On College Sports

Big East is thinking bigger

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / April 22, 2010

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — With all the talk of expansion, the chatter around the Bowl Championship Series meetings here has the Big East under siege again, with schools such as Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse possible targets of the Big Ten.

But yesterday the Big East made a proactive move, hiring former National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a consultant, to help it not only survive, but thrive.

“The idea was to think outside the box,’’ said Big East commissioner John Marinatto. “Look at different ways of doing things. Try and see what possibilities are out there. I don’t know what that is. It could be anything.’’

Marinatto said Tagliabue would start work immediately, and all areas of operation would be discussed, including expansion. When asked if he could envision the Big East — which already seems maxed out at 16 teams in basketball — actually getting bigger, he said, “Anything is possible.’’

Marinatto has talked to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany ever since he took over for Mike Tranghese as Big East commissioner last summer. He has sought Delany’s counsel even though the Big Ten very well could target several Big East schools in its own expansion discussions.

“Brilliant,’’ said Marinatto about Delany yesterday during a break in the meetings. “I learn so much talking to him, listening to him. He’s schooling me in the way I need to think in this business.’’

One of the things Marinatto has picked up is to have a sense of purpose, especially for a first-year commissioner.

“The idea,’’ said Marinatto, “is to think strategically about the future.’’

Yesterday, Delany said no decisions had been made on any Big Ten expansion, and no announcement would be forthcoming any time soon.

One thing that appears more likely is that Notre Dame, which has been the center of most expansion speculation, will remain a football independent and a member of the Big East in basketball and other non-revenue producing sports.

But there could be some other action. There has been speculation that the Big East is going after Maryland, and there has even been talk that it could send out an olive branch to see if Boston College would come back. Throw in Central Florida as a partner in that state with South Florida, add that to a core Northeast group centered around Rutgers, Pitt, Syracuse, Connecticut, and West Virginia, and you might have something.

Any inclusion of Atlantic Coast Conference schools probably would happen only if a league such as the Southeastern Conference dipped in. If the ACC lost schools such as Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, or Miami, Maryland and BC might be more inclined to look for safe haven in the Northeast.

Yesterday, SEC commissioner Mike Slive said his league would be proactive.

Critics suggest that the Big East is too big as a basketball league at 16 teams. What about 20?

“Who is to say we couldn’t go to 20 teams in basketball, but not have one 20-team league, but a league with pods of four or five teams?’’ said Marinatto. “You have to think strategic alliances — what strategic alliances could we create?

“Why couldn’t we do something with Notre Dame in football, where they aren’t a member but they schedule groups of teams in our conference [which is already being done]? Why couldn’t we do more with television, and have a Big East television network [similar to the Big Ten’s highly successful operation]?

“We need a new way of thinking. Strategic thinking. We need to be proactive rather than reactive, and develop our assets. Paul’s theory is, ‘Think long-term, think over the horizon.’ ‘Out-of-the-box thinking,’ Jim is always saying to me, ‘You have to think differently.’

“So hopefully Paul is going to help us think differently.’’

Marinatto said that making Big East football stronger is a priority.

“We do need to do that, because we have the Eastern footprint of the country,’’ he said. “But we also need quality.’’

Whether Maryland and BC can be pried way from the ACC is iffy. The Big East also would love to have Penn State back, in an ideal world.

For the Big East, the hiring of Tagliabue was the first move.

“The first of many steps over the next several months that we need to make,’’ said Marinatto, who may have fired the first shot in a long and dramatic change in the structure of college athletics.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at