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Friday Water Cooler: Realignment-Aggedon, Part One

Foolish me, thinking that conference realignment might be put on hold while actual college football is being played.

Almost a week ago today, the ACC made its latest school grab from the Big East, nabbing Pitt and Syracuse in a move that was destined to upend conference apple carts all over the country.

The move has caused an earthquake of conference speculation - and set other potential moves in motion.  And those moves open up a lot of questions for anyone who cares about the Patriot League.  (more)

A jump by Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East could lead to another dramatic shuffle in college athletics. Texas A&M has already announced its intention to join the Southeastern Conference, leaving the future of the Big 12 in doubt. 
Big East spokesman John Paquette declined to comment on the possible defections. Pittsburgh spokesman E.J. Borghetti said that athletic director Steve Pederson also wouldn't comment.
If the move goes forward, Pittsburgh and Syracuse would become the fourth and fifth schools to leave the Big East for the ACC in the past decade. Virginia Tech and Miami joined in 2004, and Boston College followed a year later as the ACC's 12th member.
Syracuse is a founding member of the Big East. Pittsburgh joined the league in 1982. The ACC official said their letters of application to the ACC were for full membership. 

There will be plenty of time for college football historians to ponder the particulars of the Pitt/Syracuse defection: like that fact that the Atlantic Coast Conference now has two members that are at least a 10 hour  bus ride from the Atlantic Coast.

That Syracuse is now officially leaving the basketball "club" it helped create - leaving its rivalries with Villanova, Georgetown and potentially UConn in the dust - is also a much bigger issue than many folks understand.  Do Big Orange fans fully realize now that in order to see their team in the conference tournament in basketball, they'll have to plump for a flight to Atlanta rather than driving to Madison Square Garden?

But the news this week coming out of the BCS/FBS way was fast and furious, and new, huge revelations seemed to be coming out hourly.  It wasn't a time to stop following your Twitter account.

At first, UConn was thinking about joining Pitt and Syracuse in the Big East, while West Virginia was mulling over an application to the SEC.

When some ACC folks balked at UConn and West Virginia's application to the SEC was stamped with "DENIED" in big, red, lettering, both schools, along with Rutgers, issued (it was thought) half-hearted pledges of allegiance to the Big East, after an emergency meeting on the matter:

Big East commissioner John Marinatto said Tuesday that all of the members of his conference are committed to staying together, the result of a three-hour meeting in New York between presidents and athletic directors from the Big East football schools. 
Marinatto said each member pledged to remain in the conference and the membership -- including Notre Dame and the seven other non-football members -- is committed to aggressively recruiting replacements for Syracuse and Pittsburgh, though he would not indicate which schools are candidates. 
"Our schools basically went around the table and pledged to each other that they are committed to moving forward together," said Marinatto. 
But after the meeting broke up, a source told ESPN's Joe Schad that the Big East's initial expansion targets would be the service academies -- Army, Navy, and Air Force -- with Central Florida and East Carolina as second-tier possibilities.
There are ramifications all over the place concerning the events that have transpired.  But I'll limit my commentary to the effects that most directly affect Lehigh and the Patriot League.

One involves Villanova, and their dreams of "upgrading" to Big East, FBS football.

Back in April, I talked about bit about the Wildcats' id to become a part of Big East football - and some interesting events that in retrospect seem a bit prescient today:
For the next nine months, Villanova undertook their feasibility study with the occasional update from Fr. Donohue, with the clear understanding that they would be announcing the results of their study, and voting on FBS membership, in April.
Meanwhile, the Big East didn't just sit still. Hardly. 
Ignoring geography and instead, apparently, eyeing the Dallas/Fort Worth TV market (the fifth largest in the US), they acquired TCU in what ESPN's Brian Bennett called the "a marriage of convenience". 
Initially, it's hard to see TCU's inclusion as a reason for Marinatto to suddenly cool to the addition of Villanova. Yes, TCU gives the Big "East" nine football-playing schools, but in a world with 12-game schedules, ten teams is an ideal number that would limit the number of out-of-conference games to three, an optimal number. In isolation, ten football teams would appear to be prefect for the Big "East". 
The key, however, isn't about football. With TCU, the Big "East" now becomes a seventeen team basketball monstrosity. 
Suddenly, a month after TCU's announcement, [commissioner] John Marinatto wanted Villanova to disclose their intentions early. In theory, this could allow the league to make a decision on which schools to choose for expansion, because realisitcally, they need to expand on the basketball side. Villanova's decision means the Big "East" would expand with either schools FBS football (Memphis, East Carolina, Central Florida, Temple) or without (Xavier, Dayton, Richmond, UMass).
While most in the media were pooh-poohing the problems that arise from a seventeen-team megaconference in basketball - and the need to expand, possibly, with another non-basketball school to preserve "balance", apparently Pitt and Syracuse said, "enough", and started to look into the ACC for membership.

In April, with Villanova ready to announce their intention, perhaps, to move up to FBS, "unnamed sources" suddenly - and mysteriously - gave, as a reason for not offering Villanova membership, an issue most fans even casually looking at the situation could have identified:

The message appears to be quite simple: Find a more suitable place to play or the invitation is off.
"I think it was clear to everyone in the conference that at some point very soon Villanova was going to wind up hosting an important game late in the season,'' one league source said. 
"Imagine that a nationally ranked, perhaps unbeaten team plays Villanova on the road in November and the game is on national TV. And it's in an 18,000-seat soccer stadium [PPL Park in Chester].''
Back then, it sparked a debate as to the "suitability" of PPL Park as a venue.  But I said at the time that it seemed like a delay tactic.   Which it, in retrospect, appears to be.

Some think the stadium issue is indeed the only reason why the Big East is putting the brakes on expansion, but I happen to believe that's a line of baloney.  
After all, if I knew there was a stadium issue back in September, certainly some smart guy in the Big "East" conference office could have checked Google and figured out that there was an issue?  
It's hard to imagine the league forcing Villanova to spend all this time and energy on their move-up plan just to shoot it down over the stadium issue. It had been clear, after all, for months that PPL Park was the solution that Villanova was going with. And if it was such a red-button issue, why not mention it in August, when Marinatto was wooing Fr. Donohue with flowers and chocolates?  
Marinatto was upset with Villanova that they didn't accelerate their timeline. Well, with the way the football-playing schools did a 180 on the stadium, can you really blame them?  
No, the best explanation is this is simply a delay tactic by the Big "East" conference, and perhaps Marinatto himself, to figure out how he will balance his non-football conference. In my mind, a seventeen-team basketball conference cannot function effectively, even if they justifiably can call themselves the best college basketball conference on the planet. They need another school to get to an even number. And in time for the 2012 season, when this whole thing is supposed to come together.
It seems like I was sort-of right, in the end.  It was a "delay tactic".  Instead, though, it plays as a delay tactic that helped two schools leave the conference.

Think of it in these terms.  Suppose you're Pitt.  You're not happy with an 18- or 20-team, 12-team basketball configuration, which is the direction that everything seemed to be going.

Revenue sharing in basketball for 18 and 20 members?  That's a smaller piece of the pie.

If Villanova upgrades to FBS, that makes 11 schools with football, and 17 basketball schools.  Expansion by just one football school (say, Memphis) makes the conference 18/12 - and allows the Big East to have a championship game.

It would have been awfully hard to move in that circumstance.

But by striking now, they "secure their football future" - even though their future would have been "secure" in any case, had the Big East gotten to 12 teams - and seem to be leaving to "benefit" their football program, though now they, like Boston College, will be making a lot of flights to Atlanta for the women's bowling team in order to support that dream.

As a matter of fact, it becomes harder and harder to deny the fact that the talk about "protecting football" seems to simply mean using football to get a larger share of the revenue pie in other sports - i.e, men's basketball.

After all, the ACC will now be splitting their considerable ACC Championship and NCAA Championship stake by only 14 teams, not 20.

Surprised that the ACC isn't jumping to take UConn?  I'm not.  That makes 15 teams to split the money pile, and the other 14 (yes, I'm including Pitt and Syracuse) aren't all that happy about sharing.

And that, for good measure, is why superconferences are doomed to never happen in FBS sports.  There are simply too many greedy snouts at the trough that don't want to share with other schools.  Unless the amount of revenue doubles, or even triples, it's doomed to failure.

Realignment-Aggeddon, more than ever, is about the money.  It's not about football, protection, TV, or a "new world order."  It's about the "old world order" - money, and how best to gorge on it.

Next time: Part Two: Navy in the Big East in Football?


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