I’ll admit I’m rooting for the Big East.
It is a wonderful conference, the conference office has some of the smartest, most professional and hardest working people in the business. There are a lot of great schools in the Big East conference and in general a lot of great people. I have have really enjoyed both the people and the conference in the 15 years that I’ve covered it.
So I don’t have any trouble saying that I hope the Big East succeeds in its latest attempt to rebuild itself.
But (and there always is a but) excuse me if I am slowly drifting into the sea of critics who just don’t see how this thing is going to work.
And I mean, really work.
Oh, I am sure that it will work on some levels and the people of the conference are good enough that they will make it work in the way two people with kids make a marriage work the best they can in order to keep a home for their children even though they are not truly happy together.
But really work where the conference thrives and remains one of the major forces in college football if not college athletics – I’m just not sure I see that as a realistic possibility any more.
And nothing I saw last week at ACC media day in Greensboro or here today at Big East media day in Newport Rhode Island convinces me that the critics and doom-and-gloomers are totally wrong.
I know that Big East senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli spent the day trying to convince anyone who would listen that the sky is not falling – (here is an excerpt of what he said…)
“I will say with absolute certainty that the Big East will continue to be the most competitive league in the country,” Carparelli said. “Since the announcement of the new postseason structure of college football, we’ve seen a number of stories in both print and in television that have been critical of the Big East and pessimistic about our future but I will remind you that we are barley three months in to a process that won’t be in effect until .
“So it is premature to evaluate our position for the 2014 postseason today when many of the details of the format have not yet been decided so I would ask that you wait until the process is complete, take a look at it and evaluate where we are – I know you will find that we are in great shape.”
But here is the reality that faces the Big East:
1.) The league has no commissioner. There is an interim commissioner named Joe Bailey, who quite frankly sort of has that 1992 Vice President candidate Admiral James Stockdale look of “who am I, why am I here….” but by all accounts he is just filling the seat until a new commissioner is hired. Caraparelli is apparently one of five candidates to be in the mix and given his history would be a great choice – but when have we known college presidents to make the obvious choice? And this league has and likely still will be run by the basketball programs which makes me believe there is a good chance the next guy will be another basketball guy and that’s been part of the problem from Day 1. This league needs a football guy, a guy who understands the importance of and the potential for revenue from big-time college football and he needs someone who has the strength to divide the league into two separate entities – a basketball conference and a football conference -- so that each entity can be taken care of properly. A commissioner is supposed to be named by the end of August and that’s important because it needs to move forward.
2.) The league has no television deal in place. True, the current deal isn’t up until next year but the other major conferences all have big dollar deals in place and the Big East does not. Again, perhaps the league can sell basketball to get some more money but as we saw in the last negotiations that only goes so far. The league needs to convince networks that people will watch its programming and without many marquee names in football – the leagues marquee team is now in the major market known as Idaho for goodness sakes – it could be a tough sell. The ACC has the smallest deal of the major conferences and it got about $17.5 million per school – how much is realistic for the Big East, which has to divide it 21 ways, to get?
3.) The league has no major bowl tie in and will soon have to negotiate deals with minor bowls as well. When the ACC locked up a 12-year deal with the Orange Bowl it meant the Big East was the only major conference left standing without a deal with a major bowl. And it doesn’t look like they will be able to secure one, either, at least one that doesn’t involve some sort of contingency or collaboration with other conferences. Without a big-time place for the champion to play – unless the champion can make it into the four-team playoff – it is a hard sell that the league is still one of the elite. The other thing is, in talking with bowl people – and believe me when you come to these media days you get plenty of opportunities to talk to bowl people – the Big East is a harder sell now for a number of reasons. The Big East will need to sell itself again to many of its current partners and make the case to other bowls that is more attractive than it appears.
4.) The league has four different kinds of teams in four different time zones. Imagine turning on the Big East game of the week in Pittsburgh and it being SMU-San Diego State. It could happen. That is part of the problem – the Big East has become a “national conference” but I’m not sure there is an evidence of that ever working before. The closest we had to that was the WAC when it expanded to 16 schools in about 1994 and it broke up in 1999 and became the WAC and the Mountain West. And the reason it broke up was because there were so many different interests trying to be served and so many teams in different time zones that it was unmanageable. The commissioner of that league was Karl Benson, who I spoke to in 2003 during the first break up of the Big East and he told me that what they learned was that 16 teams were too many for a conference, that 12 is the right number and ten may even be the best number. He said it is too hard to keep that many different schools happy and the skipping over two or three different time zones caused a real issue with game times and TV as well. That was 16 teams, all playing big-time football and basketball, and they couldn’t make it work. Now we have a league with 21 teams spanning four time zones with 10 teams playing both football and basketball, three teams playing only football, seven teams playing basketball and one team – Notre Dame – doing whatever the heck it pleases…..Now, you tell me, how is that going to work?
5.) The league is still in danger of losing more teams, though it is hoping that isn’t the case. The reality is the minute the Big 12 decides it needs 12 members, Louisville will be a Big 12 team and I was told by someone at these meetings with knowledge of such things that this is going to happen eventually it is just a matter of time. And then there is the Notre dame flirtation with the ACC I wrote about last week and even though the football program is not a Big East member, without a Notre Dame alliance for purposes of negotiating bowl deals the Big East will have an even harder time selling itself. That doesn’t even touch the fact that Connecticut has said it would love to find a spot in one of the five other leagues to land and Rutgers has made no secret of its desire to join the Big Ten (or whatever the heck that league is called these days).
Again, I am rooting for the Big East, I am hoping that it can pull through this one more time and defy the odds but if you objectively look at things the way I just laid them out, even some of the most optimistic Big East fans would have to admit those are some long odds to defy.
Perhaps one of those issues could be overcome but to overcome all of them is asking a whole lot.
I know the Big East has survived and thrived before but the landscape is different now. Time will tell the real story but it would appear that time is running out.
** The Big East preseason media poll was released today and your Pitt Panthers were picked to finish fifth. I’m not sure what that means other than people don’t expect much from the Panthers. I picked them third in my poll, but I could be convinced they will win the league, I could also be convinced they will finish fifth or sixth. There are just too many holes on this roster and some areas where depth is really going to be challenged so I don’t know that it is realistic to think the Panthers will go through the entire season without some injuries, which is what they’d need to do to win the league. The favorite is Louisville and for good reason – they have the best quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and Charlie Strong is in his third season so his great recruiting classes are going to start pay off. But the Cardinals may even be a year off still as well so the league is wide open. Pitt safety Jarred Holley, always a master at avoiding answering the question, said that being picked fifth is not particularly meaningful and that “we will work hard and take each game one at a time and do our best.” And Paul Chryst said simply that nobody has won or lost a game ever based on a preseason poll. And they are right –preseason polls are meaningless but they at least give us something to write about.
** Holley, along with Aaron Donald and Ray Graham were brought to media day. That of course led to questions on Twitter from stir-the-pot yellow journalists like Chris Peak like “why is the quarterback with the second most career starts in the Big East not in attendance at Big East media day….” I would never ask such a question, by the way……Ok, so maybe I did ask that question yesterday and the answer I got as to why Tino Sunseri, the Panthers senior leader and two-time returning starting quarterback was not brought to Newport for this event from EJ Borghetti who said “the decision was made that we would bring only returning all-conference performers.” So there you have it. That’s the answer in case you wondered.
** Graham, of course, was the star of the day at least from Pitt’s perspective as people wondered how healthy he is and whether or not he has returned to form. His answers were pretty consistent as he was honest and said simply “I don’t know how healthy I am and won’t until I hit the field,” he said. The knee is healthy from the standpoint of he is cleared for contact and has been working out but he said until he tries to cut and takes a few hits he won’t know. He also said he will wear a knee brace early in camp to see how that feels and to give it some support but the hope is that he can play without one by the time the season comes. “I would like to think I am Superman but I know I am not Superman and so I will try and ease my way back into things.” As for the rest of the team, Chryst said the only player who is out for right now with injury is Marco Pecora, who had pectoral surgery. He said everyone is healthy, all of the guys like Todd Thomas who sat out the spring are ready to go and he’s anxious to get on the field and get going next week.
** All you need to know about Chryst and his “matter of fact” approach to things is this – Pitt will, for the first time, not have a formal “Media Day” to kick off training camp. Instead, they will just start camp and “if anyone wants to talk to us or needs us for anything they can just come by and we will work it out. Why do we need to make people come out an extra day?” Tremendous. His point is very simple, he just doesn’t understand the need to make a big production out of everything and instead he just wants to go about the business of coaching football and trying to help these kids become adults. And it isn’t a thing of where he is restricting access – we have much more access now than we did last year and he is more than willing to accommodate us stinking media types. He’s just very much meat and potatoes and that’s a good thing. He is someone I think Pitt fans and people in Pittsburgh will really get to know and truly appreciate once they get to know him.
** One thing Chryst did touch on is the idea that Pitt has begun to recruit as if it is an ACC team and the focus has moved from West in states like Ohio and Indiana to South in states like Virginia and Maryland. That doesn't mean Pitt won't be going to Ohio to find players, it will, but the idea is to fit the recruiting area to the new conference footprint. I think that is a good strategy obviously and he said the Panthers will from time to time go to places like North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia - but he was very clear that the most important thing is to shore up the local recruiting base and make sure that Western Pennsylvania and even extreme Eastern Ohio (like Youngstown area) is still the priority. So it will be interesting to see if this new strategy begins to manifest itself in the 2013 recruiting class or if it takes a few years before we start to see a change in where the players from outside the area are coming from.
** Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the fact that yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to former Pitt standout Chris Doleman for a story that I am writing for Wednesday’s paper. What a tremendous guy and a tremendous story. He originally signed with the greatest program in the country, Temple (appease me just once on this and laugh a little...), but instead went to Valley Forge Military Academy then signed with Pitt. He came to Pitt during the era when every other player seemed to be an All American or future Pro and had an excellent career and then went on to stardom as an NFL player. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday. I think what is impressive is he played linebacker for the first two seasons in the NFL and thus didn’t have many sacks but then was switched to defensive end and ended his career with 150.5 – the fourth best total in NFL history. He and Curtis Martin, another former Panthers star, will be inducted this weekend so it will be a great day for fans of Pitt’s history. Look for my story on Doleman in tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) paper.