Conference Realignment: How the Big East Can Save the World

Chip SpanglerContributor IIIOctober 1, 2011

Conference Realignment: How the Big East Can Save the World

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    Well, it can save the world of college athletics, at least. 

    The Big East needs to take a part in reshaping the NCAA landscape for its own long-term survival.

    But first, the Big East needs to save itself.

    Conference realignment is upon us. Again.

    Syracuse and Pitt will depart for the ACC, Texas A&M joins the SEC next year, TCU will (in theory) join the Big East, and nobody knows what will happen next.

    The Big East has been rocked by defections before. In 2004 and 2005, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College departed for the ACC. In response, the Big East raided Conference USA (and two other C-USA schools joined the A-10). Conference USA then raided the MAC and the WAC. The MWC grabbed TCU. The WAC raided the Big West and Sun Belt. The Sun Belt added I-AA schools.

    And the primary reason that these teams are jumping from one conference to another is college football.

    The Big East's first task is to stabilize itself.  The Big East can use its possession of the “great prize” for a football conference—its status as a BCS automatic qualifier conference—to its advantage.  But it needs to act soon, or it may be too late.

    If the Big East is going to make moves to save itself, it has to move decisively and fast. One of the latest rumors is that WVU, Louisville, Cincinnati and TCU are all attempting to become members of the Big 12

    There are things the Big East can do in the short term, but there are other steps the conference should take for the long term, and those steps involve much more than just the Big East.  Let’s take a look.

    Update: This slideshow is rather long and includes a fair bit of background information. It is good information but a long read. If you want just the basic idea, please read my newest article. It gets straight to the point.

A Change at the Top

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    John Marinatto needs to go.

    He’s mishandled the Big East football expansion as it relates to Villanova’s emerging football program. He’s stated that that Pitt and Syracuse will stick around as lame ducks for the full 27 months, despite the fact that some of the schools want them out ASAP. He has not secured any serious commitments to the future of the Big East from its member schools.

    He has apparently lost the respect of at least one of the Big East coaches. Like it or not, he's in over his head as a conference commissioner.

    Admittedly, it is a lousy situation.  The football and non-football schools have conflicting interests. The football schools want a league with 10 or 12 teams, which could result in a basketball league with 18 or 20 teams.

    Right now, the Big East has very weak leadership at best. It needs to replace Marinatto with someone who would immediately have the respect of both the football and non-football schools and could work to bring them together.

    Who that might be remains an open question. The Big 12 was fortunate in that they had a gentleman who was already very familiar with many of the schools (and also a former commissioner of the Big 12) and very well respected. Is there such a person available for the Big East? 

    Oliver Luck, the current WVU athletic director, might be a good interim candidate. He has a variety of experience in the world of sports business, including serving as a general manager of the MLS team in Houston for two years.

    A conference has to consider the needs of all of its schools, not just one group of schools. Finding a capable commissioner would be a good start to healing the conference.

    Now, about those two different groups of schools…

Keep the Football and Non-Football Members Together

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    Many people are suggesting that the league divorce its football and non-football schools. This does make sense in several ways, but is it really the best option?

    Do not forget that the Big East, at its formation, was a non-football conference. At a comfortable nine teams, it broke onto the scene in a big way in the 1980s, sending six of its nine members to the men’s basketball Final Four.

    Since the conference expanded, it has acquired a split personality; the football side and the non-football side. The conference still hung together despite this, but over the years it has proven too much. 

    The first major defection saw three members leave for the ACC; the latest finds two more headed out the door.  It has gotten so bad that one of the remaining football schools has made what amount to public love overtures to the ACC, despite it not having an invitation in hand (and it's not likely to get one until and unless the ACC finds a major football power to go with it).

    Given this split, why should the conference stay together?  To answer this question, look at the ramifications of two different conferences.

    For the non-football schools, is it a good idea to leave behind the better basketball programs from the football schools, including Louisville and UConn? These are two basketball programs with a great history and tradition. They have combined for five national championships and nine Final Four appearances since 1980, as well as 39 Sweet 16 appearances over their history. Likewise, Cincinnati also has a strong basketball history.

    Do the non-football schools really want to rid themselves of those basketball programs?

    For the football schools, consider the locations of the existing non-football schools and how they relate to a media presence. The non-basketball schools are in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, northern New Jersey, New York City, Providence, Chicago and Milwaukee, not to mention the national following of Notre Dame. Other than northern New Jersey, those locations do not have any of the Big East football schools.

    Is it wise to change the conference so that it does not have a presence in those media markets?

    It is understandable that some of the schools might want to split the conference. But it makes more sense for the schools to stick together.

    But how will the football programs be satisfied without expansion, since the league has been reduced to seven football teams?

    Sometimes the best thing to do is steal someone else's idea and make it your own. In this case, the other idea is a potential threat from out west to the Big East's status as a Bowl Championship Series Automatic Qualifier (BCS AQ) conference. But the Big East still has a chance.

    Let's look at what's going on with Conference USA and the Mountain West...

Competition from the West

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    The Big East raided Conference USA once in the past. It looks like it may consider doing so again, since East Carolina and UCF have been mentioned as potential targets.

    While plucking a couple of teams from C-USA could temporarily provide the Big East with enough strength to maintain its BCS AQ status, it does not mean that it will hold onto it forever.  It may face stiff competition from the west.

    Conference USA will likely be worried because the last major realignment saw the Big East raid it and take five members. It would undoubtedly prefer that history not repeat itself. It may already have a plan.

    In the hope that they might obtain the BCS AQ status, Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference have discussed a possible football-only merger between the two conferences.  This could create a 22-team football league.

    The plan sounds relatively simple: each of the two conferences would play separate football schedules, and the two champions of each league would meet to play a title game. Both conferences hope that their combined strength would be enough to obtain BCS AQ status.

    But the potential merger still has issues to resolve, since it could run afoul of current NCAA rules.

    A conference is only allowed one conference championship game, and Conference USA might want two (one for itself and one for the “merged” conference). If not, it would likely be forced to play a conference schedule with 10 games, acting as one 11-team division (with UTEP joining the Mountain West teams in another 11-team division). This would limit out-of-conference matches to just two games per year.

    If Conference USA is able to secure the BCS AQ status for its football teams, it would be unlikely to lose any members. And this is where it gets very interesting.

    The Big East can make a better offer to Conference USA than the Mountain West can because it is already a BCS AQ conference.

    Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

    The Big East is struggling to survive, and if it wants to continue on as a football conference, it needs to take immediate, dramatic action.

A Temporary Conference Football Merger

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    The Big East should create its own football "super conference."

    While this would be a temporary, and radical, solution, it would help prevent the collapse of the Big East.  The Big East already has BCS AQ status and can use that to preempt a football-only merger of the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA.

    The Big East can invite everyone from Conference USA to participate in Big East football (and only football).

    Since the Big East will only have seven football teams, its merger with Conference USA would create a 19-team conference. This would allow all of the teams to play either eight or nine conference games, leaving room on the schedule for out-of-conference rivalries and other games.

    The football league would be split into two divisions:

    Eastern Division Western Division
    Connecticut UAB
    Rutgers Memphis
    West Virginia Southern Miss
    Marshall Tulane
    Cincinnati Tulsa
    Louisville SMU
    East Carolina TCU
    Central Florida Houston
    South Florida Rice

    Each team's conference schedule would consist of round-robin play within its division. At the end of the season, the two division winners would meet in a championship game to become the Big East BCS AQ team.

    With a 10-team and a 9-team division, each team would have nine or eight conference games, either one of which is a reasonable schedule. If one of the teams (for example, Houston or TCU) left to join the Big 12, they would still have enough teams for a good conference schedule.

    A football merger that results in a 19-team football league that already has BCS AQ status is a much better deal for Conference USA than a merger that creates a 22-team football league in the hope that the league will obtain BCS AQ status.

    It may be tempting for the Big East to simply invite only a few schools (possibly UCF and ECU) to become football-only members. However, it is not the best plan. ECU and UCF might prefer not to be the only two football-only members when all other Big East teams are football members.

    If all Conference USA members are invited as a group, it will be obvious that the Big East is trying to preserve its own football status as a BCS AQ conference but is not destroying Conference USA in the process.

    This plan would also allow Conference USA teams to continue their existing rivalries with out-of-conference teams by having only eight or nine conference games (instead of a probable 10 conference games in a 22-team league).

    While this is a radical solution, it will preserve Big East football in the short term and is a win-win for both the Big East football teams and the Conference USA football teams.

    But realistically, it is only a temporary solution.

    What is the long-term solution? How can the Big East position itself for the future?

    Conference instability has recently become a huge problem for NCAA institutions. There is a reason why it exists, and there is a solution waiting to solve the problem.

    The Big East can play a big role in bringing about that solution.

The Problem

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    The Big East’s problems with conference stability cannot be fixed by the Big East alone, because the problem is not just within the Big East.

    Conference realignment is out of control because of one sport: football.

    It’s not just a matter of football being the problem on its own. Yes, football creates a ton of money for schools and pays for some entire athletic departments by itself. But that is not the only reason football is pushing conference realignment.

    Football is creating conference instability because of the awful non-playoff system known as the Bowl Championship Series.

    The BCS has created a system of “haves” and “have nots” with the prized automatic qualifier status granted to the Big East, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. The remaining five FBS conferences are out of the loop, unless one of their teams happens to do substantially well (e.g., Boise State).

    Bowls often insist that a school must attempt to sell a lot of expensive tickets in order to participate in a bowl game. Schools are often unable to complete this task. Schools may also be prohibited from negotiating their own costs for lodging (for the team, staff, cheerleaders, etc.) for the bowl trip as a condition of participation.

    The Arizona Republic recently completed an investigation of the BCS. A lot of questions are being asked regarding the high salaries of bowl commissioners and the gifts lavished upon coaches, players and others. The system is under intense scrutiny and may not survive legal challenges.

    In short, the BCS and the bowls are the major overriding problem with FBS football, and also a major cause of conference realignment.

    There is a way out of this mess.

The Solution

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    Several years ago, the SEC and ACC attempted to add one game to create a small playoff within the BCS system. They were rebuffed by the other “big four” conferences. Since then, the Big 12 and Big East have had seismic shifts, with five huge programs (Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, Pitt and Syracuse) leaving the two conferences.

    If the mini-playoff had been adopted, it could have eventually led to a larger football playoff. But it did not happen. FBS football is the only sport in the NCAA without a postseason championship.

    It is time to implement a football playoff for the FBS schools. It is long overdue.

    The BCS is why South Florida, over 700 miles from all other conference schools, is in the Big East.

    The BCS is also why TCU, also over 700 miles from all other conference schools, is scheduled to join the Big East next year.

    The Big East and Big 12 have had horrible problems simply trying to keep their existing members.  These two need to join with the SEC and the ACC to force the issue. If four of the six “big” conferences are involved, including arguably the two strongest football conferences, then the NCAA will see the FBS football leagues form a playoff.

    The NCAA has stated that it is willing to create an FBS football playoff if it is asked to by its member schools.

    Let’s take a serious look at how a football playoff would save the world of college athletics.

The Basic Rules for a Football Playoff

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    The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is wildly popular, and it is not because it has some exclusive system where only the “big guys” participate.  Part of the appeal is seeing whether or not teams from lesser-known conferences can knock out the schools from the traditional power conferences.

    A 24-team playoff can create this type of exciting postseason tournament and give all deserving contenders a shot at the title.

    These rules could form the basis for a sensible 24-team football tournament:

    (1)   All FBS football conferences would qualify for an automatic bid to the tournament by satisfying these minimum conditions:

    • Nine football teams
    • Eight conference games per year
    • Six schools that are full members of the conference.

    (2)   Each conference may decide its own method for awarding its automatic bid.

    (3)   After the automatic bids are awarded, the remaining tournament slots are filled by at-large teams selected by a committee (in the same manner as the NCAA basketball tournaments).

    (4)   The teams are seeded 1-24 based on their regular season performance.

    (5)   The top eight seeds receive a first-round bye.

    (6)   The games for the first four rounds are hosted by the higher seed. For example, seeds 9-16 host games in the first round, while seeds 1-8 host games in the second round.

    (7)   Games are played on Saturdays (just as they are in the regular NCAA football season).

    (8)   The third weekend of December is skipped (student-athletes have exams to take).

    (9)   The championship is played at a neutral site (presumably one of the large southern stadiums).

    The basic requirements in Item 1 create an environment that supports conference stability. It does not mean that teams will never change conferences, but they would have far less of an incentive to do so.

    There would also be less of an incentive to form a "super conference." Some conferences (most likely the ACC and SEC) would have 14 teams and would see some benefits from that arrangement (regarding television contracts), but there would be less incentive for a conference to move to 16 teams.

    A requirement of at least nine teams for an automatic bid also prevents conferences from simply splitting apart into smaller groups in order to have a better chance of obtaining an automatic bid.

    What are the other benefits available from a football playoff?

Football Playoff Benefits

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    How does this benefit the bigger conferences?

    The best football conferences get more teams into the playoffs.  All of the “big six” conferences would have a good shot to get at least two teams into the playoffs, and the best of them would see three or four teams making the postseason.

    The top 16 teams in the country each host at least one playoff game. Seeds 9-16 will host a game in the first round. Seeds 1-8 will host a game in the second round, and the highest seeds could have as many as three home playoff games. No additional travel is involved for the best teams (unless they make it to the national championship), and they’ll have the home crowd on their side.

    So how does this benefit the smaller conferences?

    Each conference gets at least one shot on the national stage.  Currently there is very little hope for members of the non-AQ conferences to make it to a BCS bowl. With a 24-team playoff, each conference will have one representative and will share in the payout.

    How does this benefit all of the conferences?

    A television deal would earn more money than the BCS. Speaking of payouts, read this excerpt from a 2009 Sports Illustrated article regarding the money-making potential of an FBS playoff:

    The presidents cling to the BCS, which, when the new contract with ESPN kicks in, will bring in $125 million a year in rights fees. Jim Wheeler, an Oklahoma business professor who has plenty of experience with this subject, ran a model earlier this week for The model found that a plus-one system would generate about $160 million a year. An eight-team playoff would generate $212 million a year. A 16-team playoff identical to the one used in all the other levels of NCAA football would bring in -- drumroll, please -- $400 million a year.

    While the BCS brings in money, a playoff would bring in a lot more money, and games would simply be like any other home or road game for the teams (until the championship game). In short, it is more profitable and presents fewer logistical problems.

    Schools would have fewer travel costs and expenses forced upon them. Unlike the BCS, the teams would not be forced into attempting to sell expensive tickets to a far-away game. Schools also would not be forced into a non-negotiable deal for hotel rooms for its team and support staff. Some teams would have road games, but they would not be much different than a regular-season road game, and they would certainly cover their costs from the increased playoff payout.

    Now is the time to make this happen.  The Big East can do its part.

How Might the Big East Be Organized in a World with a College Football Playoff?

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    Imagine for a minute that the Big East could base its membership on more than just football. It could keep its basketball power and still have geographic sensibility.

    Here is one possibility:

    A nine-team football league:

    Massachusetts Connecticut Rutgers
    Villanova Temple West Virginia
    Cincinnati Louisville East Carolina

    A 16-team basketball league:

    Massachusetts Connecticut Providence St. John's
    Seton Hall Rutgers Villanova Temple
    Georgetown East Carolina West Virginia Cincinnati
    Louisville Notre Dame DePaul Marquette

    Heading out: South Florida and TCU, the two "conference outposts"

    Newcomers: Massachusetts, East Carolina, Temple, and Villanova (football)

    Is it geographically sensible? Yes, and there are no 700-mile outposts in the conference.

    Has it grown to 18 or 20 members for basketball and other sports? No, it has stopped at 16.

    There are numerous other possibilities for a Big East realignment; this is simply one example of what the Big East might look like without geographical absurdity. It’s better for the student athletes of all sports teams if they’re not traveling longer distances to go to games.

    Other conferences would also be able to make decisions without focusing exclusively on football.

Moving Forward

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    Any hope of stabilizing the Big East and the entire landscape of college athletic conferences requires serious action and requires it soon. If the Big East does nothing, it will cease to exist as a football conference.

    Bleacher Report correspondent Tobi wrote several extensive articles last year on some interesting possibilities for Big East expansion and realignment. Some of these ideas have serious merit.

    But in the current climate of conference realignment, in which everyone's philosophy is "jump to a BCS AQ conference ASAP," it is unlikely any of his long-term suggestions could be implemented.

    The conference realignment carousel will not likely end any time soon unless a football playoff is created for the FBS teams.

    The BCS will promote itself as the only way to go and say that it is a better alternative than a playoff system. That is to be expected, as it is in the BCS's own self-interest.

    But it is not in the best interests of college football, college athletic conferences or individual schools. A playoff system would be substantially better.

    It can be done. The Big East can help lead the way, and even save itself in the process.