Big East Expansion About to Leave Basketball Behind
Expansion for football, they vowed, would change this league forever. Basketball will never be the same, never survive the disruption wrought by the bloated league standings, never recapture the past glory of the days when the conference was a normal, manageable size.
But enough about the Atlantic Coast Conference. It's now the Big East's turn to learn the hard lessons the ACC has been taught since it started chasing the gold ring of football seven years ago.
This time, instead of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Maryland's Gary Williams, both national-championship coaches, sounding the siren ("The thing that made our league is basketball,'' Krzyzewski said in 2003, the first year of the two-season growth from nine to 12 teams), it's Syracuse's Jim Boeheim -- so far. On Monday afternoon, not long after it was announced that TCU would make the Big East 17 teams strong, Boeheim -- the last of the original Big East coaches and winner of a national title himself -- issued a statement through the school that did little more than acknowledge, rather than celebrate, the arrival of the new neighbor 1,600 miles due southwest.
"The Big East Conference has certainly strengthened itself by extending the membership invitation to TCU. We look forward to competing against TCU in men's basketball,'' the statement read.
More illuminating were Boeheim's thoughts, on the first day of his team's practices in mid-October, about the possibility of the conference adding teams to keep up with its brethren, such as the Big Ten and Big 12, as they chased football- and market-driven television dollars.
"I've always felt that you're better to play in your own (geographic) area with your own people in your own conference,'' he said then. "We have a couple of outside teams, but the bulk of our teams are in our area, and I've always felt comfortable that way. But you have to adjust to whatever happens.''
Even if it means a league originally created from basketball schools gives in further to football? "The priority has always been football,'' he said with his familiar half-smile, half-grimace. "It always has, it's the way of the world, you have to live with it and go on from there. I don't have a problem with it.''
Remember, the Big East was formed in 1979 with seven schools, strictly to create a TV magnet of a league in the northeast. Six of those schools (all but Boston College, which is a huge part of this story) are still there, as are two others, Villanova and Pittsburgh, who arrived within three years of its birth. All the Big East did after that was go on one of the greatest one-decade tears any conference has ever experienced. In basketball, the '80s belonged to the Big East.
Then, the league expanded, for the first time ... for football, to Miami, in 1991. There isn't the time or space to detail all the changes the Big East has gone through since then, in both sports. But while the current state of basketball is merely confused and frustrated -- the schedule is too unwieldy, and the Final Fours and national titles have dwindled since the leap to 16 teams in 2005 -- the state of football is a disaster. If it weren't, the invitation to TCU wouldn't have been extended.
Sound familiar? ACC basketball hasn't exactly fallen into an abyss, with national titles the last two years from North Carolina and Duke, but again, scheduling, travel and, to many, a watered-down product have diluted the brand. In recent years, the storied ACC basketball tournament has struggled to sell tickets, largely because there are now too many teams and too many sessions, a far cry from the compact three-day festival it was for decades.
Meanwhile, football has, to put it mildly, underachieved. In from the Big East, of all places, came the aforementioned Boston College (ending nearly a quarter-century of conference allegiance), Virginia Tech and Miami. Super-conference, here we come! Then ... there they went: no programs in the annual BCS title chase, mediocrity posing as balance, and a championship game that registers virtually no national interest. There isn't great local interest, either.
In both the ACC and Big East, the basketball entities aren't fond of their sport being reduced to a tag-along to the football interests. Villanova's Jay Wright put it best at Big East media day in New York in October, when he said that the Big East was to northeast-corridor basketball what the Southeastern Conference was to that region in football. With Villanova pondering a rise from the FCS level to FBS in football to aid the Big East cause, Wright hoped that his game wouldn't get the short shrift.
"Whatever is going to happen, they're not going to break this up," Wright told reporters that day. "I think on the presidential level there is a different kind of commitment than you hear on the athletic-director level or the television level. The presidents are very pleased with where this conference is right now."
Chances are that, if everybody involved -- in both the bloated ACC and the grotesquely obese Big East -- were really pressed to tell the truth, they'd admit that they were never more pleased than when they had been left alone to play basketball, as it had been originally intended. Before the Atlantic Coast washed onto the shores of Blacksburg, Va., and the East got so big that it stretched to Fort Worth, Tex.