Big East: Rough week, with no relief in sight
New Big East commissioner Mike Aresco was interviewed by ESPN’s Rece Davis during the South Florida-Rutgers game Thursday night. Aresco put on a good face. It couldn’t have been easy.
It’s been a rough week for the Big East. The beleaguered conference lost two staples: Notre Dame is taking its non-football sports to the ACC, and Jim Calhoun is retiring after 26 coaching UConn basketball. What’s next? The Big East basketball tournament moving to Albany?
Notre Dame’s move is a sign that the Irish have little use for playing in a conference that now includes Central Florida and SMU, or little belief that it can last, or both. The Big East, scrambling to remain relevant in football after losing West Virginia to the Big 12 (this season) and Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC (2013), has added SMU, Houston and Central Florida for all sports, plus Navy, Boise State and San Diego State for football only.
Forget the geographic ramifications for a moment. Any conference that makes partial deals on sports — no Notre Dame football, football only for schools flung to every U.S. corner except the Big East’s northeast base — is shaky. You can understand the ACC and the Big 12 and the Big East wanting to make concessions to get the Notre Dame brand. But even that comes at a cost.
Long amid all the conference realignment madness of the last couple of years were the pointed comments of UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma, when schools began defecting from the Big East. Auriemma blamed it on Notre Dame, saying the Irish could have stabilized the Big East but instead became takers, not givers. Notre Dame became, in Auriemma’s view, a curse to the Big East. A sign that the league was inferior.
But the Big East always had a fallback position. At least they had basketball. But do they?
West Virginia and Syracuse, two recent Final Four programs, are or soon will be gone. Pitt and Notre Dame, solid, perennial contenders, are going, too. And now Calhoun, who built Connecticut basketball from virtually no base of success to a three-time NCAA champion, is retiring. You never can be sure what will happen to a program when it loses its creator. Kansas State football dropped without Bill Snyder. Arizona basketball hasn’t been the same since Lute Olson retired.
Big East football schools are fearful of the future. A league of Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida, Connecticut, SMU, Houston, Central Florida, Navy, Memphis, Temple, Boise State and San Diego State is interesting, but is it sustainable? Seems like a scheduling alliance.
The basketball remains strong at the top, with UConn, Louisville, Georgetown, Cincinnati, Marquette and Villanova, and Seton Hall, St. John’s, Temple, Providence, Rutgers and DePaul at least have name brands. Memphis is a good addition for hoops, but SMU, Houston and Central Florida?
It’s a mess of a league. How long before the non-football schools put the kibosh on road trips to Texas and Florida to play mediocre teams in front of meager crowds? How long before Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova branch out, telling Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Temple and Memphis to make a decision. Commit to a real basketball league, or stay with your loose football confederation?
I was on a Louisville radio station Thursday, and the hosts expressed a variety of emotions at the mess Louisville faces, while it sits and waits for a possible Big 12 invitation somewhere down the road. The people of Louisville seem frustrated, angry, scared. The landscape has changed, and right now they are on the outside looking in, the nation’s best athletic program not offered a seat in the lifeboat. Connecticut basketball and Boise State football, you could argue, are more prestigious, but no athletic department combines the overall excellence of the Cardinals.
And so they face a future in a Big East that no longer includes Notre Dame or Jim Calhoun, two more signs that the Big East is going belly-up.
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