In realignment, schools and conferences reach points where they suddenly lose the leverage to author a better future for themselves. When a conference is under fire from other conferences, there are moments where a single choice dictates most future potential outcomes.
A loss of nerve can erase a brighter future for a school's athletic program, while courage can ensure it.
Likewise, a single choice can stabilize a conference or cripple one, leaving it vulnerable to future raids.
It appears San Diego State and the Big East may be on the verge of one of these moments.
I think the questions facing both can be summed up rather easily.
"Does San Diego State want to be a national brand or not?"
"Does the Big East want to be the best of the non-contract conferences or are they willing to put that at risk?"
To me, the questions are pretty simple (and quite pointed) at this moment.
I believe it is time for bold and courageous decisions by institutional leaders that go for the big payoffs.
For San Diego State:
The entire point of moving to the Big East was to try to build a national brand in football. Is that a goal SDSU's leadership wants to forget about ever achieving?
A return to the Mountain West Conference is not as appealing as an MWC fan may imagine. Such a move offers a litany of limitations.
In football, the MWC has never been a very impressive brand in San Diego. The MWC is now a weak regional brand. It has never gotten much respect in southern California. Additionally, this MWC no longer has TCU, BYU, or Utah while the Pac-12 is perceived to be much stronger. How much local media value does the MWC really offer SDSU?
And it looks even worse when you consider the sports offerings. With San Jose State now in the conference, this MWC would be a weaker basketball conference than the one SDSU left. That MWC regularly received only two bids to the NCAA tournament. The losses of Utah and BYU don't help that. Losing a strong program hits a member school twice. The MWC schools lose a pair of nice matchups with Utah and BYU, and then on top of that every school in the conference sees their RPI drop due to a drop in strength of schedule.
If one looks at Sagrin and RPI ratings over the last 5 years, barring some very thoughtful scheduling, it seems pretty likely the MWC will be a 2-3 bid conference in the coming years.
Does rejoining that conference really help SDSU in basketball?
SDSU is likely to earn the Big West's automatic bid most years and given their efforts in this regard, there is a good chance their nonconference schedule would be loaded up enough to get them in as an at-large should a Big West tourney upset occur.
In football, a rebuilt MWC could be an even a more difficult home conference for San Diego State in terms of building their brand.
If Brigham Young likes the new "winner's bonus" financial rules in the MWC package and they chose to return, there is going to be less "air"—less opportunity—for San Diego State to build a brand. Higher profile programs at BYU and Boise State will likely soak up the bonuses and broadcast slots. SDSU may very well return to peer status with Wyoming, San Jose State, and the like.
With the kind of money San Diego State spends, that cannot be acceptable, can it?
In the Big East, SDSU would be unique and SDSU would be able to claim the idea of "outgrowing" the MWC—a potent narrative for fans and local media.
Then there is the financial argument.The MWC has adopted policies that create a path for Boise State (or another dominant football program) to clean up financially while all the other schools share the crumbs. This kind of thinking brought the Big 12 to the verge of collapse.
Some estimates suggest the other schools could see TV payouts in the $600K to $1.3 Million range per year while Boise State could see substantially more. (Additionally if BSU should earn the contract bowl slot, Boise State would keep half of that money as well.)
It is very possible that within 5 years several good programs in the MWC may rethink their position after seeing Boise State take home several times more money than everyone else.
It would seem somewhat illogical for San Diego State to rejoin the MWC knowing that in 2-3 years they could see schools like Colorado State and New Mexico leave for the Big East.
Leaving the Big East today would likely close the door on readmission down the road if the MWC crumbles under the weight of the Boise State rules.
But, in the face of that, San Diego State has taken down the Big East logos on their website. (Perhaps this shows intent to return to the MWC. Perhaps it is merely an act of good faith during negotiations. And perhaps there is no relevance at all...)
SDSU AD Jim Sterk's noncommittal comment, "We will continue to evaluate the situation and make decisions based on the best interest of the San Diego State athletic department and the university overall" seemed to imply SDSU's leadership is thinking of sacrificing the better potential of the Big East for the perceived safety of returning to the MWC.
Taking an allegedly safe move is not an uncommon thing is realignment. This decision is likely being made at the Presidential level or higher, and at that level they like moves that appear publicly defensible. No school president wants to lose their job over an athletic department issue.
Texas State did a similar lateral move to a "safe" conference with little upside when they jumped to the Sun Belt last year. In the WAC, Texas State could have quickly developed influence in a conference that local fans polled to favor. In the Sun Belt, Texas State is merely a number in a conference that has never received much media attention in Texas and offers little potential in promoting the Texas State brand. But the school had a relationship with Karl Benson, and the move was perceived as safe. Administrations favor safe moves.
It seems a moment of truth for the Aztecs. Are they baller or not? Do they want to be permanently tied to Boise State and the regional Mountain West Conference, or do they want to try to take the next somewhat risky step and begin to evolve their athletic program into a national brand?
Unless SDSU suddenly starts winning 90% of their games in football, that just isn't going to happen in the MWC.
The Big East with it's instability is not a conference that is ideal for every school, but for San Diego State it may be the right conference to allow SDSU to achieve their goals.
There is little reason to believe that after seeing SDSU leave, the Big East would ever re-invite San Diego State.
This seems to be SDSU's one shot to build the kind of national program that cannot be ignored that could potentially entice a contract conference like the Pac-12 or (more likely) the Big 12 to invite them.
For The Big East:
The Big East has similarly impactful issues facing them if SDSU leaves.
If San Diego State jumps, will Houston follow?
It appears the Big East is taking a somewhat cavalier attitude about SDSU leaving because the Big East membership and league leadership think the rest of their membership would be stable in the face of that kind of decision by SDSU.
It seems the membership may feel they just made a point about not making extra concessions for a school and are treating SDSU's position as a take it or leave it referendum on the offer SDSU took to become a football-only member.
And finally it is likely some of the Big East members don't want that large of a footprint.
All of these ideas seem short-sighted.
The Big East membership will discuss adding some members this Friday (the 11th). According to ESPN, the leading plan is to add Tulsa and UMass.
The thought in Big East circles is that all current members are in it for the long haul. There is probably an assumption that SDSU will either choose to stay or will not have the support to return to the MWC.
(As part of the terms of recovering Boise State, the Mountain West Conference has agreed to spend the next month talking terms with San Diego State on the Aztecs also returning to the MWC. SDSU has a poor relationship with the leaders of the MWC conference. Boise State had been on the fence about leaving the MWC for the Big East and it seemed they were unlikely to jump without a western school coming with them. San Diego State agreed to be Boise State's enabler. Then when Boise State decided the WAC was no longer a viable home and was again flirting with a return to the MWC, SDSU again helped out. SDSU was able to convince the Big West—a weaker conference in basketball, but a more stable home than the WAC—to admit Boise State
At least twice, SDSU has effectively told the MWC membership to "Suck it!" and denied them Boise State. Some media reports from the last 10 days state it is not certain that San Diego State has the votes to get back into the MWC.)
But what if the assumption that San Diego State will stay is a bad one?
The MWC has few markets. Can they really afford to rake SDSU over the coals, or will they simply roll over yet again (Just as with Boise State) because financially, they have to?
What would happen next?
The Big East leadership should consider the implications of a "lateral loss." The Texas State move to the Sun Belt may have represented the final nail in the coffin for the football WAC. A conference can generally withstand losses to conferences that pay a lot better. When conferences under fire start losing schools to regional conferences with little to offer, it sends a message of instability that is not easily quelled.
If SDSU jumps back to the MWC, the public thought is that the MWC will likely try to add Houston and BYU.
That may not be possible.
Frankly that may just be the MWC's pie-in-the-sky plan.
The MWC may be totally content to follow up adding SDSU with adding UTEP and then let either Houston or BYU fill the last slot. UTEP and Houston have strong ties between their leaderships. (UTEP and MWC member New Mexico are historic rivals and also have close ties.
If you read the recent comments made by Houston, there was no talk of loyalty to the Big East (as there was reflected in SMU's comments and those of most other Big East members). The loyalty of Houston to the Big East may be overstated.
SMU may secretly be fine with a Houston departure as fellow Texas private university Rice would likely replace Houston. That would put all four western C-USA privates (Tulsa, Tulane, SMU, and Rice) in the Big East.
The rest of the Big East should be a lot more concerned about losing Houston, as Rice basketball is significantly weaker and it was reported a few years ago that Rice only has 44,000 living alumni in total. Rice represents another basketball RPI anchor and a huge media downgrade in the very important Houston DMA.
It appears that Houston may be in play. They may be thinking they could beat the odds and get a better payout in the MWC.
I believe the Big East would be wise to re-evaluate the University of Texas at El Paso as a candidate to help entice Houston to stay. UTEP has a strong basketball culture with a very good coach who is fairly likely to be there for a while (given his issues at USC), they might bring a good bowl game for schools in Texas and the surrounding areas, and they have shown good fan support in football when their team is competitive. They would be a good bridge to San Diego State and would help keep the MWC out of Texas. Plus they would open the door for the recruitment of The University of New Mexico—a very strong basketball program.
Adding UTEP might be fairly appealing to SDSU as well. San Diego State is worth working to keep. They haven't asked for Boise State-type concessions to stay. They are a thoughtful and fair partner.
There are concessions that wouldn't cost the Big East a dime that absolutely should be made to retain SDSU. (More on that in a second.)
As far as the footprint idea goes, a nationwide footprint has much better media value than one that stops in Dallas. If Big East members were going to travel to one west coast school, why would you not travel to the one FBS school located in Southern California that is not in a contract conference?
If you are going to take one trip to the west coast, why would you not want to go to the richest recruiting territory in the west? There are 23 Million people in Southern California and only 3 FBS programs! (USC and UCLA being the other two.)
If any Big East schools in the west dream of building national programs, they should want a recruiting toehold in Southern California. Having SDSU in-conference will pump California talent into the western division. Flying a football team to San Diego once every two years is 1000X over worth the money.
Losing SDSU in at best a lateral move, could be the first step in a major loss of stature for the Big East.
The Big East doesn't appear inclined to make the decision for SDSU
I think this is a big mistake.
Mike Aresco has said the Big East wants The Aztecs to stay, but one wonders if all the league members feel the same. One remembers Louisville Coach Rick Pitino spewing that Louisville "would never schedule San Diego State or Boise State".
It is possible that some and maybe even many league members quietly are hoping San Diego State returns to the MWC so the league footprint can end in Dallas.
When pressed for a comment Aresco said,
"I don't know the deal with San Diego State...That could come clear in the next few days. We're in close touch with them.''
Given the fact that the vote to not give in to Boise State's terms was trumpeted to the media as a unanimous decision by the Big East membership, SDSU flirting with the MWC seems a little confusing at best and underhanded at worst.
Aresco said something a few days ago that revealed the conference's view on San Diego State's position.
"The question is, do we want to add two [football] teams?...I'll be talking to the membership about that shortly. You could have a 14-team league or you could stay at 12, which is very manageable and you could play a championship game. But at 14, I think we would need to see if two additional teams bring real value."
''This realignment thing has been a constant issue,'' Aresco said. ''We think things are clarified. We have some clarity.''
There are currently 9 all sports members and two football only members scheduled to play in the Big East in 2013. Navy recently recommitted to join the conference in their AD's scathing review of Boise State's departure. That would be 12 schools. Aresco seemed to have inferred that he believed SDSU has a better position in the Big East and would return, which would make the talks between SDSU and the MWC seem very odd to the Big East membership and leadership.
Since then his tone has changed. An article from a few hours ago speculating that SDSU would rejoin the MWC lead to this comment from Aresco.
"Every indication is they want to stay (in the MWC)," he said after attending a BCS commissioners meeting. "Whether they will or not we still don't know. We're still talking."
Ultimately SDSU has to make the decision that works for them.
Let's put the Big East's SDSU issue aside for a moment and take a wider view of the Big East today for some context.
Why the pursuit of equal footing for each member doesn't make sense at this moment
This is a core issue that is reportedly being discussed today after Boise State's departure. Aresco revealed some of the thought in the conference in relation to Boise State's demands.
"...We felt that [Boise State's demands] would not make for a cohesive conference. We want our people to be on equal footing. We feel that's a sound basis for a good future in any conference. If you look around America, that's really the case now in virtually all conferences."
He also said that football-only member East Carolina could be offered an Olympic membership as well.
As a whole, inviting East Carolina to play basketball in the Big East is as poor of an idea as adding Tulane basketball.
Each uncompetitive basketball program a conference adds drags down the conference RPI. That lowers the SOS of each team in the conference. That can often make an NCAA tournament bubble team into an NIT team.
Now some may recall that I was an indignant voice condemning the basketball schools for effectively saying that adding Tulane basketball was a death blow to Big East basketball.
It wasn't. Tulane was a scapegoat for the Catholic schools to do something that bordered on immoral (remember they wanted to implode the conference) and pointed at the struggles of Tulane basketball as justification.
It was beyond the pale. Adding Tulane basketball on it's own would not suddenly kill the Big East RPI. Painting it that way was unfair.
(All the BB schools had to do was say was "If you delay Tulane's basketball admittance 5 years until they rebuild their program and we will stay" and such a deal likely would have happened. Tulane still would have been up financially and those terms in context would have been seen as reasonable, but nothing like that was ever rumored to have been offered. It seems like the basketball schools just wanted to leave and that was a compelling moment.)
Tulane is a well coached program which seems to be amassing more talent each year. Their coach, Ed Conroy, won 20 games one season at the Citadel (find them in this year's RPI to see what an accomplishment that was—obviously the guy can coach). Eventually it seems likely they will probably amass enough depth of talent to be able to hang around in conference play.
The real problem was the Big East had already added project programs in SMU and Houston. While both Texas schools' basketball programs appear to be on the upswing, there is little to suggest their coaches have some deep loyalty to their schools or that the Texas duo will retain their coaches long term if they see success. Both universities lack a strong basketball culture (and as a Texan, it does hurt to say that about Houston given their history). Tulane is more of the same.
If Tulane's coach wins, is there any reason to believe he won't leave for a program with better facilities? Is there any reason to believe Tulane would try to match or beat a strong financial offer? Is there any reason to believe Tulane would hire another good coach?
Adding Tulane after adding the Texas duo and losing Pitt, Syracuse, and Louisville (schools that dragged up the conference RPI) is the real story. The fear of dramatically diminished Big East basketball had a cumulative origin. It wasn't just Tulane Basketball.
The cumulative effect that the basketball schools pointed to (but didn't properly name) is what the football members schools should consider now.
Financially the Big East needs better basketball...and that is where SDSU can help.
Only 6 of the 30 conferences with automatic tournament bids have Sagrin ratings over 80. Those 6 conferences dominate when it comes to tournament invitations. As such, they secure the lion's share of NCAA tournament revenues.
About 2/3 of all basketball schedules are comprised of in-conference play. Ratings like Sagrin and RPI reflect that in-conference distortion.
While smart out of conference scheduling helps, having a conference rating over 78 or so seems to be very helpful to getting three or more NCAA tourney bids.
Tournament bids mean tourney revenue. Anything that drops conference RPI significantly, effectively costs members schools revenue.
Lets take a look at the how the affected conferences shake out now after realignment:
Conference - 5 year Sagrin averages, adjusted for new members
Big East Catholics - 80.836
MWC - 75.174
Big East - 78.51
Now the USU and SJSU will likely see a raise in their RPI by playing a MWC schedule, but the MWC losing Utah and BYU may offset that by decreasing conference-wide strength of schedule. It is likely the MWC stays in that ballpark.
The two halves of the Big East will take an RPI hit by not playing the ACC trio and the retirement of UConn's Jim Calhoun, but they will still likely be a little better than the MWC.
San Diego State currently has a very good chance of landing the Big West's automatic bid each year. It is a decent home. Recruiting was a concern for San Diego State, but thus far, a drop in recruiting has not occurred.
In the MWC, SDSU could go back to seeing poor odds of making the tournament.
In the Big East, not adding ECU men's basketball at this moment would be a smart play. Adding a weak program at this point could move the RPI and cost the Big East a tournament slot each year (and the money that would yield).
Frankly seeing if Tulane would park their Olympic sports in a conference like the Sun Belt for a couple years might be a smart move. The Sun Belt has lost a number of schools and they are very sensitive to travel costs. That would raise the the football Big East's 5 year average to 79.515.
Adding schools would help too. Steve Fisher's program would probably see slightly better odds of making the tournament in the Big East and would likely see a major improvement in recruiting. In Southern California they would be perceived as a national program. They would also have annual games in recruiting hotbeds Dallas and Houston. (It is not difficult to imagine elite Texas basketball talent going to play for an elite name coach like Steve Fisher in a great location like San Diego. Frankly in this Big East, SDSU basketball could become an elite western program like UNLV was under Jerry Tarkanian. Given the potential for improvement, SDSU may be the best basketball program the Big East could possibly land...and that is worth thinking about.
The Big East with SDSU basketball would have a 5 year average of 78.992. With SDSU and with Tulane basketball's introduction pushed down the road a few years, the number would be 79.9313.
With the access the Big East has to San Diego State, it is shortsighted to write off an asset like SDSU basketball.
It makes sense to keep SDSU in football....and add them in basketball.
If SDSU moved their basketball programs with their football programs to the Big East as well, it would dramatically help the Big East in their pursuit of NCAA basketball credits.
Now in general, schools either have all their sports in one conference or football in once conference and all their Olympic sports in another. That isn't optimal in this situation. SDSU and the Big East schools do not want to travel that far for non-revenue sports. It may be seen on both sides as cost prohibitive to move all of SDSU's sports to the Big East... but there may be another way.
SDSU could only play football and men's basketball in the Big East. Everything else could stay in the Big West.
It is certainly a non-standard idea.
It might create a little scheduling trouble in the Big East, but it could actually be very manageable to achieve and acceptable to all parties.
The Big West craves a relationship with San Diego State because the Aztecs have a comparatively high profile. Such a deal would allow SDSU to continue to work to improve their visibility, but would allow the Big West to retain that coveted affiliation. SDSU would retain the cheap travel in Olympic sports the Big West provides.
The Big West leveraged SDSU in conference into a decent TV deal. The fear for the Big West is that the loss of SDSU would skunk that deal. I think there is a solution there.
In return for being able to keep the rest of Aztec Olympic sports in the Big West, SDSU could play the majority of their out of conference schedule vs. Big West schools and allow those games to be used in the Big West TV deal.
That would mitigate a lot of the financial hit on the Big West and seems workable on both sides.
In scheduling terms, the difference between 9 and 10 schools in basketball wouldn't matter much to the Big West.
Whether SDSU basketball is a consideration today or not, keeping SDSU in the Big East should be a priority.
Given the needs of both parties, it would seem to make sense for the Big East and San Diego State to take a more active role with each other in keeping this union intact rather than sheepishly being chained to conventional wisdom. Here's hoping they do.