Big Ten Expansion: The Uncertain Future of the Big East


I’m in a mourning mood today.

I’m preparing to mourn the death of the Big East Conference.

Oh, the Big East name will carry on, in the company of the group of “basketball only” schools that will continue to stay joined together.  But the conference as we know it is doomed, and the death knell should be sounded shortly.

The Big Ten expansion rumors march on.

This week, there were rumors that 4 schools had been offered the opportunity to join the Big Ten: Rutgers, Notre Dame, Missouri and Nebraska.  Previous rumors have included Rutgers, Syracuse and Pitt.

If you’re wondering why UConn has not been included, consider this: Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers are all members of the Association of American Universities, a group that includes 63 of the top Research Universities in the nation.  Syracuse and Pitt are also members.  Connecticut, for whatever reason, is not.  By several accounts, this is important to the Big Ten.  Which one of these is not like the others?  The bottom line: UConn is unlikely to move to the Big Ten.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has quashed the rumors, saying that no offers have been made.

Rumors abound about what the FCS landscape will look like after the Big Ten makes their move, and other conferences follow suit.  There are way too many rumors, and too many permutations to keep track.

Only one thing is certain: the Big East is in trouble, and Connecticut’s future in particular is very uncertain.  That will be the subject of a separate post.

The Big East is inherently unstable.  Sixteen schools comprise the Big East.  Eight are “basketball only”: DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanova.  “Basketball only” is really a misnomer – these schools compete in the Big East in most or all other sports — except football.

The football schools are: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pitt, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse and West Virginia.

It actually used to be more confusing.  Temple and Rutgers played football in the Big East, but played basketball in the A-10.  I believe that West Virginia had a similar arrangement.  Now, all of the football schools also play most or all other sports in the Big East.

This is not about the basketball only schools.  They can survive on their own, if it came to that.  With the tournament expanding to 68 schools, there’s even room for them to get a separate automatic bid.  Or perhaps it’s the football schools that need to get a new bid, since it’s unclear who would keep the Big East name and pedigree.

This is about the football schools.

When the ACC raided the Big East, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami left.  The Big East licked their wounds and responded by taking teams from Conference USA.  Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida were brought in to replace the football programs.  Marquette and DePaul were added in basketball.  With the loss of two perennial National Championship contenders, there may have been a drop off in the caliber of play in football, though all three new programs have certainly had good seasons – including Cincinnati last season – and the Big East has survived and thrived.

If only Notre Dame were to leave, the Big East would easily survive.  I would argue, in fact, that losing Notre Dame would be good for the Big East.  There is no impact on football.  The league can survive with 15 teams, or it can add another school.  There are a small number to choose from.

Lose Rutgers, or any other single football school, and the problem is harder to solve.  Central Florida, East Carolina, Marshall or Memphis, perhaps others, could be brought in to replace Rutgers.  But there are an ever-dwindling number of geographically desirable schools to choose from.

But does it stop there? Does the Big Ten only take one football school?  What will the ACC do?  The Pac 10 is talking about expanding.  That doesn’t directly affect the Big East, but if the Pac 10 grabs Texas, how will the Big 12 replace them? How would the Big 12 react to losing Missouri?

There are not a lot of options for the Big East.  The conference name is already a bit of a misnomer – the last time I checked, for example, DePaul and Marquette were located in the Midwest.  Of course, the Big Ten has 11 teams (soon likely to be 12, 14 or 16), so maybe I shouldn’t worry.  Beyond that, there are other issues.  The league is a bit unwieldy already at 16 teams.  Coupled with that, how do you add football teams?  Right now, the Big East has the bare minimum of 8 teams.  I’d like to see them add football programs to protect themselves, but for every football program that gets added, one of the basketball-only schools needs to go.

The Big East needs to get to 12 teams, or lobby the NCAA to change the rules.  At the moment, a league must have 12 teams to stage a revenue-producing championship game.  This was the motivation for the ACC expansion.  Reduce the number of teams required and some of the motivation goes away.  The NCAA needs to act on this issue, to prevent some of the sweeping realignment that is about to happen.  Regardless, the Big East needs to grow beyond 8 members, because it’s always one defection away from needing to add another program.

The Big East is a wounded carcass waiting to be killed and scavenged.  Buzzards are circling overhead.

In terms of the so-called “Power Conferences”, the Big East is at the bottom.  They are not going to steal teams from the Big Ten, the ACC or the SEC.  Likewise, the Big 12 and the Pac 10 are not even on the radar, but those teams are geographically undesirable anyway.

So what would I do if I were the Big East commissioner?

1)      Force Notre Dame’s hand.  I’d tell the Fighting Irish to join the Big East in football or get out.  Notre Dame contributes very little to the Big East in terms of the revenue producing sports – probably the biggest contribution is in Women’s Basketball.  Men’s Basketball?  Forget about it.  From underachieving in general, to constant out of conference upsets to playing soft schedules, it’s not clear to me how they help the Big East.  Football? The Fighting Irish have their noses firmly in the air, believing themselves to still be college royalty.  The “home and neutral field” series with Connecticut is an abomination; even more so considering that at the moment, UConn is playing better football than ND.  And counting Notre Dame as a Big East school when it comes to BCS bids is an insult. Notre Dame had a chance to save the Big East 5 years ago, and did not step up.  Do I blame them? No.  But why let them benefit from the Big East when they’re contributing nothing.  One day, Notre Dame may decide that it’s in their best interest to join a football conference.  Guess what? It won’t be the Big East.  The Big Ten is by far the best fit. So I say: force their hand. Let the Big Ten worry about them.  Maybe Notre Dame will change their tune based on money, and based on the need for the rest of their sports to have a home.  Either way, they will never agree to play football in the Big East.

2)      Add an East Coast football program to replace Notre Dame.  Central Florida, East Carolina, and Marshall are the obvious choices.  Memphis is another possibility.  They’re certainly not any less of an East Coast school than DePaul or Marquette.

3)      Replace some of the basketball schools with full members.  I hate to lose any of the long-time members, but times are tough.  In order of preference, here are the teams that need to go: Marquette, Seton Hall, DePaul, Providence, Georgetown/Villanova, and St. John’s, for the following reasons:

Marquette: The newest member, and a Midwest school.

Seton Hall: This is harsh, especially since Seton Hall is one of the original members.  But for the Big East to survive, tough decisions need to be made, and the Big East needs to shed basketball-only schools in favor of football schools.  Seton Hall brings nothing in terms of television market that isn’t already covered by St. John’s and/or Rutgers.

DePaul: Another of the newest members, but brings a big market.

Providence: Would be higher on the list, but is a founding member.

Georgetown/Villanova: I may be too sentimental here, but they represent two big markets, and two historically excellent programs.

St. John’s: They’re not going away, based strictly on market and recruiting.

4)      Bring back Temple, as a full member this time.  I do not remember the specific reasons why Temple was booted the first time – clearly, they are doing enough at the moment to maintain their FCS status, and they actually played in a bowl game last season.  This is not the time for pride by either side, and it’s not the time to be picky.  The Big East needs numbers, and Temple is one of the few schools that meets the correct profile – an Eastern team with basketball and football programs.  They are currently playing basketball in the A-10 and football in the Mid-American Conference, which has 13 members.  They should play all of their sports in the same conference.  The A-10 would pick up some of the Big East basketball-only castoffs, and the Mid-American would still have 12 teams.

Here is a look at a potential revised Big East (football only):

“North” Conference:

Cincinnati

Connecticut

Temple

Syracuse

Rutgers

Pittsburgh

“South” Conference:

Central Florida (or Marshall)

East Carolina

Louisville

Memphis

South Florida

West Virginia

Basketball only:

St. John’s

Georgetown

Villanova

Providence

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2 Responses to “Big Ten Expansion: The Uncertain Future of the Big East”

  1. Bob Says:

    Is UCONN an inferior academic institution to Nebraska or Pitt? Looks like the list on the Association of American Universities include the elite private schools and mostly landgrant and university of california schools. i would imagine UCONN should be on this list, but maybe I’m wrong.

    • yukonnj Says:

      Bob,

      I would not think that UConn was inferior to either Pitt or Nebraska, or some of the other AAU schools, but I also would not claim to be versed in the subject. I’ve read recently that membership is by invitation only (meaning that a school doesn’t suddenly decide to apply for membership) and that it’s fairly political. There was some discussion that UConn needs to review the membership criteria and put themselves in position to be invited. My recollection is that Notre Dame is also not a member, yet they may be the #1 target for the Big Ten. I just looked at the membership list again and was surprised by some of the names — Stony Brook? Seemingly every branch of University of California? I think Rutgers is a fine University, but appreciably better than UConn?

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