A Modest Proposal for the Big East, TCU, Boise State and Others: The Big Country Conference

The Pitt beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that the Big East is purely looking for football-only members, and with the athletic director of TCU going on the record of only wanting to consider all-sports memberships, UCF and Villanova are considered to be the “Plan A” expansion candidates (with Temple as a back-up if Villanova decides against moving up from the FCS level) because they’re more willing to move just for football.  I’ve heard people with connections to other Big East schools state the exact same thing.  Frankly, if this is all true, it’s quite a shortsighted and underwhelming stance by the Big East as it ought to do whatever it takes to grab TCU, but not surprising as 16 members for basketball and other sports is already a massive league.  For all of those that want to make the divisions in the Big East to be simply “basketball vs. football”, the fact of the matter is that if the football members were all on the same page with anything, they would get their way with the Catholic schools.  The problem is that they aren’t even close to being on the same page – some were ready to split yesterday, others are hell-bent on keeping the hybrid together, some don’t care if the league adds multiple all-sport members and others don’t want any more all-sport members at all.  Therefore, if the Big East fails to add TCU or expand at all, the football members have only themselves to blame as opposed to the Catholic schools or the people in the conference offices in Providence.  (Note that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is a bit more optimistic that the TCU-Big East marriage will eventually be consummated.) 

Let me throw some spaghetti against the wall here.  If I was running the Big East and the members were looking to make a significant move in football but preserve its strength and membership in basketball, I’d turn the concept of football-only membership on its head.  Instead, the Big East football members could head the formation of a football-only conference.  In essence, it would be a quasi-split – the Big East football members would separate from the conference in only football while keeping all other sports there.  This would preserve the 16-team league in basketball and all of the large markets and television contract advantages that come with it.  (Note that in my Big East Expansion FAQ post, I neglected to include the Big East basketball contract with CBS in the conference TV revenue figures, which is $9 million per year.  That means that each school makes $2 million per year total for basketball between the ESPN and CBS deals, which is actually more than what the football members make for football.  This only serves as further evidence that the Big East doesn’t want a full split and will do everything to keep its basketball league together.)  There is precedent for this type of structure, where the Missouri Valley Conference and Missouri Valley Football Conference share the same branding and headquarters with several common members, but are operated as separate entities with different charters and voting procedures.

After that, the new conference, which I’ll call “The Big Country”, will cherry-pick the best non-AQ schools from across the nation to create a strong and TV-friendly football league.  In fact, instead of the Big East members fearing the Big Ten and/or ACC raiding them to form 16-team leagues, they could form the first BCS superconference themselves.  Since it would be a football-only conference, the concerns about travel largely go out the window as the expenses as the non-revenue sports wouldn’t have to trek across the nation.  With two separate 8-team East/West divisions, even the travel for football itself would largely be minimized.  For the sake of argument, check out this proposed 16-team league:

West Virginia
1 of Temple/Villanova*
1 of UCF/ECU**

Boise State
1 of Houston/Memphis***
2 of New Mexico/Nevada/Hawaii****

Each school would play the 7 teams in its division plus 2 cross-division games, so the wide geographic range of the conference is a lot more manageable than how it looks on its face.  (Admittedly, Cincinnati and Louisville would get the shaft in terms of travel under this format, but remember that they had to travel all over the place in the much less lucrative former C-USA that stretched from West Point to Texas.)  A conference championship game would then be played (likely at the home stadium of the school with the best record or highest BCS ranking).

(* Whether it’s right or bone-headed tunnel vision, the Big East football members REALLY want a presence in Philadelphia.  In a way, it makes sense to the extent that it’s difficult to position yourself as the Northeastern BCS representative without a Philly school when you’ve already conceded Boston and DC/Baltimore to the ACC, don’t have a great hold in New York City and Penn State has such a solid fan base throughout the entire East Coast.  While the Big East would know with about five minutes of market research that Philly will probably only support Penn State en masse if it supports college football at all, the location in and of itself appears to be extremely important to the conference in this expansion process.)

(** Maybe it’s just me, but UCF doesn’t excite me as much as they seem to have excited Big East officials.  It’s a large and growing university that happens to also be the college home of Michael Jordan’s kids, yet I’m always wary of adding a school in an area that already faces an overload of direct BCS competition.  East Carolina actually has a very good fan base for a non-AQ school, but having 4 other BCS schools in the state of North Carolina that is an overwhelmingly ACC state is a killer.  On that front, UCF would get the nod purely because of its physical location where the Florida market is large enough to pump in enough additional quality BCS-level football players.)

(*** Is there any athletic department that has messed up more since the 2003 conference realignment than Memphis?  With its strong basketball program, solid fan base for an urban school, historic rivalries with Louisville and Cincinnati and financial backing from Fred Smith and the FedEx Mafia, Memphis would’ve been the next-in-line for an all-sports Big East membership if it had ANY football pulse whatsoever.  Instead, the Tigers might have the worst football team at the FBS level right now with dwindling attendance and are almost certainly getting passed over again.  I’ve only put them here as a football-only option as a geographic bridge between Louisville/Cincinnati and the rest of the West Division, but Houston would reasonably get the nod if I had to choose one of those two.)

(**** The one thing that I like about all of these schools: they’re flagship universities in growing areas that don’t have any other direct in-state BCS competition.  These are truly markets that this football league can own outright even if they’re on the smaller side.  In fact, I’d be willing to sign up all three in lieu of picking one of Houston/Memphis.  UNLV could also emerge as an option instead of Nevada here, but the Wolf Pack has clearly been stronger in football recently.)

If I’m running ESPN or another network, this is a conference worth paying some real money for compared to the current Big East or even an expanded 10-team Big East football league that includes TCU.  The Big East football members get the benefit of controlling their own destiny for football but still keep their profitable basketball league together.  As for what the other schools in this football-only league do with their other sports, the Big East members can legitimately say, “Not my problem.”  If this superconference is formed, then this permanently kills the chances of any other presently non-AQ conference like the Mountain West rising up to AQ status, so the stance can be either get onto the AQ gravy train now or forever hold your peace in the non-AQ world.  The Big Country wouldn’t make Big Ten or SEC TV money on a per school basis, but it would certainly present the opportunity for a massive upgrade that neither the Big East football members nor the non-AQ schools could hope for in more measured and conservative expansion scenarios.  This would make it a whole lot more palatable for schools such as TCU to agree to find a separate home for its other sports in comparison to the good-but-not-great revenue bump that it would receive if it were tacked on as a 10th football-only member of today’s Big East.  With other schools such as Boise State looking for a conference for other sports in the same manner, they can all agree to end up in a place like the WAC, WCC or even a brand new conference, which would provide a quality league for such other sports.

Do I think that the Big East football members are even considering this at all?  Heck no!  I’m sure that plenty of people will look at this proposal and perform some virtual vomiting all over it.  Yet, when The Big Country is framed and managed as a football-only conference, I don’t think it’s nearly as crazy logistically as it looks on a map.  This is a way that the Big East football members can throw in all of their last poker chips on the pigskin without risking anything on the basketball side.  In a way, the low revenue of Big East football gives those schools freedom to make moves that would be impossible for the Big Ten and SEC – they have little to lose on the football end, so this is a chance to go for a huge gain that will excite the general public and legimitately change the perception of the league.  Regardless, there’s no reason for the Big East football schools to split off (whether it’s just for football or all sports) unless it does so in a massive game-changing way.

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(Image from Last.fm)