The Big East has been the best basketball conference in the country over the past five years, and it isn't really a close call. But for the past 40 years, the ACC has been the premier basketball conference in the country -- and that hasn't been a close call. Now, with the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC has signaled that it will overtake the Big East again and become the nation's best basketball league.
The move to add Syracuse and Pittsburgh is a zero-sum game for the ACC and the Big East. The ACC adds two perennial top 10 basketball programs (and major media markets) while the Big East loses the same. It makes the ACC more attractive and stable for new members, and makes the Big East one big question mark.
Clearly, the ACC isn't finished adding schools. It will drive hard toward a 16-team league that is competitive in big markets in football and basketball. Whether the ACC decides to accept Connecticut and Rutgers to further gut the Big East or take Texas and its Longhorn Network baggage out of the crumbling Big 12 isn't yet clear. And, while the Big Ten is the better option, I wouldn't discount the notion of Notre Dame becoming a member of the ACC. The Irish are trying to remain independent in football, but that isn't feasible in the long run. Whether it is the Big Ten or the ACC, Notre Dame is likely to be a member of a superconference in the not-so-distant future.
The Big East has been through shifts in the landscape before now, driving some and reacting to others. But this one is different. This one doesn't mean the end of the Big East, but it does mean the end of the raw power of the Big East in basketball.
Let's take a look back. In 2003, the ACC took Big East members Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. The Big East responded by taking Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and Cincinnati and, in doing so, became the best and most powerful basketball league in the country. While some doubted whether a 16-team conference could work in basketball, and still allow its fair share of teams to advance to the NCAA tournament, the league thrived on the hardwood. But the vulnerability of the Big East wasn't in basketball -- it was in football.
As recently as a few days ago, many in the media were taking a "wait and see" approach with conference realignment and the emergence of superconferences because some of the big drivers of change stayed put last summer. Those people said they would believe it when they saw it. I have always maintained that this shift in the landscape was inevitable.
Some are reacting to this inevitable shift as if it's an affront to education and the established tradition of the Big East. They question the priorities of presidents (as if they needed this to question the priorities of presidents). The words "shame" and "integrity" are brought up in response to these changes.
Were they fooled into thinking this is about education or integrity? Are they so naive as to believe this is about tradition? Geez, you'd think Michigan had decided to play football at night in the Big House, or that Penn State changed its uniforms to allow a manufacturer's logo ...
A university president can run a business enterprise like football and basketball and still educate students and athletes. And integrity has little to do with the conference in which a school competes.
Tradition is an interesting thing, because its recognition and definition seems to change so often. Does the tradition of the Big East mandate that any charter school must stay put forever? Of course not. The Big East started in 1979 with only seven members, and had only nine members in 1982. The Big East was formed to play basketball, and wasn't intended to compete across the board with the Big Ten and ACC beyond the hardwood. And, for years and years, observers have opined that the Big East would someday split up its football members and its non-football members. Are those the good old days and the tradition people are pining for?
With established tradition in mind, the Big East only began playing football in 1991. By that time, the ACC had already taken in Florida State. The Big East football tradition started with "football only" members like Temple, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Rutgers, and by rejecting the addition of Penn State. Notre Dame became a Big East member to play every sport under the Big East flag, except football, the only reason a conference would need Notre Dame. Is that the tradition that so many deem sacred and untouchable?
Did we love Big East basketball from the very beginning because of its tradition? Of course not, because it had no established tradition. We loved it because it was great basketball. With the loss of Syracuse and Pitt, the Big East loses some of its greatness.
Some say that conference realignment is all about football, and it's all about money. I tend to believe that is too simple. Certainly, it's about money, but it's also about markets, leadership and strategic thinking. It is about protecting your interests and acting -- and reacting -- intelligently to a changing landscape.
The ACC, with its tradition established in football and basketball in 1953, simply outmaneuvered the Big East and almost everyone else, in this first shift of the landscape. And the shifting isn't over. The ACC is now in the driver's seat to add to its current roster of teams, and many will apply for membership.
Connecticut, Texas and Notre Dame could be the next targets for the ACC, along with Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville. But the SEC could easily look to the ACC for new members like Florida State and Virginia Tech, notwithstanding a higher exit fee. The ACC would still have enough power to withstand some limited poaching from the SEC and still attract others into the league.
For the Big East, this shift presents a tremendous hurdle. With so many non-football schools and the loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse (not to mention the potential loss of Connecticut and Rutgers), how can the Big East make a compelling case for new members with such instability and so many question marks? The league can reach out to the remaining members of the Big 12, but that league is teetering on the brink, as well.
While we are asking ourselves which move makes sense for the ACC and how the Big East will survive this, there is one big wild card that has yet to be played: the United States Congress. I have little doubt that Congress will soon get involved in college sports. And when Congress gets involved, the hearings will not stop at conference realignment. Topics for discussion will include a football playoff, the tax-exempt status of the NCAA and due process in enforcement.
Then the leaders of college sports will find themselves under oath, and all will be in a different league.