One of the main problems with the Big East and possible expansion is the hybrid form the conference takes with regard to football and basketball-only members. No other BCS conference has partial membership like the Big East.
Some believe the solution is to split the conference along basketball and football lines, but that would mean severely weakening the strength of the conference from the view of basketball and major market presence. Let’s not forget that the Big East is heavily located in the Northeast Corridor, which is also unique in that basketball is king and there are a lot of television sets. With this in mind, it is apparent that the Big East would like to keep its position of strength in basketball and presence in major metropolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, DC and Chicago.
At the same time it is apparent that the Big East does need to make some move for football. Whether adding a ninth team for scheduling purposes, or adding more teams to increase quantity of games for their next TV contract, or adding more teams to protect itself if a team like Rutgers defects to the Big Ten, or adding more teams to increase the on-field perception of the league.
So how does a 16-team basketball behemoth add more teams without becoming even more of a mess? Some people think 16 teams is too big. What would they think about 20 teams? And football-only membership does not work, as we all experienced the disaster that was Temple for a dozen years. But perhaps the league could settle on a 10-team FB/16-team basketball conference with the view of expanding to 12 football/18 basketball teams in the near future.
Solution One: Villanova
It is no secret that Villanova and their FCS national champion FB program has been invited to join the Big East. And one would wonder why Villanova’s school president and athletic director would make this invitation public and place that pressure on themselves if they did not already know they were going to accept.
Villanova is in Philadelphia, has a fantastic overall athletic program (more NCAA all-sports national championships than any other Big East team), and has no problem drawing 20,000 fans to a half-dozen basketball games per year. Logic would tell you that interest in their football team will increase when they join the Big East, and they should be able to build on their already impressive fanbase to reach the 25,000-30,000 fan level.
No, it is not Penn State, but it is a start, and just as importantly it brings the conference membership to nine football/16 basketball schools. They also are one of the stronger academic schools in the Big East, which always keeps their fellow school presidents happy (remember, it is school presidents who ultimately decide on conference membership).
Solution Two: TCU
We have all read the recent reports. The two most plugged-in New York Big East reporters, Lenn Robbins and Dick “Hoops” Weiss, have broke the news that there is some smoke showing in the TCU/Big East discussions, and the Dallas newspapers are starting to confirm as much.
TCU is another private school like Villanova with a fanbase that has tended to float around 25,000-32,000 fans, and upwards of 35,000-plus fans in this recent boom. Like Villanova, they are a very strong academic school and also are located in a major media market. Nobody would ever claim that Villanova or TCU will capture the Philly and Dallas markets, but they get the conference in the door and on some TV sets in those markets, which is a big part of the battle.
Now there are certainly some complications, like the fact that TCU is located in Texas and we’re talking about the Big EAST. However, the Big East already extends to Milwaukee, Chicago, Indiana, Kentucky, Tampa and Ohio. Is Texas really that much further? Dallas is probably a more accessible location for convenient travel than upstate New York, northeast Connecticut, Kentucky or West Virginia. And from TCU’s view, they are already a team out of place in the Mountain West Conference. They put the Big East conference membership at 10 football/17 basketball schools.
Solution Three: Seton Hall
New Jersey journalist and an “in the know” Seton Hall guy, Jerry Carino, has been hinting for a while at the Big East’s displeasure with Seton Hall. He recently reported that the Big East was beginning to question the financial commitment of Seton Hall towards athletics. Seton Hall has been slashing athletic funding and currently doesn't even have an athletic director, a position that may remain unfilled for a year. Their on-field performance is terrible. They are not just a cellar-dweller in basketball, but in all sports (when they actually field a team).
Seton Hall has essentially become to the conference what Temple was at the turn of the century that led to Temple being kicked out of the league—a complete embarrassment and money drain. Seton Hall also offers no new market, as they are a small private school in New Jersey and the Big East already includes the massive state university of New Jersey: Rutgers.
It is time for the Big East to ask Seton Hall to evaluate what their goals are athletically and how the Big East conference helps them accomplish those goals. Is Seton Hall being a member of the Big East really better for them than an Atlantic 10 existence similar to a Xavier, Dayton or Saint Joseph’s (PA)? Xavier is a tournament regular, Dayton packs 12,000 fans into their house per game, and Saint Joseph’s (PA) had a Perfect Season not too long ago. Meanwhile, PJ Carlesimo and the Rumeal Robinson’s Phantom Foul took place before current recruits were alive, back when George Bush Sr. was in his first year on the job as President.
The rest of the basketball-only Big East schools add something. Marquette and Georgetown are recent Final Four teams and tournament regulars who put a huge effort into basketball. Notre Dame is a big TV draw, helps the football side out with bowl game tie-ins, and joins Villanova as the top non-revenue sport school.
DePaul and St. John’s stink, but you better believe that market presence in New York City and Chicago are one of the first bullet points on any television contract negotiation. Providence is similar to Seton Hall, but the Big East conference offices are located in Providence, the commissioner is a Providence guy, the former commissioner is a Providence guy, the commissioner before him was a Providence guy, and the league was started by Dave Gavitt who was, you guessed it, a Providence guy. Providence doesn’t deserve to stay in the Big East, advancing past the first round of the NCAA Tournament only twice since 1974 (1987 and 1997), but they are not going to be asked to leave.
So the story goes: Villanova added to the football side, TCU added to the conference, Seton Hall discovering that they may be more competitive somewhere else and exiting which leaves us with a 10 football/16 basketball team conference. Not too big on the basketball side, and a lot better set up on the football side.
Then, down the line, if the league wants to add two more football schools they can do so without worrying about bloating the league to 19 or 20 teams. 18 seems like a reasonable number for basketball, and 12 is a perfect number for football. Maybe Houston or SMU added to continue the Texas footprint with a team like UCF and their Orlando market as a friend for USF? Maybe Delaware with their strong statewide support and competitive FCS-level team makes the jump? Maybe UMass or Buffalo are considered?
The Big East is finally being pro-active, and it all starts with Villanova, TCU and Seton Hall.
- TJ Corbs, tackling the hard hitting issues of the Northeast Corridor.