated interest from fans and from cable television giant ESPN.

On the other hand, the dynamics of conference realignment could change dramatically if reported consultations between C-USA and Big East officials spawn a cooperative effort to devise a reciprocal realignment of the leagues tailored to meet the divergent interests of their collective members.

At the conclusion of C-USA's annual summit of its schools' presidents last month, conference commissioner Britton Banowsky noted the league was "actively monitoring the circumstances involving the ACC and Big East" and hinted that collaboration with the Big East was possible.

“As we concluded our meetings, we emerged with a commitment to address these issues in an orderly and thoughtful manner and in cooperation with the Big East and other affected conferences," he said. "It is important to remember that we are institutions of higher learning, not professional sports franchises, and we are rightfully held to a higher standard in our dealings with others.”

Both the Big East and C-USA anticipate continued prosperity in basketball under the NCAA's open playoff format to determine a national champion. But many of the leagues' schools do not sponsor Division I-A football and have no stake in implementing structural changes to foster the football aspirations of those members which wish to be positioned for reasonable access to the BCS cartel or any successor arrangement designed to crown a national gridiron champion.

ACC presidents had originally targeted the trio of Miami, Boston College and Syracuse as candidates to fulfill a plan to expand the conference to 12 members.

However, unless an additional school is lured into the conference, the ACC will field only 11 members when the Hurricanes and Hokies formally begin competition in 2004-05. The odd number of schools will complicate intra-conference scheduling and will almost certainly spell the end of the ACC's cozy round-robin scheduling arrangement.

Despite introducing the new scheduling complexities, which league officials had originally portrayed as a sacrifice they were willing to make in order to achieve greater influence and more lucrative financial rewards, the pending ACC configuration fails to satisfy the NCAA's minimum standards for conducting a football championship game.

The NCAA mandates that a conference must field at least 12 football-playing programs — divided into two divisions of six teams or more — in order to stage a title game. The promise of such a game and the financial windfall it could be expected to earn from television interests was one of the ACC's primary selling points to Miami when it began formally courting the school.

Two of the ACC's linchpin schools, North Carolina and Duke, were opposed when the conference's Council of Presidents — apparently impulsively — abandoned all expansion scenarios it had previously deliberated and voted 7-2 to issue invitations to Miami and Virginia Tech.

Among the biggest and potentially most contentious internal issues the ACC will have to confront will be the dividing up of prized tickets to the league's annual basketball tournament. The tickets are considered prime perks for major financial boosters at each school.

Because of the resulting smaller ticket allotment to each institution, the ACC would be forced to abandon most of the traditional venues which have hosted the tournament for more expansive domed stadiums. Otherwise, key supporters face the likelihood of being expunged from the ticket lists.

Miami accepted the invitation to join the ACC after intense last-minute lobbying by Boston College and Syracuse and belated financial inducements from Big East officials to entice the Hurricanes to stay put.

Jeffrey Mishkin, the lead attorney in a lawsuit filed by Big East schools and other interests to try to stop the ACC's raid and to seek monetary damages for what is alleged to be a conspiracy to enhance the ACC at the Big East's expense, indicated the legal action will proceed.

Regardless of the outcome of the courtroom maneuvers, other conferences are likely to be affected by the fallout of what many see as the beginning of a potentially massive realignment of schools and their league affiliations.

As for what lies ahead for the Big East, Commissioner Mike Tranghese indicated in a statement the league will not rush to decide its next moves.

"At some point in the future, our chief executive officers and athletic directors will come together to discuss our future," said Tranghese. "It is my hope that we deliberately embark on this very complex task with patience, sensitivity and thoughtfulness."

Of necessity, one of the Big East's first priorities will be to decide if the unwieldy conglomeration of its membership base — which, without Miami and Virginia Tech, will be sharply divided between the  football-playing and non-football-playing schools — dictates a fundamental change in the league's objectives and a working relationship of sorts with Conference USA.

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

02/23/2007 10:36:47 AM

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