The college football landscape is in turmoil as an eight-team conference scrambles to hold on to power and relevance among the new world order. No, I’m not talking about the Big 12 in 2021. I’m talking about the Big East.
The Big East Conference – barely one decade ago – was in a similar situation to the eight programs that now remain in the Big 12. The Big East’s story could teach us lessons about what to expect from the university presidents, athletic directors, and television executives who hold power and will be making decisions among the Big 12 landscape.
This story will undoubtedly sound familiar. Some schools lucked into upgrading, like Louisville, rocketing up the ranks from Conference USA to the ACC – might Cincinnati or UCF use a Big 12 promotion now to later find their way into the ACC? Others were truly relegated, falling from power conference status – could this happen to any of the eight who get left behind after more realignment?
Here’s how it went down – last time.
The First Blow: Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to the ACC
In the early 2000s, the Big East was an eight-school power conference with an automatic BCS bowl bid. It had been playing football as a league for just over a decade, with the same eight programs: Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Pitt, Temple (later replaced with UConn), Rutgers, Syracuse, and Boston College.
But in 2003, the ACC announced it would seek to expand to 12 schools to host a conference championship game, and Big East schools were expected to bolt to the more established league. The ACC initially targeted Miami, Syracuse, and Boston College. But politicians and presidents got involved. The governor of Virginia strong-armed Virginia Tech into the deal, and the chancellor of NC State pushed back hard against Boston College. Ultimately, the ACC invited Miami and Virginia Tech, then later added Boston College. The ACC was growing to 12, while the Big East just took a huge blow and was shrinking to five.
In response, the Big East stuck together and proceeded to poach from the next-best league at the time, Conference USA. Cincinnati, Louisville, and USF were added to maintain an eight-school conference. The Big East also voted to boot Temple and replace them with UConn, already a basketball member. (Can you imagine a power conference evicting a long-time member today?)
Then… things were fun! The mid-2000s era of Big East football was awesome. The conference had an exclusive Thursday night TV window on ESPN, and Rutgers, Louisville, West Virginia, and USF were all some of the best teams in the nation for a stretch. I fondly remember Big East football with Greg Schiano and Rich Rodriguez. But the pursuit of more and more money would change everything.Embed from Getty Images
Rejecting Stability – Good for Some, Awful for Others
In 2010, around the time that the Big 12 was being raided by the Big Ten, SEC, and (almost) the Pac-10, the Big East announced plans to expand to 10 schools. TCU was the first school to accept an invitation. The Big East tried (and failed) to elevate Villanova’s football program to the FBS ranks to take the 10th spot. After Villanova declined, the league targeted UCF. But USF strongly opposed elevating in-state rival UCF, and the league spent some more time considering a 10th option.
Meanwhile, ESPN came to the table with a nine-year media-rights offer that would have stabilized the conference as it grew into 10 schools. But the Big East presidents balked after learning that the Pac-12, fresh off of adding Colorado and Utah, was to receive substantially more money than they were offered. The Big East rejected ESPN’s offer, leaving it in television limbo. The landscape of college sports today could look entirely different had the Big East accepted this TV deal.
Instead, without TV-rights uncertainty and in the midst of the other power leagues snatching up schools, the Big East couldn’t survive. In 2011, Brett McMurphy broke the news that Pitt and Syracuse would leave for the ACC. Reports said John Marinatto, the Big East commissioner, first learned about this move from McMurphy’s announcement. Pitt and Syracuse formally applied for ACC membership just two days later. The ACC was now at 14 schools, with the Big East soon to be at seven with TCU.
Marinatto tried to stabilize the conference by jacking up the exit fee to lock in the existing schools. But the member presidents refused, keeping it easy for any of them to bail. Reading this (rather obvious) writing on the wall about the intent of the Big East’s membership, TCU announced it was backing out of its plans to join. Instead, TCU would join the freshly-raided Big 12. West Virginia jumped over to the Big 12 soon after, bringing Big East membership to five (with the Big 12 surely stabilized for eternity at 10).Embed from Getty Images
The League’s Last Gasp: A Nationwide Power Conference
Once again, the Big East turned to expansion – only this time, it went big. The Big East decided to add the best football programs it could find, no matter where they were, in a bid to stay relevant. Houston, SMU, Memphis, UCF, Navy, Boise State, and San Diego State all agreed to join the Big East for a chance to play in a league with an automatic BCS bowl bid. The league pursued BYU and Air Force, too, but those schools declined.
The new additions, however, couldn’t join right away. They all were negotiating their own exit fees and notice periods with their existing conferences. West Virginia wriggled out of the Big East early enough to begin Big 12 play in 2012, which pushed the league down to only seven current members. It then promoted Temple back to the conference – after it had evicted that school less than a decade prior. (Desperate times…)
The Big East, now a shell of its former self, trying desperately to maintain relevance, next pushed out Marinatto. It lost Notre Dame’s non-football sports to the ACC. Pitt and Syracuse sued the league in an attempt to leave early, pointing at West Virginia’s successful escape as precedent. And then the final bullet struck the league: Big Ten expansion.
In 2012, Rutgers announced it would leave the Big East for the Big Ten. Maryland (in the ACC) announced the same. Everyone in the Big East knew that the ACC would replace Maryland with a school from the league it treated as its AAA farm system, and sure enough, the ACC poached Louisville.
The Big East was down to 11 members who are committed to the league, but of those 11, just four were actually present: Cincinnati, UConn, Temple, and USF. The other seven – Houston, SMU, Memphis, UCF, Navy, Boise State, and San Diego State – had yet to fulfill other exit requirements. Meanwhile, the Big East began to look less and less attractive. Trying to keep up, the Big East added Tulane and East Carolina.
In late 2012 and 2013, the western schools were the first to back out of this nationwide power conference. Boise State announced it was remaining in the Mountain West with a sweetheart media deal, and San Diego State backed out shortly thereafter. The Big East, now with 11 schools, added Tulsa in order to play a conference championship game. Almost immediately afterward, it rebranded as the American Athletic Conference.
The Big East story is incomplete without mentioning the basketball schools. The Big East’s football and basketball fusion was a rickety marriage of money – pairing basketball-only powerhouses like Georgetown and Villanova with football brands like Miami in the pursuit of more cash for everyone. But that marriage took on more and more strain as the football side weakened. The basketball schools eventually demanded a separation and ultimately kept the Big East name, which they play under today.Embed from Getty Images
Lessons We Can Learn
What should the Big 12 keep in mind from the Big East story?
Keeping the door open is tough. It’s going to be uncomfortable if West Virginia and Kansas think they have a real shot at the ACC or Big Ten, or if some other school believes the same. Stability is what keeps conferences together, and moving forward, the league would be the most stable with a Grant of Rights extension, which signs over TV broadcasting rights from each school to the league as a whole. But that only works if all eight schools agree to sign it. If anybody thinks they’ll have another lifeboat, it’s not happening, and the Big 12 could fill the Big East’s earlier role of a power conference farm system.
In this way, every school has clashing interests: Maintain flexibility for me, but lock in my partners in case I don’t get promoted. There’s not really a good way to accomplish both, so the schools will need to choose. My guess is that they will all do due diligence (and then some) on Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC possibilities, and only if all of those leagues give them a hard no will they come back and sign a Grant of Rights in the new expanded Big 12.
Keeping up with the Joneses matters. The exploding growth of conference sizes during the Big East period made it easy for the league to serve as a launching pad. In the 2000s, the Big Ten expanded from 11 to 14, taking one Big East school along the way, while the ACC jumped from nine to 14, with six Big East additions (including Louisville’s replacement of Maryland). The Pac-12 and SEC also grew, from 10 to 12 and from 12 to 14 respectively. Even the Big 12, which shrunk from 12 to 10, was able to poach the Big East to backfill its membership.
It’s an open question whether the landscape is similar today. The ACC, Pac-12, and Big Ten have not expanded since the 2010-12 wave, but the SEC just expanded to 16 schools. If there is any sense among the Alliance leagues that expansion is the way the world is going, then the Big 12 is going to play a major part in it, just like the Big East did. But the difference in the financial landscape could mean the other leagues will stand pat this time.
Politicians can mess it up. Syracuse eventually found its way into the ACC, but it took a second wave of expansion after Virginia politicians pushed them aside for Virginia Tech in 2003. It’s possible that something like this will happen again, although there is less geographic overlap this time around. The only Alliance league that shares a state with an existing Big 12 school is the Big Ten, with Iowa and Iowa State. The Big 12 schools in West Virginia and Kansas don’t share their states with other power leagues, and Oklahoma and Texas are now split with the SEC, which appears unlikely to move beyond 16 schools. The Iowa overlap could cut either way: Can Iowa advocate for Iowa State at the Big Ten table? Or would Iowa be more likely to play the USF role, when the Big East was seeking UCF, and fight to exclude ISU if the league was considering the Cyclones?
“Value” could mean different things. From 2003 to 2012, the Big East lost eight schools to other power conferences: Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers, and Louisville (and it’s nine if you count TCU, who never played a game in the Big East before taking the Big 12’s offer). While many of those schools have a lot to offer, some of them don’t exactly come to mind when you think “conference realignment value.” Yet the other power conferences snapped them up anyway.
It’s no coincidence that seven of those eight schools were in the original eight-team Big East (all but Louisville). Power conference membership for a long period of time allows a team to build a fanbase and establish its brand. Those brands are valuable and scarce. While the Boston College or Syracuse brands are not as strong as Florida State or North Carolina, the ACC wanted them anyway. The financial landscape has shifted dramatically in the last decade, to be sure, but think twice when talking heads dismiss the “value” of the universities that have spent decades in a major conference building their brand (in particular, the large state universities in college sports-crazy states, like the Big 12 footprint).
Could Kansas follow UConn? UConn took the drastic step of going independent in football, essentially giving up on national relevance, in order to join a power league in basketball. The Big 12 school that might consider doing the same is Kansas. If the Big 12 sticks together and expands, it doesn’t seem likely Kansas would leave – as an expanded Big 12 with schools like BYU, Houston, Memphis, or Cincinnati would be a strong hoops league. But if the Big 12 faces the same fate as the Big East – perhaps with some Texas or Oklahoma schools getting poached by the Pac-12 and West Virginia going to the ACC – it would be an option that many at KU would have to think about.
It’s quiet – until it’s not. Last but not least, conference realignment is often a surprise. Just like Texas and Oklahoma sprung their SEC move out of nowhere, Pitt and Syracuse did the same with the ACC less than ten years ago, surprising everyone. If schools and conferences are talking – seriously talking – we should not expect to know anything until the deal is essentially done. In that sense, for fans who are hoping for an invite elsewhere, quiet is good. Once presidents and ADs start speaking up – about how much they want to be included, or pushing for expansion or for a Grant of Rights extension – we will know that their school is likely out of other options. For now, we can just wait and see.
No one know what we will see over the next few years in conference realignment, but here’s some advice: Expect the unexpected, and buckle up for the ride.Embed from Getty Images