On Monday morning, after weeks of speculation, college sports fans woke up to the rumor that Pittsburgh was leaving the Big East for the Big Ten. It was the college football version of the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, with a whole load of dominoes ready to fall.
But the Pitt rumor turned out to be false. Pittsburgh denied it, and the Big Ten stated it’s sticking to its 12- to 19-month timetable, but the threat still persists. But let’s not make the same mistake Europe did in 1914 – let’s look at the Big Ten’s potential power grab calmly and rationally.
First, the Big Ten isn’t looking to add just anyone. The Big Ten has a certain archetype in mind when adding schools. Whereas the Big East is a hodgepodge of private, sometimes-Catholic, basketball-only schools and big, state research institutions, the Big Ten is pretty much a group of large research institutions with fairly high academic standards. The ACC’s expansion was strictly based on broadcast revenue, which it increased two-fold, and football championships, regardless of the makeup of the school – it added two private schools, one of which is Catholic, and one large research school.
The Big Ten, however, is only looking for research institutions that are on par academically with current conference members. That’s why the Big Ten is looking at schools like Missouri, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers, all of which are competitive research institutions. The Big Ten wouldn’t want any of these teams, however, if it weren’t for a certain Midwest school – home to seven Heisman Trophy winners – giving the Big Ten a stiff arm.
For years the Big Ten has been trying to woo Notre Dame, which is independent in football and plays in the Big East for every other sport, but every time, the Irish give the same two-letter response. The very thing that the Big Ten wants – broadcast revenue – is keeping Notre Dame independent in football. Administrators may claim that independence upholds tradition, but money is the reason the Irish are independent. The moment that the Notredame Broadcasting Corporation refuses to shell out millions for the rights to broadcast Irish games is when you’ll see Notre Dame flee to a conference.
Until then, why would Notre Dame join a conference and share in television revenue when it has an exclusive deal with NBC? It doesn’t make sense, and until the wheels of the program truly fall off, Notre Dame football will remain independent.
It’s understandable why the Big Ten would want to expand, too. Conference championships are all the rage, and it needs a 12th team if it wants to get in on that trend. Conference championships aren’t always great though. The SEC and the Big 12 have had some success with them, but the ACC’s version has been an absolute debacle. Attendance has been miserable, and, besides this year, the play on the field hasn’t been much better – a 9-6 final score in 2006? After getting 72,749 spectators for the inaugural game, it has averaged 46,559 in the four years since. Imagine a Rutgers-Iowa Big Ten title game in Detroit. Think that is going to draw a huge crowd?
Plus, the Big Ten could possibly lose BCS bids and money by making a power grab. It is true that the Big Ten has not won a national title since 2003 when Ohio State (cough, the referees, cough) beat Miami. Since that time, one-loss Penn State has been passed over twice and Ohio State, after nearly six weeks off, has gotten shellacked twice in the national title.
The Big Ten could stay relevant by simply extending its season and playing regular season games in the first week of December à la the Big East and Pac-10. That way there’s no six-week layoff. The lack of a conference title game has also allowed Big Ten teams to be judged based on their full body of work rather than one pseudo-playoff game. This has greatly helped the Big Ten, which has more second BCS bids – five years in a row and nine of the last 12 – than any other conference. So while things aren’t perfect for Big Ten teams, they also have gotten the benefit of the doubt quite a few times, partly because they lack a conference title game.
But what does the Big East do if the day after tomorrow happens? There’s no Dennis Quaid to save them from apocalypse, so chances are the league goes for the next best thing and raids Conference USA.
East Carolina, Central Florida and Memphis would be the first choices. In ECU and UCF, the Big East gets two good football programs, and in Memphis there is a decent football team and a proud basketball tradition. Conference USA might then raid some other mid-level conference, and the dominoes would begin to fall.
God forbid Missouri goes, because the Big 12’s response will hardly be tactical. The Mountain West could probably say goodbye to TCU, and they might even have to kiss Utah goodbye. Before long, there might not be concerns about teams from the Mountain West or WAC missing out on the BCS because anyone who is anyone will be in a major conference anyway. It would be the college football equivalent of 1914.
To his credit, Big East commissioner John Marinatto, who was in attendance at last Saturday’s game against Duke at Verizon Center, has been proactive in trying to avoid this purge. The Big East tournament has signed a deal with Madison Square Garden to remain at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” until 2016.
In football, he’s added a Big East-affiliated bowl game at Yankee Stadium. Marinatto is taking what the Big Ten covets – the New York market – and is using it as bait to keep teams in the Big East.
It may be impossible to stop the Big Ten’s expansion. Big East teams may flee, and the Big East may follow suit with a power grab of its own, but it doesn’t have to be. Both sides should remember the lessons of 1914 – or at least the lessons of the ACC – and think twice before drastically altering the landscape of college sports.
Ryan Travers is a senior in the College and a former Sports Editor at The Hoya. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/illprocedure. He can be reached at traversthehoya.com. Illegal Procedure appears in every Friday issue of Hoya Sports. “