Decisions based on football and money have made this a painful year for the Big East Conference. But the end result will be the formation of the biggest, if not the most powerful, basketball conference in the history of college athletics.
The Big East will announce Tuesday that it has approved expansion plans effective at the start of the 2005-06 season, opening the door for five Conference USA schools to join the conference that made Eastern basketball a priority when it was formed 25 years ago. Presidents of the 11 remaining Big East schools will meet in New York Tuesday morning to finalize plans for a 16-team basketball conference and a football league that will meet the minimum Division I-A requirement of eight teams starting in 2005.
Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida will be invited to join in all sports, compensating for the loss of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, all bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference. DePaul and Marquette will be invited for all sports except football.
Commissioner Mike Tranghese, speaking Wednesday at the Big East's annual men's basketball media day at Madison Square Garden, said details of the expansion would be announced Tuesday afternoon after the presidents' meeting. But conference sources told The Courant that all 16 members have agreed to a minimum five-year commitment, meaning a split of the football and basketball schools couldn't happen until after the 2009-10 season at the earliest.
Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino recently referred to the plan as "the worst-kept secret in sports." The Big East presidents, working since July to keep the league together, identified Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul as expansion targets by September. South Florida was added after Boston College accepted an invitation to join the ACC on Oct. 12.
The new schools have five national titles in men's basketball and 18 Final Four appearances, the latest by Marquette this past season. That is added to a Big East roster that has produced four national champions since its formation in 1979.
"It makes us the best league in the country," Georgetown coach Craig Esherick said. "It raises everybody's expectations around the conference. And ultimately, I think it's going to end up helping the league. That's what the league was formed on, bringing a bunch of teams together that had basketball traditions."
Tranghese, who spent his weekends the last month visiting with presidents and athletic directors of the C-USA schools, confirmed his intention to remain commissioner of the conference now that the members have agreed to stay together. The five-year commitment is critical because it would allow the football and basketball schools to maintain their automatic NCAA Tournament bids and their revenue- sharing units if they eventually decide to split. In men's basketball, the NCAA requires a nucleus of six teams, together at least five seasons, for a guaranteed automatic bid.
"I think we're happy, but we've got a lot of work to do -- trust me," Tranghese said. "There's never been a 16-team conference before. We're going to have to learn how to operate it and how to manage it."
Sources indicate there is no concern over the Big East's status in the Bowl Championship Series, a formula that will be revised after the 2005 season. But the BCS format itself is under assault and could be altered, so that remains an issue on the football side.
Another issue hanging over the conference is when Boston College will leave for the ACC. Miami and Virginia Tech announced their departures in June and have paid exit fees of $1 million each with one-year notice. Since then the Big East has approved a $5 million exit fee with 27-month notice.
"We're in disagreement," Tranghese said. "They think the old constitution is in place. We think the new constitution is in place. ... That will be handled by people above me. It's in the hands of our presidents. But I don't think [BC can leave] by 2004."
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg might have had the most unusual situation at media day. Greenberg spent seven years at South Florida before replacing Ricky Stokes at Tech in March. Thanks to Tech's defection, Wednesday was Greenberg's one and only Big East media day.
"One and out," Greenberg said. "When I took the job it obviously wasn't even being discussed or in the equation. But during the course of that whole scenario, I was probably in the best situation of anyone. It doesn't get any better than the Big East, but for the geographic footprint of our school it doesn't get any better than the ACC."