The Big East, as a football conference, is undoubtedly falling apart. Out of the eight all-sports members of the latest incarnation of the league, all but three have defected to another power conference. The three that remain hope desperately that someone will rescue them from what is quickly becoming Conference USA East.
Such changes were almost wholly dictated by college football and the piles of money that come along with it. Schools like Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh threw away years of tradition and a reasonable geographic distribution for the gaudy television revenue associated with a better football league. The decision to move, though on many levels sad, is generally a smart one. Simply switching affiliations can raise cash-strapped universities desperately needed dollars.
The Big East has long understood that football drives the bus in college athletics and has continuously attempted to adapt to that reality. Although it formed and made its name as a basketball-focused league, in 1991 it added Rutgers, Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia to supplement Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh. The Big East football conference was moderately successful, producing some great teams and theater alike.
But due to its size and comparatively unimpressive history, the Big East was never the most attractive of conferences. And in 2004, when some of the schools sensed greener pastures, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami bolted to the ACC.
Subsequent talk between the remaining members centered around whether the football schools should separate from the “basketball-only” schools or stay and build a basketball superconference. The latter course was eventually chosen, and invites were extended to Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul. Connecticut’s football team moved up to the Big East in 2004.
The years following realignment were initially a success. The 2006 football season was one of the most entertaining for any league in recent memory, and Big East BCS representatives have won more than half of their bowl games since 2005.
The basketball league, meanwhile, thrived just as much as it ever had. In 2011, it sent 11 out of 16 teams to the NCAA tournament and saw Connecticut win the national title. Nevertheless, when other power conferences came knocking, five more schools succumbed to financial pressures and departed. And unlike seven years ago, the Big East did not respond well.
The new Big East football conference will be neither good nor particularly watchable. Its new members lack tradition and large fanbases. Additions were made based on “television markets,” with little to no consideration for intangibles or a rational geographic footprint.
What’s more is that for the first time, realignment has had a decidedly negative impact on basketball, the bedrock of the Big East conference. With the exception of Temple, every school added dilutes the league, whether due to bad geographic fit or low-quality basketball. If it continues on its present course, the Big East will no longer be a premier basketball conference.
The old guard of the league should be greatly concerned at this development and realize that its future does not lie in a refashioned Conference USA. Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Villanova and Providence do not belong in a league with SMU and Tulane.
Football revenue in the Big East is only distributed between football-playing members, so even if the new Big East scored a large contract, St. John’s would see none of that money. Athletic budgets will be strained as schools try to pay for their field hockey teams to fly to Dallas and New Orleans.
Sooner or later, the Catholic schools will split from the football conference. The only thing holding such a split back was the shared history of the football and basketball-only schools, like the long-running Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry. But most of the football schools that had close ties with the basketball-only schools are now gone. There is nothing left for the non-football schools in the Big East.
So what can the Catholic schools do? Although there has been a slight buzz about the ACC adding St. John’s and Georgetown, that conference is much more likely to go after another football school—say, Connecticut. The basketball-only schools are on their own this time around. They should take heart, though, in the fact that all are attractive schools.
Villanova and Georgetown are still basketball powers, each having made a Final Four appearance recently. Marquette also has one of the better basketball programs in the country. Seton Hall, St. John's and Providence all have prestigious basketball histories and are on their respective ways up. DePaul also has a great history, if not the greatest resume.
All seven schools play in large arenas in large markets and have long-running rivalries between them. If they make the right moves, they can remain relevant.
What follows is a proposal for a new Big East, one that will keep the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden and have the potential to be a great league. It will not feature football.