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Big East dealing with growing pains

Villanova’s balk doesn’t scuttle expansion plans

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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If there is a master plan, it is still a few months away from having a final structure.

With the announcement Monday that Villanova’s plan to elevate its football program from the FCS level (formerly Division 1-AA) to the FBS level (formerly 1-A) will be put on hold, at least temporarily, the Big East, according to several league sources, will now focus on its next plan for increasing its football segment. It could grow to 10 or perhaps 12 teams, although that may happen only if Villanova comes back into the picture.

“We are looking at all our options,’’ said Big East commissioner John Marinatto, who made the first move last fall when TCU was added as the ninth school in football and the 17th in basketball, effective in 2012. “But it’s a very complicated process and it is going to take time.’’

In response to Villanova’s tabling of its vote on whether to move up, Marinatto issued a statement that allowed some wiggle room for both sides.

“We will continue with our due diligence process and work with Villanova to continue to share relevant information and materials,’’ said Marinatto. “The Big East Conference obviously very much values its longstanding relationship with Villanova and we are committed to continuing to work with them on this matter in an open and forthright manner. Until there is additional information to report, the conference plans no further comment.’’

A key factor is the television money in the new batch of contracts. The Big East is a distant sixth among the BCS conferences. The list is topped by the Big Ten’s deal for approximately $220 million per year, while the Southeastern Conference is just off that pace at $205 million. The Atlantic Coast Conference just signed a new deal that more than doubled its TV revenue, from $67 million to $155 million.

The Big East’s current deal, which extends through the 2013 season, pays approximately $33.3 million per year. Big East officials have been told by the television people — primarily ESPN — that the offer will increase, but how much could very well depend on who joins.

The Big East would like to get into the same neighborhood as the ACC. The question is how to get that done.

Getting to 10 teams by adding Central Florida would be a logical choice because it adds the Orlando television market and a Florida recruiting base. Although no one at UCF will talk officially about moving from Conference USA to the Big East, school officials are clearly ready to take the next step to a BCS conference.

But to go beyond 10?

Houston remains a possibility. Adding the Houston, Dallas, and Orlando markets would vastly increase the Big East television footprint. Memphis? East Carolina?

And how does Big East basketball absorb new schools? The answer is that it doesn’t.

Expansion would probably force the seven non-football basketball members of the Big East — DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova, Providence, and St. John’s — to consider breaking off into their own conference. According to sources within the conference, however, that would be a last resort.

The optimum move would be to level off at 18 schools in two divisions in basketball and 10 in football. One proposal that will get serious consideration will be to limit the invitations to the Big East basketball tournament in New York to 12 teams.

All such details have not even been discussed on a leaguewide basis yet. If the assumption is that Villanova does not make the leap to FBS, the Big East still needs a 10th team. And that becomes the main topic of discussion among the Big East presidents, with the hope of coming to a resolution within two to three months.

Central Florida, whose main opposition to a move is coming from South Florida, which does not want a Big East infringement on its Florida base, remains the most viable and logical choice. If things go smoothly, an announcement could come in July that UCF is joining TCU in the Big East for the 2012 football season.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.