Sports Nut

Requiem for the Big East

The conference is about to disintegrate. Will anyone miss it?

A little sympathy, if you please, for the Big East.Depending on who’s doing the sobbing, the expected defection of three of the league’s schools to the Atlantic Coast Conference will be ” insane,” ” horrible,” or ” the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime,” in the words of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. Nonetheless, it looks like Miami, Syracuse, and Boston College will soon skip town for the ACC and as yet untold millions sloshing through their new 12-team “superconference.” Will college pigskin fans mourn the passing of Big East football? Hardly.

No mistake, the Big East is among the country’s best basketball conferences, boasting four different national champs in the last 20 years. But its football status never lived up. Member school Notre Dame plays as an independent. Of the other 14 Big East schools, only eight (the aforementioned defectors plus West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Temple, Rutgers, and Virginia Tech) field teams at the highest level, Division I-A. Of that group, Temple stinks and Rutgers is so steeped in futility some alumni are trying to get the program effectively scrapped. Virginia Tech has risen to a consistent top-20 team, true, but through the mediocrity, Miami has been a league unto its own. The Hurricanes joined the Big East in 1991, promptly won a national title, and since have finished in the top 20 every year but 1997, including four times in the top three. Since ‘91, Miami has grossly outplayed the rest of the league, with seven Big East titles and a .868 conference winning percentage, while the other current Big East schools have managed just 11 top-20 finishes.

Even though Miami entered the league as a mercenary ringer, and is poised to leave as such, fans of the jilted schools moan that their beloved Big East is being pulled apart by the lure of the superconferences: namely, the Big 12 and SEC, each of which boasts at least a dozen members and hosts a lucrative championship game. If Miami and company are allowed to bolt, the thinking goes, college football will one day consist only of a few vaguely regional superconferences that steamroll tradition in favor of made-for-TV mega-matchups. Skeptics may be right about that result, but their purity argument is quaint bunk. For one thing, teams have shifted conferences for decades when priorities or economics changed. If we really want to see the conferences in their virgin states, let’s return Sewanee to the SEC and the University of Chicago to the Big Ten.

Moreover, Big East fans forfeited any right to whine about superconferences the moment their league added Miami, a school 900 miles from its nearest conference rival. The Big East already is a nigh-superconference, with two divisions, 15 members, midterm-busting travel distances, and some of the most powerful schools in college sports—all it’s missing is balanced football. For too long, the conference has been basking in Miami’s cachet; Miami, in turn, has been glad to gorge itself on wins over Rutgers and Temple. It’s a tantalizing thought that if only the Big East weaklings had beaten the ‘Canes a little more often, Miami wouldn’t be such a commodity and the conference wouldn’t stand on the verge of being drawn and quartered.

Traditional Big East fans might be glad to see the dynasty in absentia hit the road, if not for the money part. Losing the Hurricanes not only guts the conference’s national stature, it deprives it of a major TV market (Florida). But the poverty goes both ways. Last year Miami played in the national title game and still found its athletic department a reported $1.4 million in the red after sharing revenues with the rest of the Big East. That’s a welfare state, not an athletic league. Conference realignment itself isn’t the problem here—the high cost of running a juggernaut athletic program is, and Miami’s decision to ditch the Big East is merely a symptom of a larger sickness. In fact, it’s hard to see how this particular realignment is anything more nefarious than an overdue purge. The tectonic shifts across college football in the early 1990s were at least as drastic. The Big 12 coagulated, the Big Ten annexed Penn State, the ACC snared Florida State, and the Big East hung its star on Miami. In all, 27 teams changed allegiances in five years. 

Let’s assume the worst: Miami defects to a Roman Empire of a conference, and Big East football dominance goes with it. At least we’ll be spared the underacknowledged cynicism of sacrificing smaller, academic-minded schools to the NFL farm team in Coral Gables. Why should Rutgers have to let Miami trounce it by 50 this season just to earn enough money to suit up and have Miami trounce it by 50 next season? The arrangement is crass and expensive, and probably not even in Rutgers’ best interest. The point of college sports is supposedly to promote (read: advertise) the schools. Freed from their South Florida sugar daddy, the smaller Big East football schools could start over and pick on someone their own size. Maybe even work up to respectable win-loss records and, who knows, draw the attention of a neighborhood superconference.

The upper-tier conferences in any case will continue to balloon. A fortified ACC will likely trigger an arms race, with the Big Ten and Pac-10 perhaps expanding to even dozens, in a series of consolidations that could eventually outgrow the NCAA. Unfazed by the odor of hypocrisy, a depleted Big East may siphon a couple of teams off crummier conferences to form a superconference of its own. (Though with second-tier programs like Central Florida and Memphis reportedly under consideration, how super could it be?) The economics of TV deals and conference championship games made this revolution inevitable. College fans protest, often quite emotionally, but the Hurricanes’ proposed exit from the Big East will be as much a financial calculation as its entrance was. Appropriate, since so rarely did the rest of the conference have any business playing them.