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Big East could waive notice for Pitt, Syracuse to leave conference

| Monday, Sept. 19, 2011

The University of Pittsburgh could begin play in the Atlantic Coast Conference as early as next year.

The ACC accepted Pitt and Syracuse University as full members on Sunday, just four days after Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson discussed the university's interest with ACC Commissioner John Swofford.

Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said a Big East-mandated 27-month waiting period against schools that leave the conference could be waived.

"I would think in the weeks ahead everyone will be looking at the transition period and trying to determine whether that 27 months' notice really serves everyone's best interests and whether there would be a modification to it," he said. "The ACC would be comfortable with waiting that period of time if that, indeed, is how things unfold."

Pitt's decision to leave the Big East, which it has called home for almost 30 years, comes amid turbulent times in college sports. Schools are scrambling for athletic stability in an environment in which conferences are luring new members, in part, in an attempt gain the biggest television draw in the largest markets.

Many believe college football is headed to four 16-team super conferences, likely the ACC, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference and Big Ten.

Pitt was on the short end when the ACC raided the Big East in 2003. Nordenberg said the university decided to be proactive this time.

"Making the decision did not take long," he said, "and it wasn't very difficult."

He said he notified Big East officials in writing in May 2010 of the university's intent to explore its options and said he was told in return that other teams were making similar plans.

He said he "made very clear if other opportunities did arise, we would feel as if we were obligated to seriously assess them."

Big East Commissioner John Marinatto had no comment yesterday, but Associate Commissioner John Paquette said the conference might release a statement today.

In addition to the football ramifications that leave the Big East in danger of extinction, the Pitt-Syracuse move helps shift the power of balance in men's basketball from the Big East — widely considered a top conference — to the ACC, which, thanks largely to Duke and North Carolina, historically had been considered the best.

ACC Commissioner John Swofford said the conference, headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., is considering rotating its men's basketball tournament, including a possible stop at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the Big East has traditionally held its tournament.

Duke University men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski called getting Pitt and Syracuse "a real coup."

Marinatto said the Big East is "well-positioned for the future" and that Pitt's and Syracuse's decisions "will unify our membership."

Reaction by the remaining members seemed to suggest otherwise. Rutgers and the University of Connecticut are rumored to be candidates to boost ACC membership to 16 teams, while other Big East schools issued statements indicating they would look for a new home.

Pederson said he was "hopeful" Pitt and West Virginia could continue their annual Backyard Brawl game but that the move would not affect resuming the Pitt-Penn State series.

Pitt and Syracuse each must pay the Big East a $5 million exit fee and, according to conference bylaws, give 27 months' notice before leaving.

However, in 2003, Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech agreed to leave the Big East for the ACC and were allowed to begin play there the following year. Four months later, Boston College, another Big East member, also joined the ACC. It began ACC play in 2005.

John Petersen, a 1951 Pitt graduate and prominent athletic donor for whom the Petersen Events Center and Petersen Sports Complex is named, was surprised by the move but endorsed it, given the in rapidly changing college athletics landscape.

"It's a matter of survival,'' said Petersen, retired president and CEO of the Erie Insurance Group. "If it isn't Pitt and Syracuse (joining the ACC), it's somebody else. When you see Nebraska leaving (the Big 12 for the Big Ten), teams like that so deeply involved, far deeper involved (than Pitt in the Big East), I'm not surprised. I think it's very positive for all sports.''

The Pitt and Syracuse defections bring the ACC to 14 members while reducing Big East football membership to six. Texas Christian University, a football power of late, will join the Big East next season.

That leaves the conference one shy of the minimum eight schools needed for an automatic berth into a Bowl Championship Series game. BCS bowl games are used to determine the national champion.

Swofford refused to say whether Pitt approached the ACC or the other way around, but he said he told Marinatto on Saturday morning of his intentions to add Pitt and Syracuse.

Adding the Pennsylvania and New York markets will allow the conference to modify its $1.86 billion television deal with ESPN that runs through 2023.

"With the addition of Pitt and Syracuse," Swofford said, "the ACC will cover virtually the entire eastern seaboard of the United States."

Key points

• Pitt must pay Big East a $5 million exit fee.

• Big East bylaws say a team must give 27 months' notice before leaving; Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg hinted that might be waived.

• ACC can modify its $1.86 billion television deal with ESPN, which runs through 2023.

Quick turnaround

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg called the process to leave the Big East for the ACC "about the most expeditious, compressed decision-making process I'd ever been a part of." Here's how it happened:

Tuesday: ACC expansion committee meeting; Council of Presidents meets that night.

Wednesday: Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson speaks with ACC Commissioner John Swofford.

Thursday: Nordenberg speaks with Swofford.

Friday: Nordenberg and Pederson meet with Pitt board of trustees' executive committee. Pitt submits letter to ACC expressing interest in membership.

Saturday: ACC Council of Presidents agrees to extend an invitation.

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