Calm after storm
BC AD DeFilippo is excited about the future
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- The flight to Jacksonville was different this year for Gene DeFilippo. The purpose of the trip -- annual league meetings two weeks ago -- may have been the same, but the Boston College athletic director didn't feel the tension that existed in May 2003, when he was en route to Ponte Vedra Beach for the Big East get-together at the same time his school was involved in the Atlantic Coast Conference's discussion of expansion. Last year, he was engaged in a Big East family feud. This year, he was here at Amelia Island, attending an ACC family gathering of new members.
For DeFilippo, the front man in his school's decision to bolt the Big East, feelings of tension and treachery have been replaced by excitement and enjoyment.
A year after a hurricane figuratively blew through this part of Florida's Atlantic Coast, nearly destroying the Big East and reconfiguring not only the ACC but several other conferences, a sense of calm has returned.
"We move on," DeFilippo said from the meetings. "The last year has been tough. But that's behind us now. I'm excited about the future."
That is DeFilippo's way. He sees each glass as half-full. He has spent the past year taking some hits from people he thought were his friends, sometimes keeping his true feelings to himself.
He has acted as a loyal employee for an administration that made it clear that being aligned with schools such as Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia was much more acceptable than being part of a league that included Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, and South Florida, all of which will join the Big East beginning with the 2005 season.
Moving on is the philosophy the Big East is trying to follow as it prepares for its meetings this week 30 miles south of Amelia Island, in Ponte Vedra Beach. There is still business to do with BC, which will be a nonvoting member this season as it concludes what most people think will be the Eagles' final year in a conference in which they were charter members.
A potential lawsuit looms involving BC and the conference over the amount of the Eagles' exit fee. And there is the hint that if things do not get resolved -- the Big East wants at least $5 million for a BC departure before the 2006 season -- the league will keep the Eagles for two more seasons.
"We've talked about working on a schedule with BC included for 2005," Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy said last week. "It's definitely something that can happen. Anything is possible."
Mulcahy says the Big East has shown its resiliency in the past year.
"In basketball, we're going to be even better," he said, referencing a new 16-team super conference. "In football [seven teams for 2004], it will be tough, but we will get there over the next four years."
He talks about the cost of the changes, not in financial terms, but on an emotional level. What had been regarded as a fairly close-knit family -- prone to internal squabbling but with a core instinct for survival when outsiders intruded -- has been torn apart.
"We can live without Miami," he said, almost matter-of-factly. "And Virginia Tech seemed much more comfortable looking to the ACC. But the real tragedy of the whole case was BC. We didn't see that coming. That took an awful toll, it broke a lot of friendships."
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese looked back at the past year and shook his head with a sense of regret.
"All of a sudden people who had long-term associations were at war with each other," he said last week.
DeFilippo, once a close friend of Mulcahy, acknowledged the strain: "It was no fun for anybody. It was a divorce. I don't know many divorces where there wasn't a lot of emotion and passion involved. I don't know any other way to say it. There was some ill will involved. It was tough for everyone."
Asked if he could turn back the clock, DeFilippo paused and said, "I don't know if I would do anything differently. I'm not sure if I would have changed anything."
Plan was in works
It was clear the ACC was intent on increasing its profile. Schools such as Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Clemson informally talked about such plans six years ago in various meetings.
DeFilippo said he heard the talk, and laughed when he heard BC mentioned. "Just talk," he said. "Nothing serious."
It got serious last winter when the ACC focused on moving from nine to 12 teams with three Big East schools -- Miami, Syracuse, and Boston College -- as its targets.
Such a move certainly would have crippled, if not destroyed, the Big East in football since it almost certainly would have eliminated the Big East as one of the conferences with an automatic Bowl Championship Series bid -- worth approximately $17 million.
But BC was intrigued by linkage to schools with strong academic credentials. That, as much as anything, was behind the strong push by the administration to switch conferences, a move that DeFilippo -- who once envisioned a high-profile Eastern athletic conference with BC, Pittsburgh, UConn, Syracuse, and perhaps even Penn State -- had to embrace publicly.
But what looked like a done deal in May dissolved in June when the ACC, faced with internal political turmoil, chose not to extend offers to Syracuse and BC and invited Miami and Virginia Tech.
BC seemed to swallow its pride and made public plans for rebuilding the Big East.
But in the fall, the ACC -- knowing it needed a 12th team to ensure a highly lucrative conference championship game, went back to BC, and the Eagles eagerly accepted.
"The first time around was disappointing," said Mulcahy. "But the second time was what really hurt. Some promises were broken. We were prepared to work it out. Everyone was, and then they left."
BC contends it did what every other school in the conference would have done, faced with a similar circumstance. It was a battle for survival.
Now the conference and the school must forge ahead.
"I have to go about the business of preparing for the future," said Tranghese, who worked hard this spring to make sure the newly configured Big East has a guaranteed BCS berth in the future. "My job is to be a leader."
BC's job is to meld with its new family. DeFilippo, whose background includes stints in the Southeastern Conference and in the South, says he is reconnecting with several friends and making new ones.
DeFilippo says this year in limbo will be strange, just as sitting in on the ACC meetings without a vote was strange. "We're part of it, but we're not," he said with a smile. "Because it's another year away. It's very awkward for us.
"We're going to have to make the best of the next year."
He says the workload will increase considerably. "We're going to have to go back and look at every team in our athletic program and make evaluations," he said. "Some of our sports need full-time assistant coaches. Some need more scholarships. Some of our sports will never join the ACC, like fencing, sailing, skiing."
One evaluation already has been made. BC, which has 17 varsity programs for women and 14 for men, will not eliminate any sports. "I don't think we will cut back," said DeFilippo.
Some sports, such as baseball, will have to be enhanced considerably. When they enter the ACC, the basketball teams will charter flights for weekday conference games to cut down on added travel and minimize missed class time, something DeFilippo said BC would have done in an expanded Big East.
BC already has budgeted an extra $300,000 a year in travel costs, but with the potential of as much as an extra $5 million a season coming because of the new ACC television football contract, there is flexibility.
BC football coach Tom O'Brien, who had to deal with the instability for six months, says the Eagles will adjust and compete.
"One of the big things has always been to be part of a league that has a BCS bid," said O'Brien, who as a former assistant coach at Virginia has a familiarity with the ACC. In the past few years, Georgia Tech and Maryland made overtures to O'Brien, and the Eagles have played teams such as Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. "Now that's guaranteed."
O'Brien knows he must compete in the Big East for at least one more year. He also knows he has a legitimate opportunity to get a BCS bid in a league that has been depleted at the top with the departures of Virginia Tech and Miami.
"That's what we're going after," he said with a smile.
For the men's basketball team, it is simply a matter of changing opponents.
"This has always been a football issue," said BC coach Al Skinner. "We're just going along for the ride. We'll compete like we always have."
The Big East will move on, trying to reconstruct in football with new members and new alliances, and increase its profile in basketball -- if that's possible with back-to-back national championship sweeps in men's and women's basketball and high-profile programs such as Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette helping the league expand to a barely manageable 16 teams.
"We're going to have to make it work," said Tranghese.
Ditto for BC. DeFilippo wants to maintain some New England ties in basketball with games against Providence, Massachusetts, Holy Cross, Harvard, Northeastern, and Boston University.
Football might be a tougher proposition, since there is no inclination to keep UConn as a rival.
But DeFilippo sees the big picture and smiles.
"History is going to show that this will be a terrific move for Boston College," he said.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.