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Plotting a Big East coup

Villanova's attempt to join the Big East conference for football has led to a bit of a stalemate in conference offices. Villanova needs the support of six of the eight football programs to join, and may not be in any way close to that number, as Big East football schools see adding Villanova as a financial drag on the conference. At the same time, further all-sports expansion with the likes of UCF or Houston may not be possible for similar reasons. The football schools will not support Villanova, and the non-football schools turn around and oppose surrendering additional shares of their basketball revenue.

This discussion clearly leaves one in want of a copy of the Big East's operating procedures and bylaws with regard to topics like league membership. Adding TCU would give the football schools a 9-8 majority after years of impasse, bolstering their clout, but that total may not be sufficient to overrule any dissent. Past media reports have suggested that the conference requires a 75% super majority on new membership votes, although it is not clear about whether or not that requirement changed in light of the 2003 ACC raid. There is ample historical precedent from 1994 however.

Two actions by the presidents helped solve the problem. They voted to change the minimum number of votes for approval in the future from two-thirds of the membership to three-fourths. The presidents also secured the support of Connecticut and Villanova by determining that members could elevate their football programs to the I-A level by declaring an intention by 1998 and meeting N.C.A.A. requirements for participation at that level by 2002.

That story came in the context of Rutgers's rumored dalliance with the Big Ten conference. The Big East was, as it is now, radically split along football lines (a Sword of Damocles existing since the league originally formed, evidenced by the repeated attempts to squash a competing eastern all-sports conference in its tracks from the get go.) At that time Rutgers, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Temple were only in the Big East for football. Georgetown, Providence, and Seton Hall were entrenched; loathe to surrender their privileged status even if meant leaving them worse for the wear. That crisis was dissolved by offering UConn and Villanova the chance to join the Big East for football, coupled with St. John's caving after Temple and VT were voted down (sowing future seeds of resentment in the process that later helped push VT to the ACC.)

One possible way out of the standoff could be an amicable split, which would remove the impetus for an acrimonious, drawn out fight for control of the Big East's legacy (as well as any possible endangering of the BCS auto-bid that could result.) Villanova's determination to join the Big East conference for football is largely driven by fears that they and the Big East's other non-football schools would end up out in the cold were the six "major" conferences with automatic bids to the bowl championship series to secede from the NCAA. Maintaining a loose Big East confederation (essentially everyone would still play in non-revenue sports, and the football schools would guarantee to give the non-football schools a seat at the table in any NCAA secession scenario) may not be fair or deserved on the merits, but may end up being the most appealing of several unpalatable options.

Odds and inertia favor a continued stalemate, and compromise as described above is always a possibility. What if these issues actually come to a head though in a manner where more drastic measures would be necessary? The Big East is currently in the midst of renegotiating its television rights contract with ESPN, providing the perfect opportunity for internal conference intrigue to spill out into the open. Suppose ESPN makes a frank demand for additional game inventory. They want a tenth team, and will not take no for an answer without imparting significant financial penalties. Both sides remain intractable for the reasons described above, seeing the status quo as superior to adding Villanova football or an 18th team respectively. What would happen then?

There is a third, hybrid scenario beyond standing pat or splitting; every option was up for debate in 2003 with a true existential crisis at hand. In fact, the following is mostly attributable to Villanova and Georgetown fans over the years, being concerned about the NCAA blowing up, and wanting to be on the right side of the equation were that to ever happen. With this option, the Big East would return somewhat to its pre-2003 setup in being an unbalanced hybrid configuration where the all-sports schools constitute a clear majority, but there is still a place for some non-football schools. Every iteration varies to some extent, but the most popular one involves Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, and Notre Dame remaining members in good standing of the Big East conference. The likes of Providence, DePaul, Marquette, and Seton Hall would be summarily booted out into the cold comfort of mid-majordom; one final act of retribution for Rutgers and West Virginia, although such a split would clearly be driven primarily by financial concerns.

It is not difficult to imagine any number of hangups that could throw a wrench into these plans. Do the football schools accept such a compromise, or ultimately stick to their guns in enacting a clean and permanent break and fissure? Do the surviving basketball schools hang their confederates out to dry, and dutifully accept their minority status in perpetuity as preferable to permanent relegation to mid-major status? It is hard to imagine the conference leadership being amenable to this scenario considering it has largely existed over the past three decades as a patronage mill for Providence College. At each and every opportunity they have long prioritized the interests of programs like PC above the common good for the broader league, and would almost certainly be determined to wage a scorched earth campaign aimed at preventing those marginal programs from finally having to face reality. Any expulsions could provoke a rash of lawsuits and legislative scrutiny.

The last matter is what really has to concern Rutgers fans, who are among the most eager proponents of both a split and of taking a hard line against the Big East's non-football schools. Other all-sports programs in the league are public institutions located in the same state as potential expansion targets, and theoretically could be the target of local lobbying and pressure if future expansion were to happen. I cannot speak with knowledge about those situations, and can only worry about any headaches likely to come up on our end. Rutgers on the other hand is the only current member sharing a state with a program with a good chance of ending up on the wrong side of any conference reshuffling. That is unlikely to a problem in the event of a clean split, but he gloves would come off were, say, Seton Hall facing relegation to the Atlantic 10.

SHU is a small private institution, and no New Jersey college or university has much in the way of political influence to begin with, but the Pirates do have a handful of influential backers, including one very powerful patron in State Senator Dick Codey. Codey, who in many respects has been a friend to the Rutgers athletic department, was deposed from his position as Senate president last year. The landscape of state political alliances is ever changing, and it is not difficult to imagine Codey eventually returning to power after successfully fighting off attempts to eliminate his Senate seat via redistricting. Does anyone know if there was any political pushback when Seton Hall voted against Rutgers joining the league?

Furthermore, there is always the danger of devolving into a parochial proxy war between the local political machines in Middlesex and Essex counties. That is exactly what started happening when Rutgers made a bid to regain control of the UMDNJ campus in New Brunswick. The whole concept is ridiculous, but either those North Jersey legislators would need to extract a lucrative ransom of concessions, or Rutgers could find its (increasingly meager) state funding threatened by bloviated political machinations. That suddenly becomes a very big problem if the Big East's 75% requirement for membership votes is still in place.

The point of the above speculation was not necessarily to mark any outcome as more or less likely than any other. Rather, it was an attempt to point out the numerous pratfalls likely to occur with any course of action. There is a reason that the Big East's membership ranks have only changed at a relative incremental pace throughout its history. Radical change is always seemingly on the horizon, and probably will be until if and when an all-sports league is formed, or the league is dismembered by its neighbors. It is time to get with the program, and acknowledge what the rest of the national landscape widely recognizes: football is king, and the ultimate driver of revenue and television rights packages.

Every so often throughout its history the Big East has rearranged its membership chess pieces, which is all the more reason to split in the end. Villanova potentially upgrading its football program is nothing less than a proxy for battle to drag the league kicking and screaming into the 21st century. They need to fundamentally change the way that they conduct business, because the current setup is not in any way satisfactory to half of the existing membership, and that half currently holds most of the leverage. Everything is stuck at an impasse, with little hope for definitive resolution beyond half-measures that satisfy no one. The football schools need to force the issue before league commissioner John Marinatto negotiates a mediocre television rights deal dooming them to another decade of financial hardship and looking over their collective shoulder.