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Pirate Notebook No. 488
Monday, April 2, 2012

Denny O'Brien

ECU still in opportune position

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Some might view the looming merger between Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference a disappointment for East Carolina. Truthfully, most do.

Since the mid-1990s, the Piratesí athletics mission has included the goal of Big East inclusion, only to be shunned each time the league sought to refill its depleted membership.

The draw of Big East membership for East Carolina has been driven by the desire for attachment to programs with more regional and competitive appeal. It goes without mentioning that access to BCS automatic qualifier status has magnified the lure.

Location hasnít been in ECUís favor so far. But that ultimately could manifest itself into an unforeseen blessing for the Pirates.

Hereís why:

  • There is no guarantee that Boise State, Navy, or San Diego State will ever play a down of Big East football. There already are rumblings that they wonít.

  • When the Big 12 decides to increase its membership again, Cincinnati and Louisville are first in line to join.

  • Notre Dame eventually will decide to shed its football independence. When it does, the Atlantic Coast Conference is the most likely home, and either Rutgers or UConn will follow the Irish.

  • Several of the programs the Big East recently added offer little to its football stability. Memphis is a perpetual bottom feeder, while Southern Methodist and Temple are unlikely to maintain their recent success. Bottom line, that trio offers little to compensate for the programs the Big East is certain to lose.

  • Should AQ status remain a part of the BCS equation ó which is looking less likely to be the case ó the Big East will be hard pressed to retain an automatic bid.

With another Big East implosion imminent, another opportunity remains for an invitation to East Carolina. Thatís assuming the Pirates would be interested in joining a league with that degree of volatility.

Of course, ECU would have to seriously consider a bid should one be extended. But acceptance is far from a given, especially considering the flexibility and potential that could be offered through the merger of C-USA and the Mountain West.

With C-USA and the MWC aligning, there is more opportunity for regionalizing schools in divisions. That would alleviate some of the travel issues and, potentially, offer opportunities for expansion down the road.

If the latter occurs ó and league administrators should always be on the lookout for new possibilities ó there is no shortage of regional up-and-comers with which East Carolina could align. And while two weeks ago I offered reasoning for not associating with certain schools, I would be remiss without exploring the potential benefits.

Appalachian State, Charlotte, Georgia State, James Madison, and Old Dominion all could make for suitable divisional partners with East Carolina. And when those schools decide to move their football operation to the FBS ranks, the new merger should consider their inclusion.

For East Carolina, that would provide more natural rivalries with like-minded public institutions. Each offers more football potential than several of the schools the Big East added, and has the administrative commitment, facilities, fans, and financial support for long-term success.

It also could provide casual fans and student-athletes with an alternative to the ACC, while providing East Carolina with more inroads to strategic recruiting hotbeds.

Should a few of those nearby neighbors eventually get added to the new yet-to-be-named league, it could set the stage for a possible secession and the formation of a mid-Atlantic conference comprised of schools with parallel missions. Outside of the time it spent in the Southern Conference, East Carolina hasnít experienced that type of league dynamic.

Naturally some will argue that ECU is in no position to assist with the athletics advancement of nearby institutions. That argument is grounded in the mindset that doing so could help those schools leapfrog East Carolina down the road.

But at this stage, East Carolina canít be thinking in those hypothetical terms. It needs a bigger-picture approach and a willingness to explore all possible opportunities.

Exclusion from the latest round of Big East expansion did little to diminish those. If anything, it could open more doors in the future.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

PAGE UPDATED 04/01/12 12:01 PM.

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