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Expansion Apocalypse: Bi-Polar Big East

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When I was asked last week whether I thought the Big East would survive this period of conference expansion, I answered, "flip a coin, and if it lands on it's side, the league survives." The fact is that the league will survive in some form, but as a conference with a BCS automatic qualifier? That is far more in doubt.

The Big East presidents have expressed an interest in locking down their membership with increased exit fees, and according to the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, the desire to do so was unanimous. Proposed-terms, however, were far from unanimous as different agendas have schools looking for different things.

As committed as the Big East members tell each other that they are to the conference, they really are only as loyal as their other options. West Virginia was reportedly met with a very cool reception by the ACC and SEC when they inquired about joining those conferences (though, never-say-never, "no thanks," and "maybe later," sound the same in a panic), but undeterred, Luck has kept working the phones, including numerous calls to the members of the Big XII expansion committee.

UConn has made it clear, however, that they would now prefer to be a member of the ACC as well, but that option may very well be off the table for the Huskies. The ACC has already begun renegotiating it's television deal, and commissioner John Swofford has stated that they are now settled at 14 members for the time-being.

Even if expansion is still an open topic for the ACC, Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo told the Boston Globe that his school opposed the idea of giving a bid to UConn, who were initially high on the ACC shortlist.

"We didn’t want them in,’’ he told the Globe. "It was a matter of turf. We wanted to be the New England team.’’

Boston College won that turf war, and the ACC turned it's sights on to Pittsburgh.

Who is leaving?

Other than the obvious? Syracuse and Pittsburgh are still on their way to the ACC, and TCU has begun talks about joining the Big XII that will almost certainly end with them heading there.

West Virginia is hoping for a bid to the Big XII as well, or one to the SEC, or if the ACC wants to add another school to get to 16 members, that'd be fine as well. Louisville and Cincinnati may have also heard from the Big XII.

The Big XII isn't planning any more moves, however, until they know what Missouri plans to do. Mizzou has begun the process of considering their options, though, it's not clear if they have any. Reports indicate that they don't have an invitation to the SEC yet, and they have made it clear that they'd prefer to join the Big Ten (a fact that hasn't helped their case with the SEC). There is still a 50/50 chance that they would stay in the Big XII.

It's not clear if the Big XII will stand at 10 members should Mizzou stay. They very well could, since Texas has made it known that a 10-member league is their preference. Texas has caved to a lot of the preferences of the other Big XII members in recent weeks, however, including their demand for equal revenue sharing and their preference to replace Texas A&M with TCU.

If the Big XII adds more teams, it seems that Louisville might be on top of their list. The Cardinals offer a very strong and profitable athletics department and they are somewhat geographically and academically compatible with that conference. BYU was also near the top of their list, but certain undisclosed "complications," have slowed the conference's pursuit of the Cougars. BYU would still possibly become a Big XII member if that conference were to look to have 12 members again.

Who isn't moving?

The Big Ten, which was at-one-point thought to be interested in some Big East members that could have included Rutgers (and maybe UConn) has stated that they are not going to be a factor in the current round of realignment. According to a USA Today report:

Delany said the Big Ten is content to sit out this round of realignment

. . .

"I just think we have to make a compelling case for change," he said. "We don't look at it as something insignificant. We look at it as fundamental to who we are. There are a lot of fans who look at it differently than a conference commissioner might. They look at it more like a fantasy sports experience or Monopoly."

After initially appearing to be a player in realignment by recruiting Texas and Oklahoma, it also looks like the Pac-12 will sit out of any further expansion. The westernmost power conference was only willing to expand it's membership if it could add the right schools under the right terms — Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are not enough and neither was Texas if the financial terms would be skewed in the Longhorns' favor.

As for the SEC, they claim that they are prepared to play next year with 13 members after adding Texas A&M, but it appears not everyone is happy with that. Tennessee's athletic director Dave Hart, told reporters that "at some point 13 will not be the number." Meanwhile, the conference's other school in Tennessee, Vanderbilt, has had an official state that the league could stay at 13 teams "for a couple of years."

What if the Big East survives?

One option for Big East survival is the CYO league, where the remaining Catholic schools (which likely will not include Notre Dame), stay together for lack of other options and add other non-FBS schools that are strong in basketball to try and rebuild. There just isn't as much money for a conference (on the University-level that can be a different story) in selling basketball TV rights, however. College basketball doesn't get the ratings that football does in the regular season -- it's not until March Madness that televisions really light up.

The Big East could still survive as a football league, however. At least a few of the members will be left out of the Big XII and SEC expansion that is currently underway. Perhaps all 6 remaining members could be left out.

Big East members clearly prefer to add the service academies in football before doing anything else. Navy was set to join before the Pitt and Syracuse defections and is still somewhat interested if the conference can "figure out how to right the ship."

Air Force describes their interest in the Big East as, "high," and their ideal scenario would be for Navy and Army to join them in the conference. No final decisions have been made, but they have noted that, "[t]his stuff is moving fast."

Air Force had received some interest from the Big XII, but told that conference they weren't interested. The Falcons' athletic director said that he didn't believe that his coaches could recruit against Texas and Oklahoma.

According to the Denver Post:

Air Force and Navy have negotiated extensively to ensure they move together to the Big East, and gone so far as to lobby Army to join them as football partners in the league.

[Air Force AD, Hans] Mueh insisted: "The Big East wants Army. Absolutely." The Black Knights, however, have concerns their program might not be ready for the rigors of playing West Virginia and other top teams in the Big East on a regular basis.

Mueh also believes that the Big East will finalize the terms of some sort of solidarity this week.

Other teams that could be considered are Villanova and Temple. If the Big East adds all three academies, they could add Villanova football as well and have 10 football schools while being at just 14 basketball teams. As vague as the Big East's interest in Villanova seems right now, don't discount that option for a conference that will likely look to get to 12 members sooner than later.

Army isn't particularly interested in joining the Big East, however.

Another scenario that has been reported by the Star-Ledger:

. . . would be to add Navy (for football only), in addition to Temple and Central Florida for all sports, while getting Villanova to move its football program up to FBS from FCS (formerly Division 1-A). That would give the league 10 football members — enough to keep its BCS automatic qualifier status — and move its basketball numbers back to 16.

Without a doubt, there will be room for at least two more all-sports members, and more if needed. The logistics of rebuilding the conference are simpler if Villanova is involved, but the Wildcats don't provide the immediate help in football that may be desired.

The full list of names being thrown around the media for Big East expansion include, Navy, Air Force, Army, Temple, Villanova, Central Florida, SMU, Houston and ECU. So far, Memphis has not been mentioned despite their desire for power-conference access. Tulane has reportedly also made a few phone inquiries to various conferences, including the Big East.

Update (7:00p): Boise State may have also entered the discussion for the Big East, who may need their football credibility to maintain their BCS status. The Broncos would join the Big East as a football-only member and put their basketball and non-revenue sports in another conference (possibly the WAC). In that scenario, reported by the Boston Globe, Boise would join Navy and Air Force as football-only members of the conference, while Temple and UCF could be invited as all-sports members, with Villanova upgrading in football for a 12-team conference.

Only the service academies and Boise State are being considered for football-only membership at the moment, though Temple has indicated that it would consider that option as well.

Outlook

If the Big East can stabilize the six currently-remaining football members and add four football programs (the academies and Nova), they will no doubt look for two more members, but can likely do a bit more vetting of the options in that process. With additional departures, Villanova may not be interested in a football upgrade and non-AQ schools may balk at what could become perceived as a "lateral move."

In any event, with only 6 remaining FBS football members, the Big East will need to add at least two football schools as full members within two years of Syracuse and Pittsburgh departing in order to comply with NCAA rules. An FBS conference, under NCAA bylaws, must have 8 full FBS members that play in the conference in at least 6 men's and 8 women's sports. Villanova football only factors into that equation because of the two year grace period (which would give the 'Cats enough time to transition quickly) and the 27 months notice that Syracuse and Pitt are being held to (meaning Nova technically would have up to 4 years to transition).

The Big East is still on shaky ground until financial commitments are increased substantially, and that puts those terms at the pole position on the conference agenda. Only two other conferences are still in the expansion market right now, the SEC and Big XII, and both may be content to stay where they are or add a minimum number of teams.

In other words: While everyone in the Big East seems to want out, it is no certainty that they will have the option.

The most-likely schools to move out of the Big East are Louisville and West Virginia (in that order). If the Big XII is continuing expansion, they could very easily deal the Big East a death-blow. Notre Dame also remains a wildcard in all of this, if they decide to join a conference, some other school will move along with them — but all indications are that their preference is to stick with a hybrid Big East.

Rutgers, South Florida, UConn and maybe Cincinnati are the least likely schools to find a new home in a major conference, if the other school leave, will they rebuild the Big East or look to join Conference USA? Neither option seems very palatable, which may be why those schools could ultimately agree to a deal to keep the Big East going.

In other words: it's not over yet.

...and one more thing.

Gene DeFilippo, the former Villanova athletic director who left the Main Line to take the same job at Boston College in the wake of the 1997 decision to keep the Wildcats as an FCS school, was a member of the ACC expansion committee. In addition to blocking UConn, he was also privy to a number of aspects of the selection process.

As for how they selected schools, he told the Boston Globe:

"We always keep our television partners close to us. You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV - ESPN - is the one who told us what to do.’’

If ESPN's advice was limited to, "yes, improve football," then there is probably no issue. However, if ESPN advised the ACC more specifically, suggesting schools or conferences to look to or anything of that sort, they would be in some serious legal trouble should the Big East lawyer-up.

There would obviously be a tortious interference issue in that scenario, but because ESPN also has a contract with the Big East, such advisement could be a breach of their duties of good faith and fair dealing under that contract. The threat of legal action could force ESPN to offer to overpay for the Big East television rights in order to avoid extensive litigation and public relations problems.

Updated (5:46p): Check out "Monday Meeting: Money Talks" for some information from our sources on the inside.