Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Year in college sports – a game of musical chairs

College conference realignment one of the most important sports business stories from 2011 proved to be the biggest college sports business story for 2012. 2012 will be remembered as the beginning of the end for the Big East Conference, a conference that made mistakes in 1982 and 1991 that led the conference falling apart in 2012.

The 1985 Final Four played Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky included Villanova (who beat Georgetown in the championship game), along with St. John’s and Memphis State. During Saturday afternoon’s Final Four semi-final doubleheader, the 23,000 fans in attendance chanted “Big East, Big East” repeatedly; three of the four schools (Memphis State the lone exception) from the powerful Big East Conference.

Founded in 1979, the Big East was the brainchild of the late Dave Gavitt, who was the conference’s first Commissioner. The Big East became a reality on May 31, 1979, following a meeting of athletic directors from Providence College, St. John’s, Georgetown and Syracuse universities. Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College completed the original seven school alliance.

Boston College left the Big East in 2005 along with Virginia Tech and Miami (both joining the Big East in 1991). Five schools moved to the Big East from Conference USA—Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette, and DePaul.

In July Syracuse announced they were leaving the Big East for the ACC along with Pittsburgh (who joined the Big East in 1982). On November 20, 2012, Rutgers announced it would be leaving the Big East to join the Big Ten Conference as a full member, effective with the start of the 2014–15 academic year. Then Louisville said they were heading to the ACC. Finally last Saturday the heart of what remained of the Big East, the non-FBS schools (football schools): DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova collectively announced they too had had enough and were leaving the Big East on June 30, 2015 – ironically what will represent the crowning moment in time for the Big East, the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Big East Final Four. In the last eight years the Big East has lost 17 schools to realignment.

"Earlier today we voted unanimously to pursue an orderly evolution to a foundation of basketball schools that honors the history and tradition on which the Big East was established," the seven presidents said in a joint statement nine days ago. "Under the current context of conference realignment, we believe pursuing a new basketball framework that builds on this tradition of excellence and competition is the best way forward."

There are many reasons why the Big East fell apart; one of the key mistakes the Big East made was rejecting Penn State in 1982 when Penn State was interested in joining the Big East. An independent non-affiliated school in 1982 Penn State was interested in joining the Big East with only five schools in favor (Penn State needed six out of eight). Penn State joined the Big Ten. Despite the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and the subsequent firing of Penn State’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno last year, Penn State has been very good for the Big Ten. The Big East accepted Pittsburgh instead, and the rest is history.

The Big East was more of a basketball conference than it was a football conference. The seven schools that announced they were leaving the Big East last Saturday hammered home that point. Geographically the original seven Big East schools were with the exception of Georgetown located in the Northeast corridor. When Miami, Virginia Tech and West Virginia joined the Big East in 1991 the conference forgot about its basketball roots and where its power lay – in the Northeast.

Mike Tranghese, who was the league's commissioner from 1990-2009 believes once Syracuse announced they were leaving the Big East the end had arrived for the Big East.

"There was too much stress put on the structure (of the Big East)," Tranghese told ESPN. "Mostly by football and the money.

"I'm not crying or moping on it. It was an incredible run for 30 plus years. I'm sad to see it go and it's time to move on and focus on what lies ahead in the future.

"Everything in this day and age is about money," Tranghese said in the ESPN report. "I don't know what Mike, John or I could have done. We weren't strong enough football-wise and we got picked apart. If there was someone out there that could have made us more powerful we would have went after them.

"I think they're good people, they always wanted to make it work," Tranghese said. "I think they tried as hard as they could. When Syracuse left, that ripped the heart out of a lot of people. When it got down to Louisville or UConn (going to the ACC) that was another big blow to the basketball schools from a basketball standpoint.

"That was the breaking point."

If men’s basketball was the driving force behind the Big East, the Big East Tournament held at Madison Square Garden was the epicenter. For the 31st consecutive season, the tournament will be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, from March 12-16, 2013.

While Tranghese isn’t angry about the end of the Big East, the same can’t said of the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. Under Auriemma, the Huskies have won 7 NCAA Division I national championships, advanced to 13 Final Fours, and won over 30 Big East Conference Championships. UConn was interested in leaving the Big East for the ACC; however the ACC instead invited Louisville a football playing member of the Big East to join the ACC.

"I hope they all leave tomorrow," Auriemma said earlier this week when asked about the seven schools that had left. "But they can't, because we have to play out the [2012-13] schedule.

"But as soon as it's over, let them go and do what they need to do, just like Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia did. West Virginia did it the right way. They said they didn't want to be in the Big East any more and said, 'See you later, I'm out of here.'

"I hope they all take that approach.

"Everyone has their own ideas and theories. Everyone wants to live in a nostalgic world where, as Garrison Keillor said, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.

"Everyone wants to live in the place where the nine original schools of the Big East are all together and will play against each other forever. Then football became the driving vehicle. You are either at the table with the big boys or you are not.

"The Catholic schools did a really good thing. They stayed at the table for as long as it took them to make as much money as they could. And once they saw all the money running out, they decided to go play somewhere else. Had some of them managed to vote appropriately over the last 10 years [as Big East conference members with a say on rights' fees], we wouldn't be in the situation we are now.

"They did what was best for them, just like a lot of Catholic schools do. They like to say the state schools are the big bad guys. I've heard my share of that in my time in the conference [28 years]."

It’s easy to understand Auriemma’s anger but difficult to accept given that Connecticut’s wanted to leave the Big East for the ACC but wasn’t invited. Connecticut played a game of musical chairs and lost, there are no more chairs – they are the ones left standing.

Along with not inviting powerful Penn State in 1982 and losing Syracuse in July, the Big East fell apart for a number of other important reasons, that included “expanding” the Big East to Virginia and Miami.

The Big East will try and continue after the seven schools leave the conference in July 2015. Tulane is set to join the Big East along with San Diego State. UNLV and Fresno State have been contacted unofficially by the Big East and had very general conversations. Boise may or may join the Big East.

When the Big East began in 1979 schools if they wanted could bus to road game, in a few years’ time if the Big East still exists, schools will be flying across the country to compete against each other. Optically isn’t terrible, it sends out the wrong message about student athletes being students.

The Big Ten and Pac 12 both created their own television networks. The SEC is set to announce their conference will have a television network. The Big East for many years was aligned with ESPN, never focused efforts on creating a Big East Network. As Mike Tranghese told ESPN the Big East’s problems are all about money – the lack of a Big East Network will forever haunt the Big East.

Football has become the economic engine behind college sports, basketball remains important but it doesn’t generate the tens of millions of dollars a successful football program can for a major university. Most of the football playing schools left the Big East, last Saturday the seven non-football playing schools had enough. The Big East conference realignment, the biggest college sports business story of 2012.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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