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Assessing the impact of Big East Conference

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Assessing the impact of Big East Conference

Andrew Carter

Sentinel Staff Writer

July 2, 2008

Mike Tranghese would rather not think about how the Big East Conference almost died.

Nearly five summers have passed since the Atlantic Coast Conference began an expansion process that led Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to join the ACC and leave the Big East, forcing it to the brink of extinction.

Tranghese, the Big East commissioner, said recently that his conference was as close to dissolving then as "you can get without it happening." And now, one could argue, it's stronger -- at least on the football field -- than the conference that raided it.

Things haven't turned out yet like many people expected when great conference raids of 2003 began. The ACC's goal of superconference superiority remains more vision than reality. The Big East and Conference USA, the leagues most affected by the ACC's moves, have reinvented themselves perhaps better than anyone expected. And leaders in collegiate athletics wait nervously for the next round of conference realignment, some hoping it never comes.

The ACC-Big East saga of 2003 contained enough drama to last a while. It was a summer of alliances and abandonment, of betrayal and bemoaning, of lawsuits and negotiations. It was a summer when the ACC sacrificed five decades of tradition, some critics said, in the name of the dollar.

"I think the way you have to measure expansion is positioning for the long term," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. "What we've done is put ourselves in a position to be stronger than we've ever been before and play at the very top level at a consistent basis."

Still, as North Carolina Athletic Director **** Baddour described it, expansion has "worked better than some people expected and in other ways we've got some work to do."

The ACC's plan: Become the third major conference with 12 teams, joining the SEC and Big 12. The growth in size and power would demand more lucrative television contracts and bowl revenue.

Five years later, expansion has been a financial successs. During the 2003-04 fiscal year -- the last for the league's old nine-team format -- the ACC generated more than $110 million in revenue, according to tax records. During the 2006-07 fiscal year, the ACC boasted revenue of more than $159 million.

The league, however, hasn't been as successful on the football field. Traditional powers Florida State and Miami have become ordinary. No ACC team has won a BCS bowl game since the Seminoles won the national championship at the end of the 1999 season.

"I don't think you measure a conference totally on what you do in the BCS games," Swofford said.

". . . Competitively, top to bottom, we're stronger because of [expansion]."

Leagues scramble to react

Spurred by the arrival of Louisville and South Florida and by the emergence of West Virginia and Rutgers, the Big East has gone from a conference worried about losing its automatic BCS bid to one that is undefeated in three BCS games since the moves became official in 2005.

"The thing that has probably pleased me the most is I know how nervous our presidents and our athletics directors were five years ago," Tranghese said. "I saw it in their faces everyday. And heard it in their voices. And now I just see them happy and enjoying what they're doing."

After it became clear the Big East would lose three of its marquee members, Tranghese went into survival mode.

He convinced what was left of the Big East that the league could be viable again if it could entice Louisville -- then a Conference USA power -- to join. The addition of South Florida, also formerly of C-USA, added an improving football program in an attractive Florida television market.

The structure the Big East -- a 16-team basketball conference that is half the size in football -- is working despite questions about long-term viability.

"This alliance of 16 teams has been better I think than anybody had anticipated and hoped for," Tranghese said. "And as a result, I think we're pretty well committed to staying together. . . . That was not a given when we started this."

Left in shambles by the ACC, the Big East in turn plundered Conference USA, which lost five football-playing schools before the 2005 season and added six more, including UCF.

"It was pretty clear, even as early as the spring of 2003, that something was going to happen that in all likelihood would affect us," Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said. "We had our conference meeting and kind of gathered everyone around the table and said, 'Buckle your seat belts, guys, because we're in for a bumpy ride.' "

Before realignment, C-USA had been a cumbersome 15-team league. Now it's a streamlined 12-team all-sports conference that in "most respects," Banowsky said, is better than it once was.

Including financially. After its revenues failed to cover its expenses in both the 2003-04 and 2004-05 fiscal years, C-USA has operated out of the red the past two fiscal years.

But some commissioners see problems on the horizon.

"Based upon the current trend lines we're seeing, it's going to be very difficult to sustain the amateurism model for college athletics, particularly in the major revenue sports over the long haul unless something changes," Banowsky said. "You look over the last two years and you see a 55 percent increase in head football coaches' salaries . . . and you go, 'How can that be?' "

More moves coming?

Money was the driving force, of course, behind ACC expansion and the potential to make even more -- whether it be through lucrative mega-TV deals or the possibility of a playoff ---- could drive future movement.

Roy Kramer, the retired SEC commissioner who is considered the father of the BCS, said he believes additional football-driven realignment is coming.

"I've always felt the Big Ten would eventually literally become the Big 12," he said. "I still think somewhere down the road, I'm not saying next year, that you'll see some additional changes there and possibly see that happening with the Pac-10."

It'd be nothing new.

During the past 20 years, the Big Ten has added an 11th team, the SEC has added two teams, the Big 12, Mountain West Conference, Conference USA and Sun Belt Conference have been created, the Big West has disappeared from the football scene, the WAC has expanded, contracted and expanded again and the ACC has added three teams.

"If you went to sleep in 1990 and you woke up today, you'd be overwhelmed by it all," Tranghese said.

Both Tranghese and Swofford understand that better than most. But while Tranghese hopes realignment has given way to stability, Swofford understands, he said, "that the only constant in life is change."

"In terms of our league, we're probably rather stable for a good while to come would be my guess," Swofford said. "I don't think we currently have any interest in being any larger than 12. But I think we'll just have to see. History would tell us that there may be other shifts that are coming."

Andrew Carter's Chopping Block blog can be read at OrlandoSentinel.com/choppingblock and he can be reached at acarterb@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2008, Orlando Sentinel

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"If you went to sleep in 1990 and you woke up today, you'd be overwhelmed by it all," Tranghese said.

A decent read, enjoyed this line the best.

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