After a pause in the conference realignment action over the Thanksgiving weekend, there was a flurry of activity from all fronts on Tuesday. Let’s get to it:
(1) Big East Invites Tulane for All-Sports and East Carolina for Football-only – With the defection of Rutgers to the Big Ten and the anticipated loss of at least one other member to the ACC (UConn, Louisville and/or Cincinnati), the Big East went forward with the addition of Tulane as an all-sports school and East Carolina as a football-only member. While Big East commissioner Mike Aresco is essentially just trying to preemptively cushion against further anticipated blows to the conference, these are additions along the lines of what the league could reasonably expect. Tulane hasn’t performed very well on the football field (or basketball court, for that matter) for quite a long time, but people should already know by now that on-the-field performance is only tangentially related to whether a school is an attractive expansion target. What Tulane has going for it is that it fits the Big East institutional profile (to the extent that it has one) for all-sports schools: an urban school in a large market and great athletic recruiting area. At the same time, Tulane is an excellent academic institution (AAU member and #51 in the U.S. News undergraduate rankings) with a new on-campus football stadium being built. I’m honestly not very surprised by this move at all by the Big East, even if a lot of fans are wondering whether the school will ever be competitive in football or basketball.
Meanwhile, East Carolina realizes its long-time dream of moving up to the Big East, albeit as only a football member. The main attraction of ECU is that it has one of the strongest fan bases and attendance records of any school outside of the power conferences. What has kept them back is essentially the opposite of Tulane’s biggest attribute, which is that ECU is located in the small and largely rural market of Greenville, North Carolina. (While ECU boosters have long argued that their home TV market really ought to include Raleigh and other parts of Eastern North Carolina, that has always been a tough sell to conference commissioners, particularly with such a heavy presence of ACC schools in the state.) The Big East is actually making a rare pure football move here, albeit treating ECU the same way that it’s treating western members (assuming that they’re still coming) Boise State and San Diego State where the league literally only wants them for football.
A common question that I’ve been seeing is about why the Big East would have Tulane as the all-sports member as opposed to East Carolina. Well, look at which schools actually get to vote for Big East expansion as of now. Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame are outgoing members, so they aren’t participating in the process. Memphis, UCF, Houston, SMU, Boise State and San Diego State aren’t officially members yet, which means that they don’t have a vote. Louisville, UConn and Cincinnati might be abstaining since they’re likely speaking with the ACC. That leaves the 7 Big East Catholic members, Temple and USF as schools that are voting for sure. Even if Louisville, UConn and Cincinnati are still voting, that leaves a 7-5 majority in favor of the Catholic members. This means that any new all-sports member has to at least do something for them, meaning adding a new TV market and/or prime recruiting territory. Tulane does this (just as Houston, SMU, UCF and Memphis did previously) in a way that ECU doesn’t. As a result, all Big East sports teams are getting ready for some trips to New Orleans in the future.
This obviously won’t stop any football school from bolting the Big East, but the addition of Tulane seems to reduce the likelihood of the Big East Catholic schools breaking off and forming their own basketball-centric league. Tulane is exactly the type of football school that the Big East Catholic members would approve of, so extending an all-sports invite to them indicates that they want to stick around.
(2) BYU Rejects Big East Invite (and Air Force isn’t an Option, Either) – In what shouldn’t be a surprise, Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com is reporting that BYU rejected an invitation from the Big East. Even before the Rutgers defection, I had been saying for quite awhile that BYU wouldn’t give up its independent TV deal with ESPN for Big East membership, and that has been sealed with the latest exodus from the Big East. What might be a little more troubling for the Big East is that Fowler is reporting that Air Force is likely off the table for the conference, as well, which leaves fewer name brand options for a larger western expansion. Fresno State is probably the best pure football-only option for the Big East in the west at this point, but the conference has seemed to look at FSU in the same manner that it had looked at ECU for years as a school without a large enough market. The problem with the western options that have the most attractive markets, such as UNLV and New Mexico, is that they have horrific football programs (which might be OK if they were to bring along their solid basketball programs, but tough to justify as football-only members). We’ll see if the addition of ECU as a football-only school is in lieu of additional western football-only members… or maybe it’s to compensate for the potential loss of the school that had promised to join in the future that we’re about to focus upon…
(3) ACC Rumors: Maybe Navy and Maybe Not – Last night, I had Tweeted that I had heard enough from different people that a 3-school expansion by the ACC was plausible (although it doesn’t mean that will happen). The assumption was that those 3 schools would be Louisville, UConn and Cincinnati (as discussed in my last post). However, David Glenn of ACC Sports (an independent website not affiliated with the conference itself) indicated that instead of Cincinnati (which is engaged in its own lobbying effort), the ACC was looking at Navy as a potential target. In response, David Teel (another plugged-in ACC reporter from the Daily Press) vigorously disputed the Navy-to-the-ACC rumor. Obviously, there’s some disagreement in ACC country about this issue.
Putting aside whether the ACC would actually add Navy or not, I think there’s at least enough substantive reasoning behind why it would work for the ACC that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Navy obviously fits in with the ACC’s academic standards while providing a foothold back in the state of Maryland (which is a hole for the ACC now with Maryland having defected to the Big Ten). In terms of national TV value, the Navy brand is still quite strong – to the extent that TV money (or lack thereof relative to other power conferences) is the overriding concern to current ACC members (and I honestly think that’s the main issue as opposed to the strength of the football league on-the-field), Navy is arguably more valuable to the TV networks than Louisville or UConn regardless of how the Midshipmen have performed football-wise lately. With Notre Dame as a non-football member in the ACC, Navy could be added as a football-only member to get the membership ranks for both football and basketball back to even numbers. Finally, speaking of Notre Dame, the Irish have an iron-clad rivalry with Navy, so the ACC might be able to convince the Domers to have that game in addition to the 5-game partial conference schedule that they’ll be playing starting in 2014, which would give the ACC a total of 6 Notre Dame games per year (3 of which would be guaranteed to be part of the ACC TV package). Of course, I would fully expect Notre Dame to go the opposite way and insist that the Navy game be part of the 5-game ACC schedule as a permanent rivalry*, which would free up an additional non-ACC slot on the Irish schedule again. The Michigan-Notre Dame game might be coming back sooner rather than later if Navy joins the ACC.
(* For those that don’t know, Navy is every bit as much of a lock on the Notre Dame schedule as USC as gratitude for the Naval Academy using the South Bend campus as an officer training site during World War II, which saved the school from financial collapse. From that point forward, Notre Dame promised to play Navy annually as long as Navy wanted to schedule the game and, to the Domers’ credit, they have kept that promise for the last 7 decades. As much as Notre Dame may look out for its self-interest 99% of the time, the way that they have made the Navy series into an iron-clad non-negotiable game is commendable.)
We’ll see if the ACC would actually go through with inviting Navy, but it certainly threw a wrinkle into what many people were assuming the conference’s expansion would look like. As always, we’ll keep on a lookout for further updates.
(Image from InfoPlease)