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Former Big East insider discusses possible fate

| Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bob Mulcahy was an insider to one of the biggest conference raids in NCAA history.

The former Rutgers athletic director sat in the meeting rooms, flanked by nine other hand-wringing Big East presidents and ADs, during those tense moments after the 2003 ACC raid.

"We met to determine the future of the league," he said.

Now, with the Big Ten looking into expansion and casting a covetous eye toward a handful of Big East schools, including Pitt, there again is a hint of uncertainty in those Big East conference rooms.

"So much of this will depend on what, if anything, the Big Ten does," Mulcahy said. "The SEC will make some moves. So will the Big 12 and the ACC. ... It's all about football."

The main difference between the current situation and the 2003 ACC plunder is the shock factor. When the league lost Miami and Virginia Tech and, four months later, Boston College, it came out of nowhere. This time, the Big Ten announced in December it would look into expansion and not make a decision until winter 2010 at the earliest. That gave the Big East a chance to plan.

The Big East athletics directors and coaches held their annual spring meetings last weekend at Ponte Vedra, Fla., and any talk of Big Ten expansion -- or how to deal with it -- was not part of the official agenda.

"The Big East is presently experiencing some of its greatest successes," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said in a statement. "A discussion of hypotheticals really serves no constructive purpose."

A spokesman for the Syracuse athletic department referred all questions to the Big East.

First-year Big East commissioner John Marinatto, who was an associate commissioner during the previous expansion, said the 2005 realignment will make the league better prepared for any scenario. The conference added Cincinnati, South Florida and Louisville, plus basketball schools Marquette and DePaul.

"We have strong leadership at our institutions," Marinatto said. "All of us continue to work every day to best position ourselves for the future -- and none of us are afraid of this challenge."

Andy Fellingham, managing director of Garden City, N.Y.-based Inter-Collegiate Athletic Consulting, said the chance of a new-look Big East was inevitable.

"I think when they broke up before and they reconstituted (in June 2005), it was just a matter of time before it blew up again," he said. "They are thinking, 'I'm not going to get caught with (my) pants down like that again.'"

Fellingham, along with many industry experts, agree the Big East as constituted will cease to exist if the Big Ten grabs multiple schools.

"If they lose two members in football," Fellingham said, "they are no longer a football conference."

Added Mulcahy, who helped revive the athletics at Rutgers, before a controversial firing in 2008: "If the Big Ten takes one and they go to 12 (teams), I don't think that has any major impact. If they take more than one, there will be some significant shifts in the landscape."

Mulcahy clearly recalls those 10-man committee meetings in 2004, consisting of four athletic directors and six presidents, that helped the Big East survive the ACC raid. Mulcahy notes that of the 10 committee members, only one, Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg, remains full time at his school.

The Big East isn't sitting still. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a special advisor to the conference, said it is being proactive.

"I don't think anyone, not in the Big East, is waiting for the Big Ten," Tagliabue told the Associated Press this week.

The Big Ten presidents are meeting next weekend. Commissioner Jim Delany said there will be no decisions involving expansion.

The Big East has much work to do to secure its future. The first issue is the wide gap between money. The Big East schools get about $4.5 million per year from television contracts, bowl games and NCAA Tournament money, by far the lowest among all BCS conferences. The Big Ten, thanks to the Big Ten Network, makes about $22 million per school.

The Big East's contract with ESPN runs out in 2013. In this changing environment, how long can a conference with eight football teams survive?

"If you have an average conference size of 16, that means one conference doesn't exist anymore," Fellingham said. "You have to be prepared that it could be your conference."

First, there is no room for conference loyalty. Even though schools would have to pay a $5 million exit fee and wait 27 months before leaving, any Big East member invited to the Big Ten likely would be obliged to accept. If a school declines the offer, it runs the risk of being left behind in a conference headed for football ruin.

"Frankly, I think if (any school) was invited to the Big Ten, they would pay the fee," Mulcahy said. "The answer would be yes."

Second, if two or more schools bolt for the Big Ten, the remaining Big East football schools would look for new homes in BCS conferences rather than be part of a make-shift new Big East scene that would need to rely on Conference-USA schools.

Do West Virginia, Louisville, Cincinnati, etc., try to land in the SEC or ACC• That may be preferential to sticking around in a Big East forced to invite the likes of East Carolina, Memphis, Marshall and Central Florida to keep its football conference alive.

Mulcahy said the answer is obvious.

"If you see three Big East teams leave," he said, "you would see other schools scramble to lock on to other conferences."

Third, with the Big Ten at 16 teams - that's if a worst-case, raid-the-Big-East scenario takes place - a chain reaction would result with the SEC, ACC and Pac-10 trying to expand to 16 members. That would mean a free-for-all to find a spot for anybody left over.

"If you're tail-end Charlie, you'll take anything," Fellingham said. "On the Titanic, I'll take any lifeboat you give me."

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