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Gorman: Big East expansion makes it look small

With its college football relevance and reputation on the line, the Big East once again revealed itself as nothing more than a basketball league masquerading as a BCS conference.

After a summer of squirming while the Big Ten and Pac-10 increased their memberships to a dozen schools apiece in order to hold conference championship games, the Big East voted unanimously to expand from eight to 10 teams.

That does little to enhance its reputation.

If convincing Villanova to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision and adding TCU or Central Florida for football is the best the Big East can come up with, the conference only will become more vulnerable to another raid.

It should come as no surprise for a conference in which the smallest school, Providence, has provided all three commissioners that the Big East first and foremost wants to preserve the basketball identity it was built upon.

That should not sit well with football members Pitt, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida and Syracuse. It's time for them to deliver the Big East an ultimatum: Either Notre Dame joins in football or they are splitting from the Catholic schools in basketball.

Yes, it's come to that.

Notre Dame has been adamant that it wants to maintain its football independence, and the Big East has been a convenient home for the Fighting Irish. Their basketball and other programs have a place to play without having to share their NBC television revenue for football.

That has to change, and both the Big East and Notre Dame could benefit.

With Notre Dame and Villanova, the conference could expand to a 10-team football conference and have room for two more football-only members. The Irish would still have three games to play national opponents yet could contend for the Big East title and its automatic BCS bid.

Even this is a stop-gap measure — and a far-fetched one — that doesn't solve the Big East's biggest problem: it is the only conference with an eight-team football league, which requires five nonconference games, and a 16-team basketball league, which requires an 18-game schedule.

Although the concept of 16-team mega-conferences was put on hold when Texas opted to remain in the Big 12 rather than pursue Pac-10 membership, it's only a matter of time before the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC consider further expansion — no doubt at the Big East's expense.

It's no secret that a handful of Big East football members would leave for the Big Ten in a heartbeat if offered an invitation. Rutgers appears to be the preferred choice, if only because it offers entry into the New York footprint that the Big Ten Network so desperately wants.

One school to leave the Big East is all it takes for the floodgates to open. Remember, the ACC raid began with Miami but later included Boston College and Virginia Tech. Going to a 10-team football conference won't prevent any of the current members from bolting the Big East.

It's easy to picture Pitt, West Virginia, Connecticut and Syracuse in the ACC, where they could join Boston College, Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech to form a North Division opposite Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest.

This isn't to sell the Big East short. If nothing else, the conference has repeatedly reinvented itself.

When the Big East wanted to form a football league in the early 1990s, it added Miami and Virginia Tech to existing members Boston College, Pitt and Syracuse and invited Rutgers, Temple and West Virginia as football-only members. When the conference appeared doomed in 2004, it survived by adding Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida in all sports, as well as DePaul and Marquette in basketball.

But those moves made the Big East lopsided and left little wiggle room for the next wave of expansion. The insistence on maintaining its identity could wind up costing the conference some of its best basketball programs, unless they are willing to risk their reputations as football schools. And, eventually, that automatic BCS bid.

Then, there will be no debating the Big East's relevance.

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