What's next for Big East expansion?

What's next for Big East expansion?

Sometimes all the speculation about conference changes makes me feel like I just got spit out of a blender, or maybe just stepped out of one of those carnival rides that spins round and round and pins you to the wall with centrifugal force while the floor drops away. It makes me queasy.

Texas Christian University, located in Fort Worth, Texas, will be in the Big East. Amazing.

It's going to take a little time for me to get a lasso around that idea. But I'll get there. There's no question that the move has met with widespread approval in the writers and talkers' bunkhouse. There seems to be widespread agreement that adding TCU strengthens the Big East in football.

For TCU, it was probably an easy decision. They are joining a BCS automatic qualifier conference and will be seen on ESPN a lot more often. They'll make more money by moving from the Mountain West to share in the Big East's television and bowl revenues. And it probably was a pretty easy decision for the Big East presidents, chancellors, and athletic directors, too. TCU brings both recent success and a gridiron history of note. Oh, and there's that not-so-little matter of tapping into the Fort Worth and Dallas TV market. Welcome to the conference, Horned Frogs!

The question now becomes, who's next?

With all due respect to Villanova, I hope it's not the Wildcats. I'm not convinced that Villanova can make the successful jump up to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) that UConn accomplished. Philly just doesn't seem to be a college football town. Like Temple, Villanova doesn't have the facilities, the playing field, or the sizable fan following that would seem to support a move to the FBS. Villanova is giving the matter serious consideration, with a decision expected this spring. The Big East members and conference officials know what they're doing better than I do, but I hope Villanova decides to stay in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). And the University of Massachusetts, sometimes mentioned in such discussions, would be an even less desirable choice in my view.

The best-case scenario for Team Number Ten will almost certainly not happen. It's the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room would boost the Big East's position in future contract discussions regarding TV revenues and bowl lineups, and it would end any questions about the perceived strength of the conference. The elephant lives under a Golden Dome.

All of the criticism about the Big East being a weak football conference would stop. Instantly. Immediately. Irrevocably. Any questions from TV executives about media appeal and markets would disappear in a big, quick, magical poof. All of that would happen if only the Big East presidents and athletic directors and league officials could persuade Notre Dame to join the Big East for football.

I know I'm dreaming. But dream along with me for a moment.

Say the Big East allows Notre Dame to keep its separate contract with NBC for its home games. Say the Big East requires Notre Dame to play only six conference games each season, three at home and three away. And maybe some of their away games, against either Rutgers or UConn, could be played in New York City. Notre Dame could keep its annual rivalry game with USC and schedule five other nonconference games. Notre Dame would continue to share in the Big East bowl structure, but would also draw an equal share of the conference's TV and bowl revenues. And those revenues could skyrocket with the addition of the Irish to the Big East football conference.

And Notre Dame would become eligible for the Big East champion's BCS bid.

It seems to me that the Big East might be able to make an even better offer to Notre Dame than the Big Ten could have. Clearly the Big Ten had far greater conference revenues to offer, but the Big East could make an offer that would be appealing in many ways. The Irish could keep their NBC contract, share the Big East's football and bowl revenues, retain more scheduling flexibility than if they had gone to the Big Ten, and retain their current affiliation with the Catholic basketball schools of the Big East. Win-win.

This dream scenario probably will never happen. Notre Dame seems determined to remain independent in football. But surely it would be worth their time for the Big East presidents, ADs, and league office to try to entice the Irish to join the Big East football conference. I'd like to see the Big East make Notre Dame the sweetheart offer of all sweetheart offers to join. The Irish could elevate the Big East and make the conference's future as golden as, well, you know.

But let's say the Big East tries its best and Notre Dame still decides not to join. That seems the likeliest outcome.

Who's next? We've heard names like Kansas, Missouri, Houston, and Memphis mentioned. Presumably Kansas and Missouri will stay put in the Big XII. (Even though the Big XII is now 10, and the Big 10 is now 12.) Houston has some additional appeal now that TCU is coming into the conference, and Houston would bring another significant TV market. But Houston isn't TCU in terms of its football program strength. And Memphis doesn't seem to have much appeal, either.

That brings us to the school that seems most likely to be next on the list to get a Big East invitation -- the University of Central Florida (UCF).

UCF obviously would bring a terrific market in the Orlando area. They would be a natural rival for USF. Having both UCF and USF in the conference would give every other football team in the Big East an away game in Florida each year, which could help recruiting in the Sunshine State. UCF has a large undergraduate enrollment, a respectable football program, and, from what I've read, a men's basketball program that's on the rise. UCF is very conceivably at the top of the Big East invitation list.

That seemingly leaves another school -- East Carolina University (ECU) -- on the outside looking in. There are several often-repeated arguments against adding ECU. They would bring nothing to the conference in basketball. They're the fourth most popular program in their own state (though they might argue they're at least third). They don't add much in terms of market. Yadda, yadda, yadda. East Carolina gets so little respect that the school reminds me of West Virginia.

Maybe that's why I have a soft spot in my heart for East Carolina.

I watched on TV when East Carolina hosted N.C. State this fall. Their expanded and renovated stadium appeared to be beautiful and filled to the seams with purple-clad fans. ECU is a school whose supporters want to be in the Big East, and I think ECU could be an asset to the conference. The ECU football program could be at least the equal of an N.C. State if the school could recruit as a member of a BCS automatic qualifier conference. And its basketball program could be at least the equal of a Virginia Tech or Miami. There are a lot of high school basketball players in the state of North Carolina, and at least some of the best ones probably would love to play in the Big East. Heck, a lot of the Duke and UNC recruits come in from out of state, anyway. Adding ECU also would bring the Big East at least a modest TV market in the heart of ACC country. (And anything with the potential to annoy the ACC commissioner's office has at least some merit.)

UCF seems the likely and sensible choice if the Big East goes to 10 schools in football. But why not go to 11? Why not invite both UCF and ECU?

With 11 schools we could play a round-robin football schedule, and it would be balanced -- 10 conference games each season, with five home games and five away. Yes, that would allow for only two out-of-conference games each season. But wouldn't it be great (for us fans, anyway) for WVU to play a meaningful conference game rather than schedule a payday game with a lower-division school?

If Villanova also made the jump to the FBS, that would give us 12 teams and permit dividing the football conference into two six-team divisions. If not Villanova, then maybe Houston could be brought on board as a 12th team. That would create the opportunity for a potentially lucrative conference championship game, maybe to be held in Yankee Stadium or the New Meadowlands.

But I'd be happy if Villanova stayed put, and we added UCF and ECU to end up with an 11-team football conference, with each team playing each other team every year.

Any school that comes into the Big East should be invited for all sports, not for football only. That's just simple, basic fairness to the school(s) being invited. If we brought in UCF and ECU, that would expand the basketball conference to 19 schools. The schedule could be kept at 18 conference basketball games, although some schools -- like WVU and Pitt -- would want to schedule an additional conference game to continue a home-and-home schedule with a rival. Maybe the basketball conference would be split into two divisions. Maybe only the top 16 schools would make it to the league tournament in Madison Square Garden. However the basketball side were set up, any scheduling problems could undoubtedly be resolved.

Obviously the decisive matter in any conference expansion is financial. To the schools, the league presidents, and the athletic departments, any conference expansion needs to create revenue, not just divide existing revenues into smaller shares. Would adding UCF and ECU, or any schools for that matter, add more to the Big East financially, or would it just dilute the conference revenues? That's the big question. That's the question that Big East officials, league presidents, and athletic directors have to answer before they can move forward with adding any more schools. I imagine they have reams of statistics and projections to inform their thinking as they work through this process.

Without those data, fans like me are limited when discussing these matters. My perspective is only that of a fan and a WVU alumnus. It's only my opinion when I say that I'd like to see the Big East invite UCF and East Carolina. I think both would be assets to the conference.

And then, if only we could persuade Notre Dame....

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