I attended Illinois for undergrad, so my heart will always be with the Fighting Illini first and foremost, but as a DePaul Law graduate, I also keep close tabs on the state of the Big East. The fan base of the Big East is by far the most skittish of any conference regarding expansion issues because it was obviously the main victim of the last major conference realignment in 2003 (when the ACC poached Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College). This resulted in the Big East scrambling to protect its automatic bid to the BCS by inviting Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida for all sports (including football) along with DePaul and Marquette as non-football members. In that round of expansion, Louisville was already an obvious BCS-ready school that was within striking distance of the Big Ten footprint, which made it a logical choice for a replacement member, while Cincinnati and USF were in the midst of building up their own programs. USF ended up putting together some great seasons in the all-important Florida market while Cincinnati came within a couple of seconds massaged by a Jerry World time clock operator of making it to the national championship game this past season. The problem today for the Big East is that if it loses any member to the Big Ten (which, if you’ve read my previous blog posts regarding the Big Ten Expansion Index, isn’t necessarily as likely as the general public believes since I believe that the Big Ten is looking toward Texas and the Big XII), there isn’t any Louisville-type school located east of the Mississippi River that’s a logical “no-brainer” replacement. There are some schools comparable to USF and Cincinnati circa 2003, but the conference enters dangerous territory by adding more “project” schools in terms of keeping the top-to-bottom strength of schools high enough to justify inclusion in the BCS.
Before anyone can even get to talking about additional Big East schools, though, the overarching question is “WTF does the Big East want to be?” Should the football members (hereinafter defined as “Big East Football”) split off to form a separate all-sports conference? Are the Catholic basketball members (hereinafter defined as the “Big East Catholics”) too valuable for the football members to leave? Is it worth it to risk breaking up arguably the nation’s best basketball conference under the current hybrid structure in order to have a maybe good/maybe not that good football conference? The purpose of this post is to provide a more high-level examination of the choices between Big East Football splitting off or keeping the Big East Catholics in the fold. I’ll name some expansion candidates in hypothetical scenarios that I’d personally favor if I were in charge of the Big East, but it’s not worth it as of now to provide an in-depth examination of each of those candidates in the same manner of the Big Ten Expansion Index since it’s largely pointless without knowing out what the Big East wants to do structurally. In fact, I’ll state upfront that I’m sincerely 50/50 about whether the Big East ought to split whether or not it even loses anyone from Big East Football (with the caveat that the way that my split proposal is far more aggressive than what I see typically proposed). Thus, I’m giving everyone two options that I would examine if I were Big East Commissioner along with the pluses and minuses of each. Then, you can decide which one you like better – think of it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” for Big East expansion.
I’m using the following assumptions:
(1) The Big Ten does NOT take a Big East member – I’m going to examine this from the perspective of the Big East as presently constituted because I don’t believe the high-level analysis really changes that much even if a school like Syracuse or Rutgers leaves. The issue of whether the Big East should split exists as of today and will be applicable regardless of the actions of the Big Ten.
(2) The Big East won’t kick out Notre Dame – About every 3 or 4 hours on any Big East message board, you’ll see a brand new thread stating, “WE MUST GIVE ND AN ULTIMATUM!!!!!! JOIN US 4 FB OR GTFO!!!!!” It’s about as predictable as Amy Winehouse ignoring all 12 steps of all of her rehab programs on a random Friday night. Let’s put aside the fact that such a suggestion usually entails “threatening” probably the most famous and powerful athletic department in the nation in order to invite a school like Memphis or East Carolina. First off, if Notre Dame refuses to join the Big Ten for football where the school would maintain its rivalries against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue and actually make more money in the process, then I can’t really see the Irish taking a pay cut to play USF and Cincinnati annually. I’ll let Domers like Sully comment further on this, but that’s just my gut feeling. Then, as a practical matter, let’s simply count the votes in the Big East to gauge the interest of kicking out ND. The other Big East Catholics absolutely fall all over themselves to be associated with the nation’s preeminent Catholic sports program, so that’s 7 votes against kicking out ND right there. Pitt has a longstanding relationship with Notre Dame for football which it isn’t going to mess with – I would imagine that ND would easily go back to playing Penn State annually and drop its games with Pitt if the Panthers ever supported kicking ND out. Syracuse and Rutgers are also holding out hope for Big Ten invites. Since any kicking out of Notre Dame could possibly nudge the Irish into the Big Ten and close off that 12th conference spot forever, SU and RU aren’t going to want to do anything to ND, either. Those are 10 schools right there that will automatically support Notre Dame, which means that ND will be in the BE as long as there is the current hybrid structure.
(3) The Mountain West Conference will NOT receive an auto-bid to the BCS – There’s a dangerous assumption percolating out there that the Mountain West becoming an automatic-qualifying (AQ) conference with respect to the BCS is a foregone conclusion. This is based on the MWC reaching certain numerical criteria that the BCS previously set out to evaluate conferences. There’s kind of big hitch that too many people are forgetting, though: the current BCS conferences have the final say and they don’t really have any incentive to let the MWC into their club at all. It’s the equivalent of me trying to obtain membership into Augusta National Golf Club. If I’m a scratch golfer that can afford to pay the initiation fee (not that either one of those things are true, but bear with me here), that’s still not enough to get an invitation – the people at Augusta have to REALLY REALLY REALLY like me on top of all of that. In another real life example, think of it as achieving a really high SAT score. Even though that score might indicate that you could get into Harvard on paper, the fact of the matter is that Harvard’s admissions committee evaluates bunch of other byzantine factors, such as whether you’re a native female Alaskan who moved to Kenya that can play the oboe at a professional orchestral level. In the case of the MWC, the BCS conferences might have set the criteria, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to follow it.
Here’s the bottom line for the MWC: the Pac-10 and Big XII aren’t going to approve AQ-status for the MWC because they don’t want to empower direct competition in their home markets and that conference is a prime target for their own expansion and/or replacement plans. The Big Ten and the SEC are virtually guaranteed 2 BCS bids every year under the current system, so they don’t have an incentive to potentially give up one of those spots to the MWC. The Big East is the most vulnerable of the current BCS conferences, so it doesn’t want to give any opportunity to let the other BCS members remove AQ-status for the Big East while bringing the MWC in as a 7th member. I guess the ACC doesn’t have quite as much of a dog in this fight, but as you can, the other 5 BCS conferences have direct incentives to say “No” to the MWC regardless of how well the conference performs. That’s not really fair (and my feeling is that they’re more bothered by letting the likes of Wyoming and San Diego State into the fold than harboring any grudges against Utah and BYU), yet it goes back to the cynical version of the Golden Rule (“He who has the gold makes the rules”) as applied to the chasm between the AQ and non-AQ conferences. You’ll see pretty clearly in a moment why the MWC’s continued non-AQ status is very important to the Big East’s options.
So, let’s review the two divergent roads that the Big East can take Robert Frost-style.
OPTION A – KEEP THE HYBRID STRUCTURE
Here’s the reality for the Big East: Penn State isn’t walking through that door. Boston College isn’t walking through that door. Maryland isn’t walking through that door. While the presumption is that college conference choices revolve almost entirely around football (as indicated by how I gave Football Brand Value three times the weight of Basketball Brand Value in the Big Ten Expansion Index), if there aren’t major pigskin programs that are willing to join the Big East, it may very well be in the best interest of the conference to continue to focus on what it’s exceptional at: basketball. If the Big East were to split, the usual suspects of candidates from Conference USA wouldn’t really add that much financial value to the football side of the ledger while it could destroy much of the greatness of the basketball side.
At the same time, the value of the Big East Catholics is as a collective instead of individual schools. You’ll see plenty of comments from bloggers and message board posters out there that they don’t understand what schools like newer member DePaul and original member Providence bring to the Big East. The point is not what DePaul and Providence bring as individual programs, but rather the 8 Big East Catholics happen to deliver the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Boston/Providence markets, which are all top 10 TV markets. For all of the ragging that Big East Football schools might have on the Big East Catholics, you can be guaranteed that the number of top 10 markets that are in the conference as a result of the Big East Catholics are on PowerPoint slide #1 in any Big East presentation to ESPN or other TV networks. That staggering large market PowerPoint slide goes away if Big East Football separates themselves from the Big East Catholics.
In fact, it could be argued that if Big East Football loses a member to the Big Ten or another conference (i.e. collateral damage if the Big Ten takes a school from the ACC, who in turn will look to the Big East for a replacement), the Big East Catholics would be more valuable than ever. Any reasonable replacement that could be out there may not bring as much as value on the football side as keeping the basketball side as elite as possible. While football is going to rule the day for the other BCS conferences in terms of revenue and expansion, the Big East simply “is what it is” – a great (if not the nation’s best) basketball conference that happens to play some football. As long as the Big East maintains its BCS AQ status, maintain the current hybrid structure could be making the best of a situation where the perfect scenario isn’t a viable option.
OPTION B – SPLIT (BUT DO IT IN A BIG WAY)
The Big East split advocates often argue that as long as the Big East stays in its current hybrid form, it can never hope to achieve the stability of the Big Ten or SEC. Of course, the Big XII, an all-sports conference which has Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma in the fold, is unstable, too, with members openly talking about moving to the Big Ten or Pac-10. So, a split for the sake of “stability” is an unreasonable goal – other than the Big Ten and SEC, no conference will be completely safe in this next round of realignment discussions. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t split scenarios that could add value to the Big East immediately.
The problem with most of the Big East split advocates is that they are making the classic sports fan mistake of thinking in purely geographic terms. This leads them to only considering some “meh” schools from C-USA located east of the Mississippi River such as Memphis, East Carolina and Central Florida or maybe even MAC schools like Buffalo and former Big East football member Temple. Those are all schools that bring in various positives to the table, but none of them are anywhere close to slam dunks where it would be worth it to split away from the Big East Catholics for those “usual suspects” alone. So, if the Big East is finding only ho-hum choices of schools east of the Mississippi, why isn’t the conference looking west? Specifically, the Big East needs to be taking a hard look at Texas Christian University.
I know what a lot of you are thinking – here’s a d-bag Chicago lawyer that has argued that the Big Ten ought to invite Texas for several weeks and now is saying that the Big East should add TCU. WTF is going through that crack-induced head of his with him adding Texas-based schools to Eastern/Midwestern conferences?! Doesn’t he know that the schools, politicians and fans in the Lone Star State just want to beat up on each other (because the old SWC worked so well) instead of dealing with a bunch of Yankees?! Well, as you can tell from my blog posts, I’m not hung up on geography when it comes to conferences. I know that will simply be a fundamental issue for a lot of people, but we live in a world where Penn State is in the Big Ten, Boston College is in the ACC, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida are in the Big East, Louisiana Tech is in the WAC… and TCU is aligned with a bunch of Rocky Mountain schools in the Mountain West. It appears to me that the long distance conference cherry was popped long ago.
Regardless, TCU going to the Big East isn’t a novel idea. Jake, a regular commenter on this blog who has a fear that TCU could get screwed in this realignment process (and I’ll explain why that’s a legitimate fear in a moment), has mentioned the possibility. ESPN’s Big East blogger Brian Bennett addressed his thoughts on the prospect of TCU in the Big East (who, as you’ll see, I disagree with). Finally, the very knowledgeable denizens of BigEastBBS have discussed TCU a number of times.
There are a couple of items that impress me about TCU. First, its revenue in 2007-08, which was a “normal” season where it didn’t receive a jackpot of funds from participation in a BCS bowl like this past season, was $43.4 million, which was by far the highest figure of any non-BCS school. This was greater than in-state Big XII competitor Texas Tech, in the same range as schools like Syracuse and Miami, more than 3 Big East schools (Pitt, USF and Cincinnati) and greater than the next highest non-BCS school (BYU) by nearly $7 million. Second, guess which school has had the most NFL draft picks in history out of any non-BCS program? TCU, who is ahead of an entire slew of BCS programs on that measurement. Those two factors show that TCU isn’t just a fly-by-night program that got hot this past season. Its long-term revenue levels and history of churning out quality players mean that TCU is a legitimate BCS-level program as of today that also happens to be in the major market of Dallas-Fort Worth (even if it doesn’t deliver that market in the manner of Texas or Texas A&M).
The opportunity for the the Big East is that TCU probably can’t get into the Big XII (whereas too many people assume the opposite, including Mr. Bennett from ESPN.com). As I explained in point #4 in this post, TCU’s chances to get into the Big XII are almost a carbon copy of Pitt’s chances of getting into the Big Ten: they’re too much of a geographic fit (where they’re already within the conference footprint) in a world where expanding the conference footprint into new markets is more important for TV purposes. If you’ve followed my posts examining the prospect of Texas joining the Big Ten, you know that the #1 reason why the Big XII has issues is that it has TV revenues due to the lack of markets outside of the state of Texas. Thus, if the Big XII were to lose one or more members, adding TCU as a replacement doesn’t address that conference’s main problem that has caused such instability in the first place. As I’ve stated before, the only legitimate shot that TCU has to get into the Big XII is if both Texas and Texas A&M leave that conference.
Thus, TCU looks a lot like Louisville circa-2003: a BCS-ready program whose immediately geographically-close BCS conferences (in Louisville’s case at the time, the SEC and ACC) will probably never invite it. Even worse, the thoughts of the MWC becoming an AQ conference diminish dramatically if the Big XII and/or Pac-10 start picking off schools like Utah and BYU. Meanwhile, an expanded Big East that includes TCU looks a whole lot better than being limited solely to its standard C-USA options. Take a look at this hypothetical 12-school conference with North and South divisions:
In my opinion, that’s a pretty solid football AND basketball conference from top-to-bottom that covers a multitude of major markets. For the people that still care about geography, this league actually bears little difference to the old C-USA when Army was still a football member, where the league stretched from Texas to New York. Still, please don’t get hung up on the non-TCU schools that I inserted since they are really gut-level choices. I chose Temple (despite its horrid experience as a football-only member of the Big East where it was kicked out even when the conference was in search of warm bodies in the wake of the 2003 ACC raid) simply because if the Big East is going to split, I feel that the conference is going to need a presence in the Philadelphia market (even if it’s more for the basketball side of the equation). Memphis is sort of a natural extension for the Big East after having added Louisville and Cincinnati. The Tigers from Memphis with respect to the Big East feel a lot like the Tigers from Missouri with respect to the Big Ten – the geography works and there are some pre-existing rivalries, but it’s not exactly an exciting game-changing move. Houston provides a large market and travel partner for TCU. Regardless, you can exchange ECU and/or UCF for any of those choices I’ve mentioned above if you’re so inclined. The overarching point is that a Big East split looks a whole lot better with TCU involved than without. If the Big East were to lose a member to the Big Ten or another conference, then including TCU is even more vital for the conference in terms of maintaining its BCS AQ status. Maybe it would behoove the Big East to make the first move here by inviting TCU immediately so that it doesn’t even give an opening to the Big XII to potentially grab them in the event that both Texas and Texas A&M go to the Big Ten or Pac-10.
What would happen to the Big East Catholics? I’d envision a 10-school all-Catholic league league that would consist of the legacy Big East members plus Xavier and St. Louis University. That would be a legitimate major basketball conference in great TV markets with a side benefit of DePaul possibly winning multiple conference games in a season. (Actually, the Blue Demons still wouldn’t with that lineup.) If Notre Dame were to take a Big Ten invite, you could plug in Dayton (who might very well have the best college basketball fan base in the nation that no one seems to know about) and continue to have a fantastic 10-school conference. That’s not a bad ending for the Big East Catholics in a split situation.
I don’t know if the Big East Football schools are bold enough to go forward with Option B, but it’s at least a colorable argument for a split if TCU is included. If TCU can’t be brought in, though, then I don’t think a split would be wise.
With all of that in mind, which scenario would you choose if you were running the Big East?
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Wikipedia)