Big East is facing another fight for survival

| Monday, Sept. 19, 2011

In early August, commissioner John Marinatto told reporters at football media day in Newport, R.I., the Big East Conference was "stronger ... than ever in its 32-year history."

Suddenly, it feels like 2003 again.

The Big East will look to overcome a raid by the Atlantic Coast Conference for the second time in eight years — or risk becoming a casualty in the shifting NCAA picture.

"No matter how the college athletic landscape changes, there is no doubt WVU is and will remain a national player," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said.

The departure of Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC on Sunday — mirroring the exodus of Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and Boston College last decade — leaves the Big East with only six football schools.

The addition of TCU next year still puts the conference one shy of the minimum eight schools needed to automatically qualify for a BCS bowl and the huge payday that comes with it.

Officials at the remaining Big East football schools — Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia — won't be expected to sit around and wait for beleaguered Marinatto to become more proactive in adding football members to the conference heading into a new TV contract.

Earlier this year, the Big East turned down a nine-year, $1 billion television deal. The basketball deal expires after '12 and football after '13.

"We just have to be aggressive," Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. "I want to do the right thing. I'd prefer to be in the Big East, but we're not going to rule out anything."

Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti said the Scarlet Knights remain "a committed member of the Big East" but will look out for the school's best interests.

"We will continue to explore all of our options," he said.

University of Connecticut president Susan Herbst said Pitt and Syracuse leaving the Big East was a "jolt but not a huge surprise."

She said the Huskies, the reigning NCAA men's basketball champion, are proud of their role in the Big East's success over the years but must look out for the best interests of the school.

"It is my responsibility as president that we stay in constant communication and be actively involved in discussions with our counterparts from around the country," she said.

The ACC could add two more schools to get to 16.

"We are very comfortable with this 14," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "The only thing I would add to that is that we are not philosophically opposed to 16."

When asked about rumors that the ACC is interested in adding Rutgers, Swofford said, "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to go there."

Some schools that could be headed for the Big East include Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State or even Missouri from an equally shaky Big 12 Conference, or candidates during last summer's shifting landscape such as Central Florida, East Carolina, Memphis or Houston.

The footing is especially tenuous for the Big East's basketball-only schools. With the addition of TCU, the Big East will have 15 members, of which seven play BCS football. Should the conference add five football schools — to get to the seemingly mega-conference minimum of 12 — it would enlarge the basketball membership to a possibly untenable 20 teams.

Officials from two basketball-only schools, Villanova and Providence, said they would be issuing statements today addressing the shift in Big East athletics.

ESPN men's basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played at Duke, said Big East football has never had a firm footing in a world in which that sport pays the bills.

"The Big East is looking at this as some sort of issue of tradition," he said. "The Big East was formed to play basketball. They didn't start to play football until 1991. It's been a mishmash forever. They've tried to put this together before. The ACC has been a stable football conference for a long time. The ACC was a stable football conference in the 1990s when the Big East wasn't even playing football."

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