The Big East conference has been in the news a lot lately. Some of it is good, some of it not so much. But what does this mean for college football?
The big east conference football teams are the beginning of the end for Big East football. With the loss of Syracuse and Pitt, it will be difficult for other schools to remain in the conference.
Former West Virginia is a state in the US. athletic director Oliver Luck recalls the day Pittsburgh and Syracuse formally announced their decision to leave the Big East and join the ACC. On Sept. 17, 2011, he was driving east from Morgantown to the West Virginia-Maryland football game and devised a strategy to reach conference commissioner John Marinatto as soon as possible.
In a suite inside Maryland’s football stadium, the two met alone. Marinatto sat in a high-backed chair at the bar while the two spoke about how the Big East would continue to exist as a football conference. Of course, the elephant in the room was that Pitt and Syracuse had delivered a double gut punch that sent shockwaves throughout the league, indicating to every remaining football-playing member that the time had come to put conference allegiance aside and look out for themselves.
In retrospect, neither stated what seems to be self-evident. They never had the opportunity to do so, even if they wanted to. Five minutes into their meeting, Marinatto received a phone call. Marinatto became ashen and pallid, then collapsed to the ground, as Luck stood there watching.
“Oh my goodness, the conference is coming apart, the commissioner just [fainted] in front of me, and I don’t know what to do,” I recall thinking to myself. In a phone conversation, Luck claimed the call was about Big East founder Dave Gavitt, who died just before his beloved league was disbanding.
Marinatto regained consciousness after a quick search for medical assistance. But there’s a reason Luck recalls that event so vividly ten years later. That day marked a turning point in the Big East’s history, and nothing would ever be the same again for the league’s members.
TCU abruptly terminated its commitment to join the Big East after just 11 months. West Virginia announced their move to the Big 12 40 days after Luck met with Marinatto, defeating Louisville in a high-stakes campaign that attracted high-powered politicians and pitted two Big East members against one other for the last vacant slot.
The remaining teams were sceptical, and trust was poor. While sitting in Big East meetings identifying schools to add in an effort to save the conference, presidents, athletic directors, and coaches made calls behind each other’s backs to find a secure conference home that would not only provide stability but also a financial windfall that would ensure their own futures. While the Big East attempted to create a Western border with Boise State and San Diego State, the remaining institutions, including Louisville, Cincinnati, UConn, Florida’s south coast, and Rutgers, continued to make appeals to other conferences for a way out.
To be clear, the Big East was not the catalyst for the Power 5 restructuring that occurred between 2010 and 2012. When the Big Ten stated in 2009 that it will begin investigating expansion options before adding Nebraska in 2010, it did just that.
However, the Big East was the only major conference to lose half of its football-playing members during that time period, and it was a setback from which the league never recovered. The basketball-playing members kept the Big East moniker and broke apart, while the remaining football-playing members created the American Athletic Conference with nine additional institutions.
Hurt emotions, rage, and sorrow linger 10 years later for individuals with strong Big East ties who saw the events unfold in real time. According to several former colleagues, Marinatto, who died in June at the age of 64, blamed himself for what happened to his beloved league during his tenure. After resigning as Big East commissioner in 2012, he never agreed to an interview.
“I’m not sure if anybody could have prevented what occurred,” one former league official said. “Especially when you had schools that were hell-bent on self-sufficiency.”
Of course, the schools that left had a very different perspective on what occurred.
Former Syracuse sports director Daryl Gross stated, “We were all aware of the trend occurring around us.” “We just had a TV contract with the Big East fall through, and the Big East is on fire, and there’s a cruise ship waiting to pick us up. So, what are your plans?”
In 2007, Noel Devine assisted West Virginia in winning their sixth Big East championship. Before relocating to the Big 12, the Mountaineers won seven conference titles in the Big East. Jeff Gentner/AP Photo
A SHORT HISTORY LESSON IS REQUIRED TO UNDERSTAND HOW EVERYTHING FELL APART FOR THE BIG EAST. In 1979, the Big East was founded as a basketball conference, and it passionately supported the sport, even rejecting Penn State as a member in the early 1980s.
However, as football gained in popularity and financial clout, the league welcomed in Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and others, and started financing football in 1991, enabling long-standing league members like Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College to play football for the first time in a conference. However, due of the unique football/basketball dynamic, doing so always put the league somewhat off kilter in comparison to others.
“There has always been worry about the football schools breaking away from the Big East,” one former Big East administrator said.
When Miami and Virginia Tech departed for the ACC in 2003, the Big East was the first to be affected by realignment. The remaining Big East football-playing colleges chose to break up that summer, feeling their interests were no longer aligned with the basketball-playing schools’. Kevin O’Malley, a former TV executive who now works as a consultant, was hired to assist then-commissioner Mike Tranghese in keeping the league together.
O’Malley said, “They had actually prepared a letter that was supposed to be sent.” “Basketball schools, in their opinion, were a thing of the past. What I said was that the basketball schools and the football schools both required each other, which is a recurrent issue throughout all of this. We finally put Humpty-Dumpty back together after a long time.”
Boston College followed suit and departed as well. The increasing significance of football from a revenue-generating perspective, most notably during broadcast contract talks and ensuring it had a seat at the table in the former Bowl Championship Series, further exacerbated the gap between football and basketball schools.
It became considerably more difficult for the league to not only define its identity, which was stuck between its basketball heritage and the riches of football, but also to keep everyone going ahead in the same direction.
“Isn’t it true that this realignment game has no rules? There was no one to act as an arbitrator. You were unable to contact either the NCAA or the federal government. We compared the game to musical chairs. When the music ends, you don’t want to be the one left standing.” Oliver Luck, a former West Virginia sports director,
“It became more acrimonious over time because the basketball side was always leery of the football side,” according to one former Big East sports director. “And it was seen as more of a football play than a league play as we pushed some of those concepts.”
Starting in December 2009, this is basically where everything went bad. Athletic directors around the nation knew a major change in the environment was about to happen when the Big Ten stated it would investigate expansion over the next 12-18 months. Some schools and conferences would benefit much financially, while others would have to rush to locate a suitable location.
“”I believe everyone thought, ‘OK, here we go,’ the day the Big Ten announced it,” former Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said. If you don’t know whether or not you’ll be chosen, you’re taking a big risk. So we made a concerted effort to find a method to bind the Big East together. Many schools, understandably, were unwilling to make such a commitment. ‘What if we had a chance to attend to one of these conferences?’ they wondered.”
Gross recalls attending a series of meetings before to the conference basketball tournament in 2011 and noting that there was no mention of expansion on the schedule.
Gross stated, “To this day, I have no clue why no one wanted to address the topic.” “It was almost as if we didn’t have to worry about it if we didn’t speak about it.”
During the meeting, he expressed his worries. Following that, another sports director approached him and said, “Are you guys leaving?”
Syracuse, according to Gross, had no intentions to depart at the time. He said, “I was simply trying to figure out, ‘What’s the plan?’” “I was completely lost. This, I assumed, would be the most talked-about subject in the whole room.”
Whether or whether the league was proactive is a matter of opinion. The Big East attempted to establish a cooperation with many Big 12 schools on multiple occasions, but it was only in reaction to the prospect of Texas and Oklahoma leaving.
The plan died when Texas and Oklahoma chose to remain put.
Marinatto congratulated then-Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe on saving his league from collapsing with a bottle of champagne.
There wouldn’t be anything to rejoice about in the near future.
“You don’t want to be the last one standing when the music stops,” former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said of league realignment. USA TODAY Sports/Charles LeClaire
THE CENTRAL POINT OF DISCUSSION IN THE BIG EAST WAS ITS TELEVISION RIGHTS. The Big East was negotiating with ESPN at the time on a new rights agreement that would increase its yearly payment from $36 million to $155 million. Over the course of the contract, the new agreement would be worth more than $1.3 billion. ESPN had an exclusive negotiation window with the Big East at the time since it was its broadcasting partner.
However, many presidents and athletic directors preferred to wait until the ESPN window closed before taking the Big East to the open market, thinking that the Big East’s whole rights package was worth more than what ESPN was giving. Georgetown, Pitt, and Rutgers were among the teams.
“At the time, we simply felt like the contract didn’t represent our worth,” Pederson said. “‘If you’re going to sign a long-term contract that you believe is undervalued, then you’re going to be regretful practically the minute you sign it,’ you remarked as you glanced at the figures. We recognized that we were not in the same situation as the Big Ten or the ACC at the time, but we believed we were in a better position than the statistics indicated.”
Despite the fact that the majority of league institutions intended to accept the offer, those who had reservations dominated the discussion and were the loudest voices in the room. Things came to a head in May 2011, when the newly enlarged Pac-12, which now included Colorado and Utah, revealed a $3 billion broadcast package with ESPN and Fox, which was much more than the Big East’s offer.
Everyone in the league reevaluated what was on the table as a result, and the decision was eventually taken to walk away from the planned TV contract.
“That offer appeared out of nowhere, and people began to wonder, ‘If they’re ready to pay that much for the Pac-12, why can’t we get more?’” one source familiar with the talks said. “Now that everyone thinks Comcast has all this money, and we still have a year before our contract expires, many are saying we should go to the open market.”
ESPN requested a counteroffer, according to a former Big East official, but none arrived. Multiple athletic directors were “in shock” when the league backed out of the agreement, according to O’Malley.
“I’ve always believed that ‘one in the hand is better than two in the bush,’ and that would have kept us extremely steady,” said Tom Jurich, the then-Louisville athletic director. “But it was I, the newbie, who was speaking. We were content where we were, and maybe other schools were not. Perhaps they had loftier ambitions. I’m not sure.”
Officials from the colleges that ultimately departed dispute that they were in talks with other conferences when the TV agreement fell through. Some former Big East executives, though, are skeptical.
One even went so far as to suggest that “sabotage” would be a good term to describe how certain schools led the opposition to the TV contract only to abandon it later, while others in the group thought it was a harsh word.
Another former Big East official stated, “There were so many individuals that absolutely adored the conference and were so involved in it, and then you had double spies in the room.”
That claim was debunked by a number of sources.
One former school administrator stated, “There was a real and genuine effort put into trying to find out a way to shore ourselves up and offer greater value to the market to maximize on our agreement.” “This notion that we wanted to sabotage the TV contract because we were all nearing the finish line with other conferences is nonsense.”
What happened to the Big East teams from 2011?
|Team||The conference is scheduled for 2021.|
|West Virginia||Big 12|
Multiple sources verified that Pitt and Rutgers attempted to persuade league members to agree to a grant of rights, in which schools hand up control of their television rights to the conference early in the process. However, there was no agreement. There was nothing holding the league together without a grant of rights, an expansion strategy, or a broadcast contract.
With a perceived leadership vacuum — Marinatto, who is more mild-mannered and less well-connected than Tranghese, is now the commissioner — it appeared a given conclusion that the conflicting agendas would permanently split the league.
“There was no assurance that if we made that agreement, things wouldn’t still change,” a former Big East administrator said. “But it would have benefited the schools left behind to have that in their pocket, and if we had to renegotiate it down, great, but we still had it.”
While the behind-the-scenes turmoil, league executives talked confidently about the financial possibilities for a TV package during media days in Rhode Island in August 2011, despite rejecting out ESPN. The New York Times quoted a league official as saying, “We’re ecstatic. The tide seems to be shifting in our favor.”
Clearly, this was not the case for everyone.
Gross, who favored accepting the TV contract, warned that if it went through, “everything were unstable and might come apart or collapse.” He first heard from the ACC in early September, when his phone rang as he went to his vehicle after a tennis match at the US Open, he claimed. Gross answered yes without hesitation when asked by ACC officials whether Syracuse would be interested in joining.
The Syracuse trustees gathered less than a week later in a hotel in Beverly Hills, California, where they had gone to see Syracuse face USC in football. Following a presentation by Gross, the group decided to accept the invitation to the ACC. Similarly, in September, the issue with Pitt and the ACC progressed fast. Gross and Pederson both claimed they had no clue they’d be teaming up until the very end of the process.
Despite the Big East’s instability and fragility, several individuals said they were “blindsided” by the news that Syracuse and Pitt, two of the league’s most well-known members, including one of its founding members, would depart. It “shook the conference to its core,” according to one participant.
“For the entire history of the league, Syracuse and the Big East were associated with one another,” a former Big East official stated. “There was no going back after they departed.”
Jurich continued: “I’m sure a lot of people were upset, particularly the schools who had been in the league for a long time. They were devastated since they had such strong bonds and ties with those schools.”
When asked whether Pitt’s decision to depart shocked the league, Pederson noted the Panthers were always open about the issue. “I suppose that’s from their point of view,” he added. “Nobody knew where anybody was going, and all of the talks were done in secret. So it’s possible that some individuals were taken aback. I’m not sure.”
Any existing loyalties appeared to dissolve at that moment.
“When one begins to break apart, an avalanche ensues,” Jurich said. “Everyone was frantically scurrying. ‘What are we going to do?’ is the question. What are our chances of surviving? How are we going to keep our heads above water now that the TV contract has fallen through?’ You won’t be able to use it as a bargaining chip. All I cared about was our program from our perspective.”
Meanwhile, TCU, which committed to join the Big East in November 2010 to raise its reputation as a member of a BCS league, left in mid-October to join the Big 12. The Big East was pushing hard for Boise State to join as a football-only member at the time, while Louisville and West Virginia battled it out for the last Big 12 slot.
“Isn’t there such such thing as rules in this realignment game?” As luck would have it, “There was no one to act as an arbitrator. You were unable to contact either the NCAA or the federal government. We compared the game to musical chairs. When the music ends, you don’t want to be the one left standing.”
In November 2010, TCU decided to join the Big East as a means to raise its reputation as a member of a BCS league. It withdrew eleven months later to join the Big 12. Max Faulkner/AP Photo
BOISE STATE PRESIDENT Robert Kustra was interested in realignment because he believed his football team was well positioned for a move into a larger league with greater BCS access. He met with the presidents of Utah, TCU, and BYU in 2010 to explore if Boise State was ready to transfer from the WAC to the Mountain West Conference.
“I made my sales presentation, and then I asked them, ‘How can I guarantee the Mountain West would be the same as it is today?’” In a phone conversation, Kustra remembered the incident. “‘Are you all planning on attending the Mountain West?’ And these presidents were either lying through their teeth or had no idea what their sports directors were planning.”
Utah accepted an offer to join the Pac-10 just a few days after Boise State announced their decision to join the Mountain West. Then BYU declared that it will become an independent football program. TCU decided to join the Big East in November 2010. The Broncos had not decided to join the Mountain West.
Boise State had gone unbeaten in two BCS bowl games (the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls), but had never had a genuine chance to compete for a national title. Aside from national titles, the Mountain West did not have an automatic bid to the BCS, thus Boise State would have to be undefeated every year and hope for an at-large selection.
Kustra felt compelled to take action to enhance his prospects. He had already attempted to persuade the Pac-12, but to no effect. So he listened when the Big East, which had an automatic bid into the BCS, contacted in October 2011 to see if the Broncos were interested in a football-only alliance.
Boise State was rated in the top five at the time. On paper, the deal made sense: Boise State needed to join a BCS league, and the Big East wanted to fill in the gaps and raise its football image. Boise State needed a travel partner from the West to make its relocation east more bearable, which brought San Diego State into the picture.
“Taking the Boise State narrative on the road with the Big East,” Kustra said, “was a wonderful chance to gain national attention that we weren’t receiving here in the Intermountain area.”
During realignment, the Mountain West had suffered a series of blows and couldn’t afford to lose Boise State, its most visible institution. According to a source familiar with the discussion, Commissioner Craig Thompson called both Kustra and then-San Diego State president Elliot Hirshman and told them, “There’s a lot of money being dangled in front of your face, but there’s not going to be a Big East in the long run.” Thompson did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The Big East held discussions with Air Force, Navy, and Army, but eventually chose to join with Boise State and San Diego State for football exclusively. UCF, Houston, and SMU would also become full-time members. The Big East now has the biggest footprint in the nation as a result of the changes.
Nobody knew whether the league would keep its BCS classification or how much a future broadcast contract would be worth since it looked so different. The idea of bringing in Boise State and San Diego State from the other side of the nation to keep the Big East together was met with skepticism. Basketball schools were also dissatisfied.
Coaches Chris Petersen of Boise State and Rocky Long of San Diego State both talked positively about the move in public but privately voiced concerns. Long rejected requests for interviews for this article, while Petersen did not reply to several requests for comment.
“There were certain ideas that weren’t perfect,” Jurich said, “but when you’re in a situation like that, you start to look at everything.” “They weren’t simply saying bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything was great when it wasn’t. Is it appropriate for everyone? Certainly not, including ourselves. It didn’t, but I don’t believe you could claim it was about fit when you were trying to stay alive.”
Several former Big East executives think this alliance might have worked in the long run at the time. However, when a proposal for a four-team playoff was revealed in April 2012, it became apparent that the Big East would lose its automatic qualifying status under the new structure, negating a significant edge the conference held over the Mountain West.
With the league in disarray, Marinatto resigned in May 2012. As one of his friends put it, “He was simply a guy who was Dave Gavitt’s student manager for the basketball team at Providence College and Mike Tranghese’s buddy, and the two of them gave him the keys. And then the meeting came to an end. That was the amount of weight he was carrying.”
Given all of the outside circumstances that were beyond his control, whether he could have done anything differently to keep the league together is debatable.
Pederson said, “I don’t believe anybody deserves any specific responsibility for anything.”
In August, Mike Aresco was appointed as commissioner with the goal of increasing broadcast rights. But first, Notre Dame declared that all of its Big East-affiliated sports will be moved to the ACC, but football would stay independent. In November 2012, the Big East as a football-playing league broke apart after Rutgers (Big Ten) and Louisville (ACC) announced their own exits during a one-week period.
The seven Big East basketball-playing colleges announced their separation from the football-playing institutions in mid-December 2012. Boise State agreed to return to the Mountain West a few weeks later. Soon later, San Diego State joined the party. The Broncos were granted permission to market their home games independently from the league’s broadcast package, enabling them to make approximately $1.8 million more each year than the other members of the conference.
The Mountain West presidents contacted Kustra at the time and offered him additional money from broadcast rights as a means to get Boise State back into the conference, according to Kustra.
“If you had to do it all over again, what would you do?” I’m asked. Kustra remarked. “And I’d say I’d do it the same way I did it. I had no idea the Big East was going out of business. But have a look at what we were able to do as a result of it. We were able to get back on our feet financially. The Mountain West is still trying to find out what to do about it to this day.”
Tensions over Boise State’s unique contract have risen in recent years, and it was a significant source of contention during the Mountain West’s most recent broadcast rights negotiations.
Meanwhile, Villanova basketball has dominated the newly reorganized Big East – which also includes Xavier, Creighton, and Butler – during the past decade, capturing national championships in 2016 and 2018. The greatest story in recent years, though, was UConn’s decision to become independent in football in order to rejoin the Big East, where it had flourished as a basketball power. After a seven-year hiatus, the Huskies returned in 2020.
After the basketball split, the American Athletic League was renamed and relaunched, and it has flourished as a Group of 5 conference. The league has the most automatic berths into the four-team playoff from the Group of 5. Its prospects of reaching the playoffs have improved since the playoff system is set to grow to 12 clubs. In the Mountain West, though, the same might be said of Boise State.
“We were struck very severely by realignment,” said Aresco, who is now the AAC commissioner. “We were in a state of chaos, trying to ensure that the conference would go on. But, as it turned out, we not only survived, but we flourished right away. Since then, we’ve been flourishing.”
While this is true, there are still people who have a strong attachment to the Big East who are still upset over its disintegration ten years later. “It’s not what it was and will never be the same again,” as one former league official put it.
David Hale of ESPN contributed to this story.
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