Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Signs of the 2009 Off Season #3 -- Big East Breakup

We Have All Been Here Before...
Basketball historians often credit Dave Gavitt, Providence basketball coach cum Athletic Director (followed by Big East Commissioner...and finally, Boston Celtics GM), with creating the original "basketball first" conference when, in 1979, he convinced the 7 charter members of the Big East (Boston College, Providence College, University of Connecticut, St. John's University, Syracuse University, Seton Hall University and Georgetown University) to forego their previous conference commitments and forge the Big East Conference. Those historians forget the marquee sport in the Atlantic Coast Conference was basketball, and the principal motivation for the secession of the ACC's seven charter members from the old (and prestigious) Southern Conference back in 1953 was post season play. The ACC was the original "basketball first" conference, and until formation of the BCS, the ACC appeared to weigh most decisions in light of the impact on men's basketball.

The formation of the BCS back in the 1990s has posed a constant challenge for the Big East. Historically about half of the conference members did not field a D1-A football team, and the original conference made no provisions to underwrite a BCS-level football conference. Expansion into BCS football in 1992 brought, over time, new members in three flavors -- "all sport" (Miami & Va. Tech), "all but football" (Notre Dame) and "football only" (Temple & Rutgers). The unique half-n-half makeup of the membership has, over time, disturbed third party observers and mainstream media sportswriters far more than the conference fans. Expanding the 8/9 member conference to accommodate an 8 member BCS-worthy football conference was, inevitably, lamented (NYT's George Vescy commentary is a good example) by many in college basketball circles, but accepted by others (see Kevin McNamara's 2005 background piece from the Providence Journal) as the price for keeping the basketball component together. And triggered speculation over further realignments that have grown into a cottage industry. The early mega-conference detractors (Mike DeCourcy among the earliest and loudest) authored commentaries that, at times, seemed to reflect equal parts anger and skepticism. Despite having early (negative) speculations about the conference refuted, DeCourcy has allowed skepticism over the conference's future bias his analysis of conference sports. Size and the hybred nature of the Big East has the capacity to drive some critics to distraction...not to mention fuzzy logic. Jay over at the GameJabs Blog takes the award for the most obnoxious suggestion however, as he declares the Catholic (basketball-only) contingent rename themselves the Metro Conference (capitalizing on the basketball reputation of the old Metro Conference), but, he adds, the schools should substitute the "t" in Metro with a crucifix. Wow, dude...

In the aftermath of "The Raid" in 2004, I have wondered once or twice, if the ACC's expansion was motivated as much by the desire to break up the Big East and thereby destroy their biggest basketball competitor as it was by their publicly stated desire to form a twelve team conference and reap the financial benefits of a championship football game (and a possible increase in BCS Bowl invitations). The subsequent reformation of the Big East (the addition of 5 schools from CUSA) has, ironically, only fueled speculation over the Big East's future.

The Latest Turn
If the speculation is annual, the catalyst changes. This off season Penn State's football coach, Joe Paterno, kicked off the latest round of speculation with a May 1 interview during which he restated his desire to have the Big Ten play a football championship game, a move that requires a twelfth team. Who can blame Paterno, whose Nittany Lions anchor the eastern "flank" of the Big Ten Conference, for looking eastward at the NYC media market as he named his preferred candidates (Syracuse or Pittsburgh or Rutgers)? The speculation has, despite repudiation by Big Ten Commissioner, lingers on, opening the door to a variety of realignment scenarios in recent weeks...a few involving, directly and indirectly, several Big East teams.

For the conference realignment, fantasy-league contingent, check out Matt Peloquin's massive "Conference Realignment Grid" in which he identifies (literally) at least 5 dozen different schools and realignment scenarios. Peloquin also produced a very long analysis of the conference's finances (mostly TV contracts and allocation of the post season appearance monies), with an (over?) on the recent successes of the conference's BCS members. Though he provides an interesting if flawed analysis of the state of the conference (one way to "save" the Big East is to expand it to 18 teams?! Really?), he does provide two important dates for the Big East fan to consider:
1. 2010 is the last year the football schools can exit without paying an exit fee. They also get to keep their accumulated shares of the basketball post season revenues.
2. 2013 is the year the ESPN's TV contract is up. Peloquin suggests the football schools alone could command a combined contract that would substantially increase the revenues to their programs.

Final (for now) Thoughts...
This was a very successful season for Big East basketball. The Garden sold out for 5 consecutive nights, with fans provided outstanding basketball games at least three times a week from January to early April (I'm counting the post season here). Despite post Raid concerns the football has prospered and the basketball has blossomed. The conference has sent 13 of it's 16 members to at least one post season basketball tournament. The ACC, expanded to accommodate their "football first" members, has yet to reap the supposed benefits of their expansion. Their 2nd place basketball team (and winner of their post season tournament) was blown off the court by the Big East's fourth place team. The all-Big East Regional Final produced one of the three best NCAA games in this decade. As long as the Big East members value community and quality of competition, "The Split Issue" is a non-issue.


Matt Peloquin said...

I liked this piece. It's always good to get insight coming from a party that is aligned with the basketball schools, since the most vocal these days, in all conferences, seem to be the "football" schools.

We'll be sure to add your blog to the Blog Directory, which will be an extension of the NCAA Message Board Directory (available at where we have listings for all the individual school forums.

Matt Peloquin said...

I'd also like to invite you to our forums, where those interested in the business side of college sports & conference realignment discuss the recent happenings that could change the landscape. Rest assure, the more out-of-the-box ideas are limited to the "Dream Conferences" thread ;).

Thanks again, great read, i enjoyed it!

- Matt

greyCat said...

Thanks for the note Mat, I appreciate the feedback.

Since it's inception the Big East has confronted (and refuted) the skeptics. Appreciation for the game of basketball as it has been played in the Northeast (and since 2004, the upper Midwest) motivated Dave Gavitt to work hard to form the conference. I suspect that the conference has resisted organizing into divisions specifically to discourage "football" and "basketball" cliques. A brief experiment in the mid 1990s was abandoned after 1 or 2 seasons.

I confess I was stunned when I encountered your realignment grid. I did not give you sufficient credit for your attention to detail and persistence in mapping out each scenario. I will definitely check out the message boards.

Thanks again for the nod.