Big East could become the Big Empty

This column ran in The Courier-Journal Sports section on April 19, 2010.

University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has heard the rumblings of major conference realignment for months. As he heads to the annual Bowl Championship Series meetings in Phoenix this week, he expects them to grow louder.

Jurich is bracing for big change.

“I’m expecting probably the worst,” he said in a recent interview. “But whatever happens, happens.”

What is happening?

The Big Ten Conference is expanding. The Pacific-10 likely will, too. With an eye on the television-rights fee mega-deal that the Southeastern Conference carved out with ESPN, the Big Ten, with 11 members, is seeking to keep pace.

If it grew to 12 members, it could add a lucrative conference-championship football game. But the league also is considering scenarios beyond that, up to a 16-team option.

And because the Big Ten is not just an athletic conference but also a cable-TV network, it is looking to add not only new members but also new markets. And nobody has more lucrative available TV markets than the Big East.

No less an authority than former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese called the Big Ten expansion possibilities “unnerving.” When the Big Ten had a Chicago investment-banking firm study the feasibility of its expansion, it included three Big East schools – Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse – along with Notre Dame and Missouri.

“If the Big Ten comes and takes multiple teams from the Big East, then I think the Big East is in trouble,” Tranghese told KDKA-FM radio in Pittsburgh last month. “It’s a tough situation, because I don’t think there’s anything the Big East can do to prevent it, and I think everybody is sort of sitting on pins and needles.”

Include Jurich in that crowd.

UofL is not presumed to be a Big Ten target. And with no expansion plans on the table for the Atlantic Coast Conference or SEC, that means the school could be looking at a period of uncertainty.

Tranghese said he’s worried about the football schools left behind, because Big East football “would be in serious jeopardy at that point.”

It would be a disappointing turn for a school that worked for so long to get into a BCS conference. Jurich spent his first eight years at UofL preparing the program to take advantage of the Big East opportunity when it came along in 2006. But this shift is different, because the next step isn’t readily known.

“I didn’t prepare for this one, honest to God,” Jurich said. “…It’s tough because the Big East is a really good league. Really good. But if you have to reinvent yourself, you do it. We’re good at being the underdog.”

The school certainly has more to offer than it ever has – an expanding football stadium, a high-profile basketball program with a new arena and non-revenue sports with nationally ranked teams and new facilities. Athletically and academically, UofL is far ahead of where it once was, and its performance as a ratings draw on ESPN make it a more attractive TV property than many schools already established in the power conferences.

If any school is a solid candidate to be picked up by someone, it would be UofL. But it’s what happens in the transition phase that is a concern. West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart last month spoke openly of the football breakup of the Big East and expressed little anxiety, speculating that West Virginia would then be picked up by the ACC or SEC.

Tranghese, in his radio interview, wasn’t so sure.

“I just don’t see it that way at all,” Tranghese said. “I just don’t think that the ACC and SEC are going to expand.”

The Big East has perhaps the nation’s best financial footing in college basketball. But when it comes to conferences, the real money is in football. And after losing three football members (Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College) in 2005, a second round of defections could prove too tough to overcome. Suitable replacements just don’t exist.

Jurich said he wouldn’t speculate on what might happen – but added that he expects to hear a bit more while in Phoenix this week. The Chicago Tribune reported that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney met with several league presidents in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, and the paper speculated that Delaney could come to Phoenix with an accelerated plan for expansion.

Still, it could be a lengthy process. Big East teams that agree to leave for other conferences are contractually obligated to remain in the Big East for 27 months after notifying the league of their intentions. That arrangement was set up not only to try to protect the league from defections, but to give the rest of the league time to act if a school left.

Jurich said he can’t be sure what actions UofL might take, not knowing what the landscape will be, but added that in any event, “we have a lot to offer.”

“The thing we have to do is we have to be resilient,” Jurich said.

The coming change could present great opportunity for UofL. But until the road starts to come into view, it could face a period of uncertainty. For much of its history, UofL’s athletic program worked to fight its way into the major conference club. It might have to gear up to wage that battle again.

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