On college sports

For Big East, where is all this leading?

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / May 26, 2011

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The Big Ten and Pac-10 have completed their expansion plans — for now. The Atlantic Coast Conference is one year into a lucrative television deal with ESPN that will make all 12 conference schools richer. The Big 12, with 10 teams, has made its deal with Texas, its most valuable product and anchor. The Southeastern Conference is solid and secure with 12 teams, a rich television contract, and no obvious problems other than balancing national championships in football with NCAA investigations.

Which brings us to the Big East, which has 16 — soon to be 17, and perhaps 18 or more — teams in basketball, including national champion Connecticut.

In football, TCU will join the Big East as team No. 9 in the fall of 2012, and there are tentative plans for a 10th team. So far so good. But look beyond that. Look for a plan that makes sense and has some form.

As the Big East comes out of its spring meetings in Florida this week, the question of leadership remains.

Where is it? Who is it?

And what does it want to do?

According to several sources within the league, there has been an ongoing internal debate among Big East commissioner John Marinatto and a core group of presidents and athletic directors.

The power struggle is football-driven, led by athletic directors at West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers, and the presidents at West Virginia and Pittsburgh. The three schools flexed their muscles when Villanova was being considered as the 10th team in football last month. To get approval, Villanova needed six of the eight Big East votes. The vote was 5-3.

The internal bickering and bargaining has been intense, with Pittsburgh AD Steve Peterson and Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti having the loudest voices in the room but different agendas. Pernetti has argued the hardest for the bigger formula, i.e. 12 teams in football, 19 or 20 in basketball.

Outwardly, the Big East has tried to put on a “we are family’’ face. It’s not working.

Who is to blame? Maybe everyone.

The latest issue came this week when the Big East, with its contract for football and men’s basketball with ESPN running out after the 2012-13 season, turned down an offer from the network that insiders say would have paid Big East schools in the neighborhood of $11 million each.

ESPN told the Big East that was its best offer, considering that marquee such schools as Penn State, Maryland, Notre Dame, and Boston College were not coming through the door as the No. 10 team in football. ESPN was content to take a chance on TCU and perhaps Central Florida with a fair-market offer.

The Big East power base said, “No. We can wait and get a better offer.’’

That is not likely to happen. In fact, less money might be on the table when the Big East does get around to finalizing its television contract.

“I think there’s been a general realization that college football television rights have been undervalued,’’ West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck told the Metro News in Morgantown, W.Va. “Every commissioner has realized that.

“There have been some big deals out there. The SEC signed a blockbuster. The Big Ten now has its own network. The Pac-12 schools have in effect quadrupled and in some cases quintupled the television revenue they will be looking at in the coming years.

“I think patience is a virtue. We sort of tumbled into it, but sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart, I suppose.’’

There is a third possibility: Neither lucky nor smart.

There may be more trouble coming for the Big East if the Big Ten decides to move forward again in a few years; already there are rumblings that it might go to 14 teams, with an eye on Georgia Tech and Maryland, which would significantly increase its television footprint.

If that happens, the ACC will be forced to react (UConn? Syracuse? Rutgers?) with what surely would be a fatal blow to Big East football.

“We have to have an identity,’’ said Marinatto, while adding that he isn’t sure what that identity will be once all of the deals are done.

Marinatto concedes he is taking a gamble, but he may have a hole card if NBC/Comcast and Fox come in and elevate the offer in the fall of 2012.

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and we’re at bat,’’ said Marinatto, meaning that all the other conference contracts are done. “We need to get the best deal we can get to help secure our future.’’

Then there is the ongoing basketball/football battle being waged internally in the Big East. The basketball schools are already frustrated by having to make a 16-team work. It could go to 18 and perhaps as many as 20 if some of the football schools get their wish to increase that sport to 12 teams, which would allow for a conference championship game and more money.

A basketball-football split seems a question of when, not if.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun foresees the split coming sooner rather than later, which would leave the Big East with an eight-team basketball league of Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence and perhaps Notre Dame and a football branch of UConn, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Syracuse, Rutgers, TCU, and, for the sake of argument, Central Florida.

To maximize the money, the Big East would need to add two teams — Army? Navy? Houston? Memphis? East Carolina? — to get back to the 12-team minimum for a football championship game. And it will need a television contract to make that worthwhile.

When Dave Gavitt was running the Big East, it was strictly a basketball conference whose members had similar agendas. When Mike Tranghese succeeded Gavitt, he guided the conference through basketball expansion and the creation of a football branch.

Suddenly the job became harder. Much harder, requiring strong leadership as well as internal unity to make it all work.

If Marinatto can pull it off, he deserves praise.

Right now, we don’t see it happening.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at