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Expansion Apocalypse: Dominoes Stand Back Up

In what has thus-far been one of the busiest times for conference expansion news, Tuesday night was a whirlwind of new information however.

The Big East football schools met to discuss their future at a hotel in New York City. It was a meeting that Villanova administrators hoped to be able to attend, but conference officials did not extend an invitation to the event. The purpose of the meeting was to firm up support among those schools for the future of the league. While all 6 remaining football schools and TCU were in attendance, only UConn did not have both its president and athletic director present.

Instead, UConn's president, Susan Herbst, sent an alternate school official as a representative, while she focused her efforts on lobbying for entry to the ACC. ESPN reported that UConn has not pledged to remain in the Big East and will actively pursue options elsewhere. In fact one Big East official told USA Today that, "league schools . . . did not make any pledge to remaining in the league until it's clear what the league will look like."

That report stands in conflict with the official statement read by commissioner John Marinatto after the meeting: "Our membership met this evening and we are committed as a conference to recruit top-level, BCS-caliber institutions with strong athletic and academic histories and traditions. We have been approached by a number of such institutions and remain committed to pursue all options to make the Big East Conference stronger as we have been in both basketball and football in our history."

He went on to say that the non-football members had committed unanimously on monday to the league on Monday's conference call. "[A]ll of them unanimously supported their football brethren to do whatever it is they need to do to continue the conference moving forward in the same structure it’s been."

Marinatto said that there was an interest on the part of the league in increasing buy-out amounts and providing other protections, but that they would have to work within the bylaws to do so. A vote to do so would not likely have to be unanimous.

"I don’t know if there’s a price you can put on for breaking your word and lying," Marinatto said. "That’s priceless. I don’t know high enough of a figure to charge for being disloyal or untruthful."

The football membership has not commented on the schools that they will target to add to the league, but at least two will be added before Syracuse and Pittsburgh officially withdraw, and as many as five schools could be added to the league overall.

Pac-12 and Big XII hit breaks

Earlier in the day there was rumbling that Oklahoma, was willing to remain a member of the Big XII if the league would agree to certain changes that included equal revenue-sharing and a change of commissioners. No agreement to that end was yet reached, but discussions were rumored to be heating up.

Less than an hour before Midnight on the East Coast, however, the Pac-12 conference put a dagger into the speculation that their conference would welcome four of the Big XII schools into its ranks. They released a statement to reporters, noting that their membership had decided not to expand and to remain a 12-team conference. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said:

after careful review we have determined that it is in the best interests of our member institutions, student-athletes and fans to remain a 12-team conference. While we have great respect for all of the institutions that have contacted us, and certain expansion proposals were financially attractive, we have a strong conference structure and culture of equality that we are committed to preserve. With new landmark TV agreements and plans to launch our innovative television networks, we are going to focus solely on these great assets, our strong heritage and the bright future in front of us.

Larry Scott had reportedly met with Texas officials and came away without a certain level of confidence that the addition could be done in the way the Pac-12 preferred — as a conference of equals. They also weren't convinced that a 14-school conference with the two Oklahoma schools would work.

It appears then, that the Big XII will continue to exist, but in what form? Though the Big East schools pledged to stay and rebuild, the instability caused by the recent events could still drive a school like Louisville or West Virginia toward the Big XII — a conference with a television pact that is still currently larger than what the Big East has.

Lucky 13 for SEC

An attempt to poach one or more teams from the Big East would be even more likely if the Big XII were to lose a school like Missouri to the SEC, where it was rumored that they had received an informal invitation.

The SEC will be stuck at 13 members if they add just Texas A&M next year, and will have to figure out a manageable way to schedule games in that configuration. The MAC conference has had a 13 team configuration since adding Temple, however, so a model for uneven divisions does exist. Even the MAC expanded to balance their divisions, however (adding UMass), and it seems likely that the SEC will look to add one more down the line.

Big East Expansion

Marinatto claimed that there was no consensus yet on how many football schools they would like to add or which schools they would like to invite. The discussions about merging with the Big XII were scuttled once legal and practical issues arose and now it appears that both conferences could survive anyway.

"We talked about a lot of options and various scenarios," noted the commissioner. "I can’t get into the particulars about which schools that we’re going to ultimately end up with because we don’t know quite frankly right now. But we reviewed, we considered and we had a lot of thoughtful conversation about various (schools) that were presented to all of them and were talked about with our basketball schools as well to some degree. Everyone was supportive of each option and now it’s up to us to try to move forward and develop the best possible scenario."

Before the Syracuse and Pittsburgh defections, however, the Big East conference was apparently very close to adding Navy and Air Force as football-only members. Army was not interested in the league and Navy is reportedly not fond of sharing the BCS prestige with their rival.

Since the Big East will hold the departing members to the original withdrawal terms (27 months notice and a financial penalty), the league will need to add two more football members by no-later-than June 30, 2014 to retain its status as a Division I-FBS conference with the NCAA. Those next two members will likely be Navy and Air Force, with whom the league will continue previous talks.

They will presumably add another three members on top of that to the football side of the conference, however, to reach 12 members on the football side, which is a number where it seems that other conferences have reached some level of stability.

Assuming there is no exodus of teams after this point, the conference plans to move "aggressively" on expansion. He believes the league is still attractive to many schools because of, "[o]ur automatic BCS bid, the crown jewel of all basketball tournaments right here in New York City, our media footprint which is still remarkably strong, probably even with the loss of two schools, the (best) of any conference in the country."

The Big East may not be able to poach teams from the other major conferences, but the package that the conference offers will still allow them to pick up almost any non-AQ school that it sets it's sights on. That includes candidates like Central Florida, Houston, ECU (who emailed an application this weeek), Memphis, or Temple.

Yes, Temple. According to Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer there has been "mutual interest" between Temple and the Big East that may have grown recently. The addition of the Big 5 rival would obviously remain something that Villanova would be opposed to.

As for the 'Cats moving football up, Jensen reported that, "Villanova has indicated to the league it 'would consider moving up' to play Big East football 'if asked,'" but expressed caution regarding the lack of a television contract and the future makeup of the league.

Right now the 14 remaining Big East members don't have many other options but to try and make the conference they have work. Rutgers, West Virginia and UConn, however, are all still looking for opportunities to exit the conference, should those come along, and at least one source told CBS that, "it appears some of the 'basketball schools are willing to leave.'" Those basketball schools were most-likely Villanova, where administrators were actively exploring other options and Georgetown, who were rumored to be sour toward the idea of a Catholic league.


Updated (1:21pm): UConn's president, Susan Herbst, has released the following statement:

"The past several days have magnified the period of instability that exists today in the world of college athletics. I want to say thank you to all of our loyal supporters and fans of UConn and our athletic programs for their patience during this time. Please know that we will always do what is in the best interests for the University of Connecticut. We remain committed to our ideals and principals in intercollegiate athletics and will continue to achieve excellence academically and athletically."

An additional statement is expected from West Virginia officials this afternoon.

Updated (2:50pm): The statement from Oliver Luck is now released:

"President Clements and I represented West Virginia University at last night's BIG EAST meeting in New York. The group concluded the meeting with a strategy to recruit top level BCS-caliber institutions that match the league's strong athletic and academic histories and traditions.

"As I stated before, WVU is an excellent flagship, land-grant University, with national-caliber athletic and academic programs. We are, and will remain, a national player in college athletics.

"The conference office will coordinate any further discussion on this issue."