Wed Mar 17 01:54pm EDT
When West Virginia coach Bill Stewart broached the possibility during a local TV interview last week, the notion of the death of the Big East as a major football conference came from so far out of left field -- especially when accompanied by Stewart's farfetched visions of the Mountaineers defecting to the ACC or SEC as a result -- that it was easy to dismiss as a footnote in the hypothetical conference expansion wars that have dominated the offseason chatter. Even former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, a Big East lifer who helped found the league and stayed through his retirement last year, all but laughed off WVU's attraction to any other power conference Monday during an interview on Pittsburgh radio.
At the same time, though, Tranghese didn't say anything to throw cold water on Stewart's doomsday scenario for the league if the Big Ten comes calling for Pitt, or Rutgers, or possibly both. In fact, he added a couple chilling buckets of his own:
"The whole expansion thing with the Big Ten is very, very unnerving. ... If the Big Ten comes and takes multiple teams from the Big East, I think the Big East is in trouble, obviously. I think everyone would agree with that. ... It's a tough situation because I don't think there's anything the Big East can do to prevent it. I think everyone is sort of sitting on pins and needles to see what the Big Ten is going to do."
"[The Big East could survive] if one team left, but it would depend on who that team is. ... It's a pretty dicy time. You know, if you said to me 'if this team goes, could the league survive?' I'd say yes, but there are other teams who, if we lost the team, it would have a significant effect. And then I think everything's up in the air. It's a nervous time I think for everybody in the conference."
Leaving the Big East isn't cheap -- membership obligates any departing school to pay a $5 million exit fee -- but even Tranghese admitted that's a minor speed bump on the way out, "because they're going to make it up many times over" as part of the Big Ten's unstoppable revenue machine. The only significant deterrent in the Big East's playbook is an "awkward" 27-month waiting period before programs are allowed out, and that's not likely to stop anyone in the long run, either. The league can easily survive in basketball, even if diminished, but with only eight football schools, the defection of even one could send it the way of the old Southwest Conference, and its remaining members scattered in the wind. At the very least, a reduced or further watered-down Big East, forced to pick up a Central Florida, Memphis (which has already hired Tranghese as a consultant in apparent anticipation of a Big East campaign) or East Carolina from Conference USA or try to coax Villanova and Georgetown up from the I-AA ranks to fill the gaps, could kiss its automatic BCS bid goodbye.
And in case you were wondering about the great white whale in any conference expansion saga, Tranghese was emphatic: "Notre Dame will never play football in the Big East." (Seriously, despite ND's ties to the league in basketball and non-revenue sports, "It's not going to happen.") But he emphasized that it still doesn't take too many rounds of game theory to imagine the Irish gritting their teeth and finally hopping into bed with the Big Ten, after all, as a security blanket against the potential chaos unleashed by a Big Ten raid into the Big East, which could set off any number of explosions that threaten to leave ND -- in other sports, at least, if not in football -- in the cold. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick alluded last week to just such a sequence of "seismic" shifts that could "force our hand" in the immediate future. By which he can only mean, "force our hand to join the Big Ten," because where else could it be forced?
If that long-awaited marriage goes down, the Big East is likely spared, and the dominoes more or less stop there (depending on what happens with the Pac-10's expansion bid on the other side of the country, and whether it sets off a chain reaction between the Big 12 and Mountain West). If only Notre Dame and the Big Ten can finally be together, everyone lives happily ever after for the next few decades. But if they can't, and the Big Ten can't go on living with the lure of the 12th member and conference championship game taunting it year after year, it sounds like the Big East could easily find itself in a fight for survival.
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Hat tip: The Wiz.