In the first move of an ongoing process which could take as long as three years to complete, the Big East announced today that it would begin exploring the possibility of expanding its football conference to as many as 10 teams, which would be an increase of two teams from the current set up.
"Today, our Board of Directors affirmed a set of key strategic initiatives, including expansion, designed to enhance membership stability and maximize our value," said Big East Commissioner John Marinatto in a statement released after the Big East Presidents met in Philadelphia.
The Big East also said in a statement that ""the BIG EAST presidents agreed that the interests of each of the conference’s 16 member institutions would be served by increasing the number of Bowl Subdivision football-playing members to 10. They unanimously approved the process to evaluate the terms and conditions for potential expansion candidates.''
Although no one would officially say specifically what this meant, sources at the Big East said that Villanova, which participates in the Big East in all sports but FBS football--where it is a member of the FCS Colonial Athletic Association--indicated it was ready to make the commitment to elevate itself from FCS level--the Wildcats are the defending FCS national champion--to the FBS level as the Big East's ninth team.
The Big East gave itself an option for a 10th team which could come from a variety of choices
. The move the Big East would like to make would be to entice Notre Dame, which is a member in most of its other sports but football, to join the football conference as it's10th team. The possibility of that happening is remote.
The next option would be to entice a team to join the in football only. The Big East has talked to TCU about that, but the chances of TCU, which is a member of the Mountain West, taking its nationally ranked football program into the Big East from the Mountain West, while remaining in the Mountain West in the other sports, is also remote.
TCU could choose to join the Big East in football and find a conference such as the West Coast Conference for all of its other sports. But that is a complicated and costly process
The third option would be to ask Central Florida to leave Conference USA in football ony, altough UCF could search for a non-FBS football conference for its other sports as well. That too is costly and complicated.
Which leaves the most logical solution, which will require some internal selling-add Villanova and Central Florida as the 9th and 10th teams in football and increase the already large 16-team Big East basketball conference from 16 to 17 teams. Some members are concerned that 16 team is already too many and that adding Central Florida in basketball would not increase the level.
The compromise for the schools which play basketball, but not FBS football such as St. John's, Providence and Georgetown, is that such an expansion would cause minimum disruption and have a maximum amount of benefit for the football.
The Big East could also just move to 9 teams in football by including only Villanova. But that also creates problems. One of the reasons for expansion was a fear by the Presidents that any future raids on the conference-the Big East lost Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004 and 2005--that another raid might be coming. Membership as an FBS league requires a minimum of 8 teams. By adding two more teams, the Big East would have a cushion.
Adding Villanova would require some patience since NCAA regulations require a two-year transitional period for schools moving from the FCS to the FBS level. By adding Villanova and Central Florida, the Big East could officially play with nine teams for a few years--which would aid in scheduling and allow Villanova to make a more leisurely transition from the FCS to FBS level.
If Villanova does indeed make the move that would end any hopes that the University of Massachusetts--which has also explored the possibility of moving to the FBS level and had made no secret of its desire to be part of the Big East--of being included in the discussion. The Big East will take Villanova as an FBS school since it is already a member, but there is no inclination to look anywhere else at that level for another school.
The benefit of 10 teams also would allow the Big East the option of sponsoring an petition which would lower the minimum number of teams to conduct a league championship game from 12 to 10 teams. Such a change would be supported by the Big 12, which now has only 10 teams after losing Colorado to the Pac 10 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.
There is also a possibility--although also remote--that this could be the first step in a process in which the schools who do not play FBS football, would break off into their own basketball only league and let the football members fend for themselves.
While Marinatto gave no timetable for making specific moves, the clock is now ticking and it seems very likely that the Big East will move quickly to target the schools it wants, beginning with Villanova, which is expected to make the announcement shortly that it does indeed want to move to the FBS level.
If the Wildcats decide they don't want to follow that route, the Big East, which needs football inventory, could make a "big market'' move and go after Central Florida and TCU in all sports.
Such a move would bring Orlando and Dallas-Fort Worth in the Big East picture. It would also increase the Big East to 18 teams.
No matter what happens, the Big East is expected to quickly explore its other options and right now, Central Florida looms as the most likely candidate to finally make the move to the Big East, with Villanova and Central Florida aslo very much in the picture.
- Michael Vega
- Mark Blaudschun
- Nancy Marrapese-Burrell