After weeks of rumors and speculation, it is now official: TCU is the newest member of the Big East. There is nothing "East" and about TCU, but then again there's nothing eastern about Cincinatti, Milwaukee and Chicago, either. There is too much money to be made in football to worry about nuisances like geography. That's why a basketball-first conference such as the Big East would take on a football powerhouse halfway across the country. In many instances, successful football programs often make enough money to finance the rest of the athletic department.
As for TCU, years of battling the BCS for respect can finally be overcome by joining an automatic berth conference.
What does this mean for the long-term future of the Big East Conference? Can a seventeen-team basketball conference really survive? Will the Big East be satisfied with only nine football members in an era where conferences are expanding up to twelve teams in order to get the highly lucrative Conference Championship game? If not, whom do they add?
Will the Big East be satisfied with only nine football members?
In short, no. They have already floated an offer to reigning FCS champion Villanova to bring their program to the FBS level. No doubt, they will be looking to add two additional teams, as they live in constant fear of ACC and Big 10 poachers. In many ways, the ACC and Big East are competing for survival. They are the two weakest BCS football conferences even though they thrive on the hardcourt. Many predict one of the two will not survive the changing landscape of college sports. The ACC has already taken three schools (Boston College, Virginia Tech, Miami) from the Big East and the Big 10 has shown interest in Syracuse, Rutgers and Pitt.
Who gets added to the conference to reach twelve football teams?
While I assume that Nova excepts the invitation, it is no slam dunk. They have produced NFL players over the years, including Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook. But the jump will require tens of millions of dollars of upgrades that may just be beyond the budget for a small private school like Villanova.
The Big East continues to court Notre Dame football even though the Fighting Irish cherish their football independence. Other unlikely fits include Memphis and Temple. Under JoePa product Al Golden (now on his way down to Miami), Temple has developed a growing football program that makes geographic sense. Likewise, Memphis could provide an instant rivalry with Louisville. However, neither plan expands the national presence of the Big East and is therefore is unlikely to bear fruit.
Other names that have been bandied about are Houston and UCF. Houston's football program would be competitive in the Big East. In addition, their Phi Slamma Jamma basketball legacy would add some cache to the football conference while extending the Big East's market reach to Texas. UCF, on the other hand, closely resembles a pre-Big East USF: a school not quite ready for the big time but with a lot of potential for growth and expansion. Florida and Texas are desirable because they are athletics hot beds: many of the best football players in the country come from these two regions.
A third possibility--one that should probably have been added the last time around--is the Thundering Herd of Marshall. In recent years, Marshall has produced NFL players Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, Ahmad Bradshaw and Byron Leftwich (among others). In addition, this move yields immediate rivalry potential with West Virginia and Pittsburgh. In my opinion, the best additions here would be Marshall and Houston: each will have immediate rivalries in place upon joining.
Can the conference really survive with seventeen basketball teams?
For the short term, yes they can. If the Big East Tournament already was complicated with byes and double byes then this is going to be a logistical nightmare. For basketball, TCU makes a small impact: they have a relatively weak program that will get eaten alive by many of the basketball powers in the Big East. However, this addition can actually help Big East basketball by giving them a better recruiting presence in Texas.
What is the long term future of the Big East?
Unfortunately, I think this spells the beginning of the end for the Big East as we know it. I simply cannot fathom a way that this conference will make it another decade with the current membership. I have felt ever since it expanded to 16 teams that a split is inevitable, especially when 8 of those teams are full time members and 8 are solely basketball schools.
I am of the opinion that the football schools will break off into their own conference. Again, assuming Villanova goes FBS then the new conference will look like this: Cincinatti, Louisville, USF, UConn, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers, Syracuse, TCU and Villanova plus the possible additions of Houston, UCF, and/or Marshall.
The basketball schools will remain behind: Georgetown, Notre Dame, Seton Hall, Marquette, Providence, St John's and DePaul. Down to only 7 members they will either need to add 3-5 schools such as A10 members Xavier, Richmond, St Joseph's, Rhode Island, or UMass. Failure to do so would risk the conference disbanding altogether.
Should those schools disband, I believe both conferences will attempt to retain the Big East moniker. If the remaining schools instead decide to raid the A10 and stay alive as a basketball conference, then the football schools will come up with a new name such as the North American Conference (NAC), American Athletic Conference (AAC), Continental Athletic Conference (CAC), the American 12 (A12), or something else along those lines.
Regardless the name, that is how I see things playing out. In the next five-to-ten years the Big East will split leading to a conference for football members and everyone else left to fend for themselves. The new football conference will have 12 members, play a Conference Championship game and retain the BCS automatic berth, should the BCS continue to exist.
Am I off base here or just ahead of the curve? You decide.
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