Big East Expansion: Spurned By Air Force Edition

Without Air Force in the Mix, Where Will the Big East Turn Next?

After yesterday/today’s big news, it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before Navy and Air Force joined the Big East so the league could get to 12 teams (the magic number to split into divisions and stage a championship game). Now, it appears there’s about to be a wrench thrown into that whole plan. Or maybe multiple wrenches.

With Air Force officially saying “thanks, but no thanks” (using the surprising logic of travel time and geography!) and Navy apparently locked into independence until at least 2014, the Big “East” is once again in a tough spot. Do they wait around for the Midshipmen, or just move on two new options? Logistically, if they manage to force Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia from departing for greener pastures in 2014, the conference becomes even more of a mess — supporting 13 schools for football, and 19 for basketball for one season — and that’s assuming they stand pat. If they add two more teams, now you’re looking at 15 for football (ironically, a superconference) and possibly 21 (!!!!!!!!) for basketball. Horrifying.

As much as Navy made sense before, especially with Air Force in tow, adding them no longer pays real dividends. The conference needs additions to be further west, to help bridge the enormous geographic gap between current schools and the recent five invitees. As much as people like watching the military academies, Navy usually has an eight-win cap on their season (and that’s while making their own schedule) and may not even be the biggest draw in the Annapolis area. Without a natural rival (Rutgers?), any remaining intrigue around their contests vanishes and people just wait out the string until we get to Army-Navy come years’ end.

So what’s left? As always, Temple is the top replacement candidate, and the conference would be foolish not to add the Owls for all sports. Unless, of course, they fessed up to the fact that they are no longer a basketball conference. In that case, now you’ve suddenly got some better options: ECU, Southern Miss, Toledo, Marshall (and their hoops program’s on the upswing) — hell, why not throw Tulsa into the mix? No, none of these solutions are perfect, but “perfect” went out the window for the Big East long ago. They have to do what’s necessary to survive. In this case, it might mean compromising basketball (gasp!) for the good of the football side.

Parting thoughts: They’ll end up adding Temple and Navy. However, if I were John Marinatto (and thank God I’m not), I add ECU and Southern Miss, and call it a day. Not only do you invade ACC territory, but you also inch a bit further west, making it slightly less awkward for UCF to be in the same division as Boise State. Once again, it’s not perfect. But how can it be anymore?

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2 thoughts on “Big East Expansion: Spurned By Air Force Edition

  1. Since your article, Navy has committed to joining the Big East (the when has yet to be nailed down, but likely 2014). That means the Big East is stable with 11-committed members beyond 2013, but will need further expansion to meet the 2-division football conference with championship game it is seeking, and boosting basketball. They’ll likely be looking for programs that weigh favorably in the following four categories… quality sports (#1 basketball and/or #2 football), location (#3 travel partners), and marketability (a big market or national following for television interest #4)…

    The first two I like are Temple and Memphis… I know Temple rubs Villanova the wrong way, but it offers three of four of the conference’s immediate needs. They would be a quality football member upon entry and add television market #4 to their ranks; plus their basketball team is no joke either (#28 in the RPI rankings, regularly goes dancing in March, knocked off 3rd ranked Duke this week). Memphis, I know the football team sucks (but the Big East is often criticized for too much parity, every conference needs a whipping boy to improve the records of others, right?), but it’s basketball is elite and their arena state-of-the-art. Memphis is also a top 50 media market and their location along the lower half of the Mississippi is a perfect bridge between members in Texas and those up the Ohio River Valley and Great Lakes areas for all-sports.

    I won’t count out Air Force or Brigham Young for football-only either… Air Force said last month, it was “committed for now” to the MWC. How long is now? Until a national champion is crowned, ’til a new tv contract is signed to make travel more lucrative, or until joining in 2014 when Navy can enter? BYU and the Big East appeared to have hit an impasse and media reports of talks ending, but a week later their AD was backpedaling saying talks were continuing, just slower, and that he wouldn’t comment on what a month or the new year would bring. Air Force and BYU both offer national appeal, another western travel partner, and are quality football programs that wouldn’t affect the basketball quality.

    I too like Southern Miss and East Carolina for all-sport consideration… USM is a quality top 25 football program and it’s basketball is #17 in RPI rankings and is one of the top C-USA teams, plus they fill the all-sport travel gap between Big East members in Florida and Texas; also opens up the lucrative Gulf Coast recruiting areas of the SEC to the Big East. It’s successes in competition are tempered though by it’s low profile and the fact that it is in media market #93. ECU is another geographic fit (for those stuck on the “East” in the Conference’s name, it’s a true East Coast school), sitting nicely between members in Florida and the northeast, opening up recruiting in the heart of the ACC. It’s a rising program with a rabid fan base, and a large (full) football stadium that looks great on television. However, ECU resides in television market #99 and lacks a regular national ranking or presence in either major sport for marketing.

    I think the game changer is Notre Dame; there has been plenty of speculation by media from other conferences that the Irish would be leaving the Big East. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick took the lead roll as head of the Big East expansion committee; when asked if Notre Dame planned to join the ACC or Big 12, he responded the Irish plan on “continuing to build our relationship with the Big East.” Despite their football independence, scheduled football games with the Irish (and their large tv opponent payouts) were part of the 2005 expansion negotiations, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them and Notre Dame as a potential member if the BCS landscape was to change drastically in 2014 as potential persuasion.

    Any combination of the above will likely play a roll in the Big East’s future as it looks to rebuild it’s football conference and strengthen the basketball ranks… one thing I heard recently was that ‘Cuse and Pitt entered into ACC negotiations with hesitation, and that it’s all about the television revenue; if that’s the case, and the Big East lands the size of a multi-network television deal people are alluding to, would they get cold feet while waiting out their 27-months and stay with the Big East.

  2. At this point, no way ‘Cuse or Pitt backs out of their commitment to the ACC (and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t be allowed back in). Yes, the Big East is negotiating a new deal, but the ACC has already begun discussions with ESPN to acquire a new deal based on their acquisitions. I’m sure the Big East will be fine adding the teams they’ve planned to, but there’s no way they ever truly replace the Orange, Panthers and Mountaineers.

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