By Kevin York
Sunday, December 9. A day that could possibly significantly alter college athletics. The day that the little guys finally stood up for themselves.
These little guys were a band of seven Catholic universities, I’ll call them the Catholic Seven, that currently comprise over half of the Big East’s membership for all sports except football. That ‘except football’ is important because the seven schools don’t have FBS college football programs. Their football teams play at the FCS level.
Over the past several years we’ve seen the landscape of college athletics alter tremendously with shifts spurred by big time college football. Conference alignments now look drastically different than they did even ten years ago. The SEC, Big Ten and Pac 12 have established themselves as the power conferences, expanding without losing member schools to other conferences. The Big 12 and ACC have tried to keep up, but have each lost schools amidst efforts to add more.
The Big East has become the ultimate victim of this seemingly endless shift. Since 2004, the Big East has lost Virginia Tech, Temple (they’ve since rejoined), Miami, Boston College and West Virginia. In the next two years, Syracuse, Pitt, Rutgers, Notre Dame and Louisville will also exit; and people are now raising the possibility that teams which haven’t even officially joined the conference yet, but have committed to, may also be looking to leave. All of these departures have led the conference to invite schools like Central Florida, Houston and Tulane into its fold. In the rush to capitalize on big time football money, they’ve also invited Boise State, San Diego State and East Carolina to the Big East, but only for football. The result has become a convoluted geographic mess of a conference, stretching from Storrs, CT to Tampa to San Diego.
Left in the dust of all the football prompted moves is basketball. It’s been a complete afterthought for every single conference as they all struggle to keep up in this arms race that is big time college football. TV contracts are a major driver of all this, but it’s only football TV contracts that are discussed. Not basketball.
On Sunday, the Catholic Seven decided they’d seen enough. Representatives from DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova met with Big East commissioner Mike Aresco to discuss their future in the Big East.
These schools all have a rich tradition and history in basketball, the sport that the Big East was originally built on. Inaugural Big East commissioner and founder Dave Cavitt created the conference with the intent of it being a powerhouse basketball conference. The Catholic Seven have a combined three national titles, 18 Final Four appearances and 149 NCAA tournament appearances between them. They all did their respective parts in bringing Cavitt’s vision to a reality. In the 1980s and now again over the past few years, the Big East truly has set the standard in college basketball as the strongest conference in the land from top to bottom. Now the Catholic Seven are seeing their beloved conference becoming a bastardized version of its former self. Basketball excellence does not factor into it any longer. Tulane, SMU, Central Florida? Playing those schools will surely not help the RPI rankings for a Villanova or Georgetown.
Why has basketball not played a bigger role in the reshaping of the college athletics landscape? It has a TV draw. Not as much money as there is associated with football, but there’s still money. Why couldn’t a conference be built on basketball success and still get big financial benefits? That’s exactly what the Catholic Seven want to find out. There are indications that they may partner with basketball-rich schools like Butler, Xavier, Creighton, Dayton and St. Louis to create their own completely new conference. It’s now almost inevitable that the seven will leave the Big East and many expect that the new conference will quickly follow. The formation of a new conference led by the Catholic Seven and including tradition laden basketball schools is one of the best realignment ideas I’ve heard in a long time. I would watch that conference’s games. I think that conference would be pretty successful and make a good deal of money, all on the back of basketball, not football.
Ultimately, I like this move because it’s a stand by the little guys. The Catholic Seven, looked at as inconsequential because of their FCS football programs, could’ve easily been forced into doing what other larger schools want in a game of follow the leader. Instead, they’re saying, “We matter and we’re not going to allow others to determine our fate any longer. Basketball still matters; we want to do this our way.” I think that’s what Dave Cavitt would want.
I hope other smaller, FCS football schools with power basketball programs take notice. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a conference made up of basketball schools like Southern Illinois, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Valparaiso, Wichita State, St. Joseph’s, VCU, Murray State, George Mason, George Washington, Richmond and La Salle? Sure, it’s not Duke-Carolina, but that type of conference would provide some good, competitive, entertaining games.
Unlike football, college basketball isn’t just built on the top tier, big school, major programs. The little guys play a big part too. The Big East may soon realize this. What kind of significance does a conference containing South Florida, Cincinnati, UConn, Central Florida, SMU, Houston, Memphis, Temple and Tulane have on a national level in either football or basketball? That doesn’t make me see dollar signs. I think they’d be better off building around basketball and keeping the Catholic Seven. The Big East as we’ve known it, is now nearly dead.