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Conference Realignment Archives

Alliance engages Big East in chess match

From staff and electronic reports
All rights reserved.

The next chapter in the realignment saga began to unfold Friday as the Big East Conference sought to address turbulence in its depleted ranks by putting in 9-1-1 calls to Air Force and Boise State of the Mountain West Conference and Central Florida of Conference USA — a move that was countered hours later by the consummation of a long-discussed football marriage between the MWC and C-USA.

Multiple sports news organizations, citing anonymous sources, reported that the Big East will extend formal invitations to the schools next week. But the evolving dynamics in the wake of the materialization of the Mountain West-Conference USA venture make it less than a certainty that the schools will accept the bids.

As the drama plays out, the stakes for the Big East will be high and the consequences of rejection are potentially dire. The announced future departures of conference linchpins Pittsburgh and Syracuse for the Atlantic Coast Conference and the course reversal of Texas Christian from the Big East to the more geographically-compatible Big 12 have pared the league's football-playing roll to six, calling into question the viability of the Big East's credentials for the long-term continuation of its BCS automatic qualifier status.

Navy, which at one time was in serious discussions with the Big East about joining the league, put the brakes on the process in the wake of the defections of Pitt and Syracuse. The urgency of the Big East's dilemma is magnified by the reluctance of several of its remaining football members to unconditionally commit to staying with the conference for the long haul.

West Virginia, Louisville, Connecticut and Rutgers have been linked to potential openings in more stable conferences such as the ACC, the Big 12 and the SEC. Cincinnati and South Florida, the league's other two football members, would also likely welcome with open arms any overtures from more secure AQ conferences.

The Big East's internal divisions further complicate the league's efforts to convince Air Force, Boise State, Central Florida and other potential target schools to abandon their current situations for an unsettled conference with a tenuous grasp on AQ status.

The Hartford Courant identified Army, East Carolina, Houston, Southern Methodist and Temple as other candidates the Big East has discussed as it plots an expansion effort aimed at constructing a 12-member lineup of football-playing schools. Other publications reported that Big East officials have already decided to approach Houston and SMU about joining.

Friday night's joint announcement by C-USA and the MWC that they would combine their football assets into a mega-conference and stage a championship game changes the dynamics that member schools courted by the Big East will have to take into account as they ponder where their security and BCS bowl aspirations will be better served in the future.

"The role of a conference is to provide its members with the best possible environment in which to conduct their intercollegiate athletics programs," Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said during Friday night's teleconference announcing the alliance. "Rather than await changes in membership due to realignment, it became clear the best way to serve our institutions was to pursue an original concept.

"The Mountain West and C-USA share a number of similarities, and the creative merger of our football assets firmly positions our respective members for the future."

Among the objectives of the merger between the 10-team MWC and the 12-team C-USA is to elevate the credibility of the mutual champion that would be produced each season with an eye towards eventually securing an annual slot in one of the lucrative BCS bowls. The selection criteria for BCS bowl bids are subject to change after the 2013 season.

The opportunity for enhanced television partnerships is also a factor. The 22 members of the combined leagues are located in 16 different states and span five time zones from North Carolina to Hawaii, offering a 16-hour window for TV broadcasts.

Conference USA currently has television partnerships with Fox Sports and CBS Sports for regular season games and with ESPN for its championship game. The Mountain West has partnerships with CBS Sports and Comcast/NBC Universal.

"The potential of this association is very exciting," Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said. "By taking an innovative approach, we feel we can offer tremendous opportunities for exposure and stability without breaking up the regional rivalries that truly make up the college football tradition."

East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland praised the agreement for the positives it offers to the schools' players and supporters.

"Cooperative actions like this can help restore a proper focus on student-athlete welfare and will reward fans by creating regional rivalries."

The two conferences had been considering various forms of collaboration that would lead to the crowning of a mutual annual champion for more than a year and have stated their openness to the addition of more members.

PAGE UPDATED 10/15/11 10:26 AM.

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