The Big East, slowly being ripped apart in pieces by conference realignment the past 15 months, now faces a mass exodus and dramatic change that will threaten the league’s very existence.
The Big East’s seven Catholic schools have decided to leave. USA TODAY, citing two anonymous sources, reported Thursday that the decision has been finalized but indicated an announcement will not be made until the schools decide how to proceed.
After a meeting Sunday with Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, there was growing sentiment that the seven non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools would decide their future in the coming months and no later than July 1, 2013. But ESPN.com reported early Thursday morning that the seven presidents scheduled a teleconference with Aresco Thursday and planned to issue a statement “on their schools’ future in the next 24 to 48 hours.” Aresco reportedly worked desperately to keep the conference together but apparently the schools were strong with their decision.
Those schools are DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova. The schools could attempt to dissolve the league or they could head to another conference as a group. There has been speculation the seven could head to the Atlantic-10. There are reports the A-10 has discussed the possibility of a 21-team basketball conference.
Former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, contacted Thursday morning, said he had no direct knowledge of the teleconference call or its outcome. Asked how the departure of those seven schools would impact UConn, Calhoun said school officials must continue exploring options and find the best situation for UConn, which has been bypassed twice in expansion by the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I think it leaves us in the same spot," said Calhoun, who retired in September but remains at UConn as a special assistant to athletic director Warde Manuel. "The last few years we've been caught up in a political game. I honestly think UConn should continue to work, quietly like everybody else does, to find where it fits best. The fact that seven schools met on Sunday is indicative that people are working and trying to do what's best for their schools.
"Eventually this will all shift out. How long it takes, I don't know. I have faith in what we are. I don't know what's going to happen."
When the Big East was formed by late commissioner and former Providence coach Dave Gavitt in 1979 the original members were Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John's, Connecticut, Boston College, Seton Hall and Providence. After a shifting landscape that began the next season with the addition of Villanova, UConn would be the last original member still in the conference.
During the past year, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has said repeatedly he thinks UConn will eventually end up in the ACC. In an interview with UConnPlaybook.com Thursday, Boeheim said the future is tougher to predict now.
“I don’t think you can tell what’s going to happen any more,” said Boeheim, whose Orange begins ACC competition next season. “I think if teams leave the ACC, then I think there’s going to be a need to bring teams in. It hinges on teams leaving. All the presidents have signed on that they’re not leaving. But that’s been done before too.”
Boeheim didn’t seem surprised the Big East situation has reached this point.
“When Pittsburgh was going to go [to the ACC], the reason we went was because this was going to happen,” Boeheim said. “Once Pittsburgh was going to leave with another school, you had to be the other school or else you would be left [out].”
According to Big East bylaws, the league can be dissolved through a vote of league members but it requires a two-thirds majority. Since last fall, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Louisville and TCU (which never actually played a game in the Big East) announced their intentions to leave. That leaves the seven Catholic schools, UConn, Cincinnati and South Florida as current voting members and the group of seven could dissolve the conference with a 7-3 vote.
“I think the question is can a basketball-only conference survive as we go forward,” Boeheim said. “Nobody knows the answer to that. I think that’s why they haven’t broken away earlier. They feel they need to be aligned with football schools.”
Marquette athletic director Larry Williams openly criticized the future membership of the Big East during a radio interview Tuesday night.
"The Big East that Marquette joined in 2005, boy, that's a different looking animal going forward over the next couple of years," Williams told 540 ESPN Milwaukee. "It's prompted some deeper discussion what futures are for schools such as Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova."
Williams specifically referred to the recent addition of Tulane as a full member.
"I was not pleased that we issued an invitation to Tulane without any diligence to what effect that would have on our basketball product, the draw on our RPI and other such things," Williams said in the interview. "I was disappointed that I wasn't able to participate as a member of the conference in the deliberation that went into adding that."
"Part of this is just everybody's uneasy with all these questions that everybody's got in their own minds. There was something really cool about the Big East. You could rely on it to get six or eight or nine bids in a year.
"It was home. Now that home has been sort of changed, and somebody came and put new furniture in, and boy, do we still fit here is what everyone is sort of thinking about."
ESPN.com cited sources saying that UConn president Susan Herbst had been in contact with officials from the seven non-FBS Big East members and has been pleading with them to stay in the Big East.
Since the announcement in 2011 that Pitt and Syracuse were headed to the ACC, Herbst has openly lobbied for UConn’s addition in the ACC. When ACC presidents voted recently to invite Louisville into membership, choosing the Cardinals over UConn and Cincinnati, there were expressions of dismay from Herbst and UConn athletic officials.
"I know this may seem like a tough moment for our fans, but we need to focus on the fundamentals of academic success across the university and in our athletic program as well,” Herbst said in a statement when Louisville accepted the ACC bid.”We are winners -- we win, we like to win and we will continue to play the best possible opponents. We will be athletically successful, regardless of our conference, because of our successes in NCAA competition. We will keep building our winning record through the lens of a great university, that focuses on academics, not on the fluid and unpredictable nature of conference realignment. Again, I realize this is a difficult day, but when we focus on research, discovery, and student success, we'll never go wrong."
A Big East official told UConnPlaybook.com last week the league office has not been pleased with UConn’s public courting of the ACC. Sources have said members of the UConn athletic department believe Herbst erred with the tone of her statement.
The Big East has been in negotiations for a new media rights contract since Sept. 1. The constant shuffling of membership has slowed that process. With so much instability, the television networks cannot get a firm grip on the final product that will be available. A report last week by CBSSports.com projected the value of the rights revenue to be between $60 million and $80 million.
That seemed to prompt the Catholic schools to act. A departure of the seven schools would significantly decrease the value of the rights even more, perhaps as much as 15 or 20 percent, according to ESPN. Pitt and Syracuse left after the Big East rejected a nine-year, $130 million contract offer from ESPN.
The voting process and the departure of seven schools would be complicated and attorneys would be called upon to determine the rights to the Big East name and other financial issues. But the seven schools do have a great deal of power, including the support of NCAA rules.
A group of seven schools that have been together as conference members for more than five years can keeps its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament if the group moves to another league.