Monday, June 06, 2011

An Inconvenient Solution to Big East Expansion

No, really, does it ever get old to make fun of Al Gore?

Seen here telling the world that manbearpig is indeed real (thanks to the folks at South Park), his wooden yet passionate crusades, his irregular spasms of passion and energy, and even his exaggerated sighs in the 2000 campaign often make me laugh when I'm feeling down.

What I love the most, though, is his movie An Inconvenient Truth. While you can debate whether a movie which genuinely talked about his father's tobacco plantations in terms of climate change (?) should have really won the Oscar, it's really the title that is the best part of the entire movie, which is largely an extremely PowerPoint presentation (with some footage of melting icebergs) that, frankly, I seriously doubt many people actually saw. It's the quintessential "oh-yeah-I-saw-that" movie that nobody saw, since most people like to be on the side of reducing climate change, not denying that it exists.

Best of all, "An Inconvenient Truth" can be applied to, well, anything. It certainly seems to fit when trying to describe the current state of the Big East. For there is nothing convenient right now about the Big East - and any solution to its aspirations will need to be, um, inconvenient.(more)

Once upon a time in 1979, the Big East was eight schools in the East that banded together in order to create the first hoops-based superconference.

Since it was hoops that was the main concern, it was the biggest regional hoops powers powered by independent I-A football (Syracuse, Boston College), a grouping of smaller, private, religious institutions with club (or non-scholarship) football and large hoops tradition (Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall) and one public up-and-comer who played in the I-AA Yankee Conference in football (UConn) that formed the basic core of the league. Villanova and Pitt soon joined thereafter - Villanova, with a modest FBS program , and Pitt with big-time football.

(Shortly after joining the Big East, Villanova pulled the plug on their independent FBS football program seemingly in the dead of night - and soon relaunched the program as an FCS one.)

Oddly enough, even in the earliest configuration of the Big East you have the seeds of the factions that exist in the Big East even today. Some schools want to play FBS football; others want to play FCS football; and still others have no desire to field any football teams, even of the non-scholarship variety.

It has broadly been the cause of all the Big East's success; and its problems.  It would later pick up football programs like Rutgers, Miami (FL) and Viriginia Tech - and more basketball schools.

It shows that it was always going to be tricky balancing three factions; when the ACC poached Miami (FL), Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, the league had to expand by five teams: two non-football private schools (DePaul and Marquette) and three large public schools with BCS football aspirations (Louisville, South Florida, Cincinnati), largely to keep the balance intact.

As time has gone by, the Big East has grown and grown, mostly to maintain the balance. But currently standing at 17 basketball teams, and nine football teams, there simply isn't the room to grow any larger in the same way the Big East has expanded in the past.

Broken down into the different factions, the current membership of the Big East consists of the following:

FBS Football schools (Louisville, South Florida, Syracuse, Rutgers, UConn, Cincinnati, Pitt, West Virginia, Notre Dame*, TCU**)

Private, non-football schools (DePaul, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Marquette)

FCS football schools (Villanova***, Georgetown)

* Does not compete in the Big East Conference in football
** Joins the Big East in 2012
*** Considering a move to FBS football

This 17/9 alignment is similar to the original Big East in the sense that it is a bizarre mix of different schools with completely different athletic and institutional missions, united largely by playing elite basketball (and the money that entails). Georgetown has almost nothing in common with South Florida. Villanova and Cincinnati, aside from having a history of great basketball programs, are similarly dissimilar.

One of the more fascinating interviews of the early days of the Big East comes from Pete Thamel of the New York Times with then outgoing commissioner Mike Tranghese. In that interview, he talks about the initial thoughts about how the Big East was supposed to survive:

I look back on the 30 years, and I think we made one major mistake. We had a chance to take Penn State in 1982 and we didn’t. You look back on it and the whole face of college athletics would be changed now. If we had taken Penn State in 1982, we may still have football independents. The idea wasn’t to take Penn State and start a football league. It was to give Penn State a place. And then they would have been aligned with Syracuse and Boston College. We probably would have brought Pitt in, too, and the four of them probably would have agreed to play and continue as independents. I think the whole face of college football would have changed. I don’t think Florida State would have moved and Miami would have moved.

What happened in the previous fall, Penn State had tried to form a football league. Coach Rick Paterno has laid a lot of this at [Syracuse athletic director] Jake Crouthamel’s feet, which I think is wrong. What never got written was that the basketball league was being pretty successful and they couldn’t agree on revenue sharing in football. There wasn’t going to be any revenue sharing. Jake just wasn’t going to do that. The next year Dave brought it up for discussion and Jake was absolutely supportive. We voted five different times and all five times Jake voted for Penn State. And Bill Flynn at Boston College, God rest his soul, voted for Penn State all five times. The reason that they didn’t get in was that the league was new, a lot of the directors felt it was a basketball league. Some of the directors felt that the concept of the Big East was big markets.

These two highlighted sections could have been ripped from the latest headlines of the Big East, when they decided to take Texas Christian University, as their latest expansion candidate.

TCU is the quintessential "big market" pick for Big East expansion. Based in the fifth largest media market in the world, the Dallas/Fort Worth area, it is seen as a win for the league for two overarching reasons: their FBS football team, which insures them against the whole league ripping apart, and their TV market. There are no conference rivals closer than a plane flight; it makes a mockery of the conference's name and history, the Big East; but if your reasoning for expansion is based solely on a "big market", TCU had to have been one of the biggest available prizes, football-wise.

But the problem is, again, that the Big East can't expand their way towards maintaining the balance. Sure, they could expand with another "big market" and a football team, but the "non-football five" (and Georgetown and Notre Dame) would be opposed, for it would marginalize their influence.  It almost guarantees that at least one, if not more, basketball schools will need to be added to maintain the balance.

Most recently, the theory is that Army and Navy might be a solution to the Big East's problems - adding football teams to the Big East without worrying about basketball:

Numerous candidates have been mentioned including Villanova, Central Florida, East Carolina and Houston. However, college industry sources told CBSSports.com the league is also considering the possibility of pursuing Army and Navy as football members to get to 12 teams.

"I believe the league will approach the academies first and if they turn the Big East down, then they'll approach the other candidates," a college football industry source said. "There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The Big East would have to convince them that's where they want to be."

Remember that reference in the original Tranghese interview to the idea of the "football independents"? In a way, that's what this plan amounts to - adding Army and Navy to the Big East football family. They'd, in effect, remain independents, but would be a part of the Big East in order to - I guess - ensure the survival of the football league.

If you're a Big East fan, I suppose it's an ideal solution to your problems. Unfortunately, there is next to zero motivation for Army and Navy to take up the offer.

Suppose you're the USMA and USNA. You enjoy the flexibility of an independent schedule - and you're not hurting in any way for scheduling opponents. You own the weekend of the biggest game in early December.

You don't have to worry about finances - all of your cadets and midshipmen are on federal scholarship.

You also don't need to worry about a TV deal, thanks to your deal with CBS College Sports that televises every game.

Furthermore, thanks to the BCS, if you're good enough you can qualify for a BCS Bowl. Joining a BCS conference holds no fascination for you. Rather than loading up on FCS, Conference USA patsies and low-end Big East and ACC teams of your own choosing every year, suddenly you'll be playing West Virginia on a regular basis.

Adding insult to injury, you're cheapening the Army/Navy classic by moving it to a much more crowded weekend in November.

Why on Earth would the academies do it? There is literally nothing to gain, and everything to lose. (Army athletic director Boo Corrigan confirmed as such this week, too - and also helpfully added that Army and Navy do not march in lockstep, either, in terms of their football aspirations).

****

There are no convenient solutions to the Big East's problems.

There are no convenient football-only schools like Army and Navy that are willing to join - and the other possible FBS associate schools are either failed former members (Temple) or in a recruiting area that is dominated by a current Big East school (UMass).

And any FBS football school that joins will, presumably, need to be balanced by some FCS-or-none school - and then basketball wouldn't work.

So what is the solution?

There is one possibility - that hasn't been discussed anywhere.  Call it an "inconvenient" solution that just might work.

Suppose the Big East petitions to be an "alliance" instead of a basketball league, with two conferences - each with their own autobid?

Don't laugh. With 20 teams or more and the strongest hoops conference at present, the current Big East could make a case for having two autobids in the NCAA Tournament.

Drawing a line at Georgetown and West Virginia makes for two interesting 10-team conferences:

Big East Alliance, Boeheim Conference
Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, UConn, Providence, Rutgers, Villanova**, Pitt, West Virginia

Big East Alliance, McGuire Conference:
Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, Marquette, Notre Dame, TCU, South Florida, SMU*, Central Florida*, Dayton*

* new conference adds
** adds FBS football

The addition of Dayton of the Atlantic Ten gives a strong basketball school with no FBS aspirations, satisfying the non-FBS contingent and keeping the balance of power broadly the same.

Adding SMU and Central Florida further solidifies the Big East's presence in Texas and Florida - while developing some genuine local rivalries.

It would also put "Big East Alliance" football at twelve teams - the magic number for a championship.

In basketball, a postseason tournament is played for each conference - with the winner getting an autobid to the NCAA Tournament.

The "Big East Alliance" could even stage their own version of the "Final Four", potentially playing in Madison Square Garden for the Big East Alliance Championship - one from the Boeheim conference champion, and one from the McGuire Conference champion.

If you want TV ratings before the NCAA Tournament, nothing could beat that.

Would it be hard to come up with rules for this twenty, twenty-two, or even bigger team alliance? You bet - revenue sharing would be damned difficult, and you'd still have a lot of concerns with football and non-football schools. Publics and privates with not a lot in common would continue to rub elbows.

There's have to be guarantees of non-conference game between the Boeheims and the McGuire's - lots of them.

And the "Big East Alliance" would continue to be the same disjointed, TV market-driven creation it was even in the beginning.

But it could work. Against all odds, all logic, all geography, and all history, it could work.  It's inconvenient, but it could work.

Besides, it's a lot more plausible than adding Army or Navy.

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