Sports Nut

The Big East Is a Failed Experiment

So is every other college conference. Here’s a better approach to blowing them up.

Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals.
Rick Pitino and Louisville are moving from the Big East to the ACC.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

In the last few days in conference realignment, Maryland and Rutgers left the ACC and Big East respectively to join the Big Ten; Louisville switched from the Big East to the ACC; Tulane and East Carolina moved from Conference USA to the Big East (the latter in football only); Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee went from the Sun Belt to Conference USA; Denver traded the Western Athletic Conference for the Summit League; and the for-profit Grand Canyon University joined the WAC, becoming the first school of its kind to catch on with a Division 1 conference. The inevitable result of all this horse-trading: In 2022, the Pac-28’s University of Phoenix will play for college football’s national title in University of Phoenix Stadium. (They will lose to Alabama, the champion of the Confederate Football States of America.)

It’s surprising it took a for-profit school this long to get in on the action. For all of these institutions of higher learning, switching from one conference to another is all about profit maximization. This is more a truism than a criticism: Major athletic departments do everything they can to wring every dollar from their football and basketball programs. For the University of Maryland, moving to the Big Ten means an instant bump of $12 million in annual television revenues with the promise of more to come when the conference renegotiates its TV deal in 2017. But if this is a blatant cash grab, then Maryland isn’t grabbing as much as it could. That’s because joining up with the same group of schools for all sports doesn’t make sense.

Even if a school is successful at both football and basketball, fans and big-money donors usually care about one far more than the other. Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Ohio State typically excel at both sports, but they’re really football schools. Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky are basketball schools. (What colleges are equally passionate about both? It’s hard to think of many—BYU, Illinois, and maybe Georgia Tech come to mind.)

Given that reality, college athletics would be more lucrative and—just as important—more stable if football schools and basketball schools stuck together. Imagine a basketball-only conference featuring Maryland, Georgetown, and Syracuse along with the likes of Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Indiana, and Kansas. Likewise, the SEC’s top football powers could enrich themselves still further by dumping Vanderbilt and Kentucky’s gridiron Wildcats in favor of football-only members Texas and Florida State.

This is not a radical idea. For years, Notre Dame has sold its sports a la carte: It’s an independent in football, plays hockey in the CCHA (it will join Hockey East in 2013), fences in the Midwest Fencing Conference, and plays every other sport as part of the Big East. Notre Dame will soon jump from the Big East to the ACC in most sports. It makes sense for the Irish basketball team, which has been good lately, to align itself with powers like North Carolina and Duke. It makes less sense for its lucrative football team to go all-in, which is why the Irish are staying independent and playing five games a season against ACC opponents.

Decoupling sports doesn’t only make money; it saves it. As a consequence of West Virginia’s football-motivated move to the Big 12, the Mountaineers’ women’s tennis team—which has a budget fit for Greyhound—now must make road trips to Texas, Iowa, and Kansas. This is foolish and unnecessary. If the West Virginia football team can earn more cash by aligning with Texas, let them play in Austin. Every other Mountaineers squad should stick to playing schools closer to Morgantown, like Marshall, Pittsburgh, Virginia, and Virginia Tech.

West Virginia’s former home, the Big East, shows the perils of today’s approach to conference affiliation. The Big East, which came into existence in 1979, the same year as ESPN, was the original made-for-television conference. Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Syracuse joined together, with Villanova and Pittsburgh joining soon after, to create a basketball behemoth that placed three teams in the 1985 Final Four. By the following March, the Big East had national TV deals with CBS, ESPN, and the USA Network. ”I just hope in 20 years we will have withstood the test of time, like the ACC and Big Ten,” the conference’s then-commissioner Dave Gavitt told the New York Times.

Twenty-six years later, the Big East is a teetering Jenga tower, and adding Tulane and East Carolina won’t stabilize it. The conference created the conditions for its own demise in 1991, when it abandoned its sensible, money-generating basketball-centrism by trying to compete in basketball and football. First, Rutgers, Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia came aboard. Then, in 2003, Miami and Virginia Tech started the trend of leaving the Big East for the more football-conducive ACC. Boston College followed suit the next year, while Temple got kicked out of the Big East for being terrible at football. Then Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida signed up. TCU came on over, then decamped to the Big 12 without playing a single game. Syracuse and Pittsburgh left for the ACC. West Virginia went to the Big 12. Boise State and San Diego State joined the Big East as football-only members—hey, they’re east of the Pacific Ocean. Louisville went to the ACC. Hey, wait, Temple’s back? Where did Houston come from? Now, after all that shuffling and re-shuffling, the Big East is basically what Conference USA used to be, with the Naval Academy thrown in just in case they want to launch an amphibious assault against the Pac-12.

What has this pigskin obsession done for the Big East? On the plus side, the conference scored an annual, automatic, revenue-securing BCS invitation when that system spewed forth in 1998. But in desperately clinging to this automatic berth, the Big East has morphed into a sickly husk of its former self. It is college football’s Gollum. And by overreaching in its mission to become an all-sport power, the Big East has now lost a number of its great basketball schools. But wait, it gets worse: When the four-team football playoff commences in 2014, the Big East will lose its guaranteed position, at which point it might just wither and die completely.

There is a lesson here for money-hungry athletic directors and college presidents. It’s true that conferences like the Big 10 and SEC can score higher-value deals with TV networks by packaging more schools and more sports together. But the conferences aren’t supposed to serve anyone other than their member institutions, which might well do better by shopping their services on their own. In the long run, it’s hard to see how a school like Maryland is better-served economically and competitively by running out on the Duke and North Carolina basketball programs. The realignments of the last few years have killed a bunch of great traditional rivalries, including Texas-Texas A&M in football and Syracuse-Georgetown in basketball. It’s time for schools to recognize that the one-conference-fits-all approach is the only tradition that needs to be scrapped.