Off Campus: What's next for Big East after latest hit?

Posted: September 14, 2012

My suggestion to the Big East Conference for how to replace Notre Dame: Bring in the largest university in the land, home to students coast to coast.

That's right, become a Phoenix.

So what if there's no there there at the University of Phoenix, no central campus. Just build a gym, hire the next John Calipari. You think you'd have trouble finding quality hoops players happy to take all their classes online? Shaquille O'Neal has a Phoenix MBA. The first commercial writes itself.

Seriously? No, it's always easy to make Big East jokes as the conference takes its realignment blows. Monday brought another big one with Notre Dame's announcing it will move its non-football sports from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference. (The first inkling of this came about Saturday from Dick Vitale's Twitter feed. Nice scoop, baby!)

The Irish are staying independent in football but agreeing to play five games a year against ACC teams, while getting a piece of the ACC bowl package. Notre Dame also realized that it was getting cut out of national championship consideration, that its schedule may not ever get the Irish into the new four-team playoff system. It had to make a move.

Losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and now Notre Dame is a huge blow in this basketball city. That's a lot of lost ticket sales for Villanova and Temple.

No college sports insider I know is surprised by this news. It's a logical next step in this realignment tango, a product of the destabilization of the Big East caused by recent defections, a win-win for the ACC and ND in a landscape that doesn't offer too many win-wins. The key detail is Notre Dame's ability to stay independent in football.

Is this the death knell for the Big East? Not on its own, since the Big East didn't have Notre Dame football and knew that this move was a possibility as the conference added schools to keep its football league afloat.

Here's the bigger problem, though. The ACC didn't expand from 14 to 16 schools until it got a definite yes or no from Notre Dame. Now it has the answer it wants, one that offers great flexibility. ACC commissioner John Swofford said Wednesday that there is "no need" to expand further and that the conference has "no intention" of adding a 16th member. But we'll keep those intentions in quotes. Did the ACC "intend" to take Pittsburgh and Syracuse last year? It never came up until it happened.

A number of options for further expansion involve weakening the Big East even further.

If the ACC chooses to, it can go to 16 by inviting Connecticut. That would offer the league an even bigger claim to really owning the Eastern seaboard. When Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College began the Big East-to-ACC exodus, there still was a gap from College Park, Md., to Boston, now partially filled by Pittsburgh and Syracuse joining the league next year.

UConn would really fill the hole, and if I'm the Huskies looking toward the post-Jim Calhoun era - which reportedly will start Thursday when the Huskies legend is expected to announce his retirement - I'm desperate to join the ACC. If an invitation comes, what could the Big East do to stop an acceptance?

There are other directions for the ACC. Louisville, for instance, has been angling for a Big Twelve invite but hasn't gotten one. The ACC also could stand pat, waiting to see whether it can ever entice the Irish for football, or the ACC could conceivably add a 16th school for all sports but football. That's never really been on the table, but if it becomes a consideration, Georgetown, St. John's, and, yes, Villanova, are the obvious options. Hard to believe any would turn down this opportunity.

So what does the Big East do now? One obvious solution is doing what it takes to get Brigham Young in the fold, trading one national religious fan base for another. The Big East, which has plans to add a 16th football school from the western region, already wants BYU but apparently hasn't been willing to get married on BYU's terms, which involves BYU's keeping home television rights. That television-rights issue also caused BYU's talks with the Big 12 to fall apart.

If BYU doesn't join the Big East, you'd think the league would look for the best non-football option, with Xavier at the top of the list. (Unless Cincinnati can squash that; then what? Butler?) The Atlantic Ten didn't just replace Temple when it got Virginia Commonwealth and Butler to join. The A-10 protected itself against further poaching.

A huge question that rises again: Will Big East schools that don't play football decide this is the tipping point that causes them to go their own way? Maybe, but the guess is that it is one step short of such a tipping point. Losing UConn or Louisville (or both) in addition to Notre Dame could cause the Big East to split apart. But again, this move wasn't a surprise. Georgetown, for instance, has been adamant about wanting to stay together with Big East football schools. That probably won't change, assuming Georgetown stays in the league. (Temple, by the way, is in a better place in the Big East no matter what other dominoes fall, and the Owls did well to get a three-year football deal with the Irish, since that deal wouldn't be signed today.)

All of this comes at a tough time for the Big East, with TV negotiations just starting. The Big East basketball package just lost a little value, and the uncertainty won't help negotiations, nor would any more defections. But that's the hand new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco knew he was dealt. All the more reason the Big East made the right move in hiring a pro.

So, Mike, think outside the box. All those "I'm a Phoenix" commercials could have Big East on the back wall, and the University of Phoenix has more than 300,000 students enrolled. Let the ACC take the Domers. It takes a lot of subway alumni to get to 300,000.


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow at Twitter @Jensenoffcampus. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

 

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