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It's Cause and Defect for the Big East

Miami-Virginia Tech exodus could cripple conference, may send dominoes tumbling.

August 28, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — On the way to Commissioner Michael Tranghese's first-floor office at Big East Conference headquarters on Richmond Street, a visitor passes a row of mounted helmets, each representing one of the school's eight football-playing schools.

That's right, eight.

For although Miami and Virginia Tech are bolting for the Atlantic Coast Conference next year in what can only be called an audacious, litigious and nearly bloodletting exodus, no one in the Big East has yet taken a one-iron to the lame-duck helmets -- although it should be noted, Tranghese is an excellent golfer.

The Miami-Virginia Tech defections have left the Big East listing and Tranghese scrambling to find replacement schools. This may also explain, at least metaphorically, the grocery store shopping cart parked in the hallway near Tranghese's door.

Bob, I need a price check on Louisville.

In the growing murkiness of intercollegiate backroom politics, this much is clear:

What happens next in college football -- and basketball -- will have a lot to do with what happens next in the Big East.

"It's clear to me that the whole ACC-Big East situation created an incredible uproar in college athletics," Tranghese said in his dimly lighted office, the late-afternoon Providence skyline as his backdrop.

Funny how fast things change. In April, the 59-year-old Tranghese was in his glory after Big East schools Syracuse and Connecticut had won the men's and women's basketball titles. In January, Miami had been a play away from winning a second consecutive national title in football.

Tranghese told a friend, "Things are better now in this conference than at any time in my 13 years [as commissioner]."

Less than a month later, the Miami stuff hit the fan.

This was more than two schools leaving one major conference for another.

The Miami-Virginia Tech expansion will resonate for years. It will affect television deals and have a domino effect on conference realignment. It may even kill a conference or two.

The ACC's almost comic handling of the situation also provided the impetus for non-bowl championship series schools to make their foray against the six major conferences (plus Notre Dame) that run college football.

"It's too coincidental to ignore," Tranghese says of the timing.

Led by Tulane President Scott Cowen, presidents of non-BCS schools have used the Big East-ACC mess as evidence that the system needs fixing.

They want a bigger piece of the pie when the BCS contract expires after the 2005 season.

The movement has found traction.

On Sept. 4, the House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings to address possible antitrust violations involving the BCS.

On Sept. 8, leaders of the BCS and non-BCS schools will meet in Chicago to air gripes and grievances.

At issue: The 62 football schools in the major conferences, plus independent Notre Dame, control more than 90% of the television and bowl revenue and the majority of the remaining 54 major college football schools think that's not fair.

"This is classic cartel behavior," Bill Greiner, University of Buffalo president, said recently.

Tranghese, in his role as BCS coordinator -- Big 12 Commissioner Kevin Weiberg takes over in 2004 -- says major college commissioners and presidents already were discussing ways to make the system more inclusive for non-BCS schools.

"We met shortly after the Fiesta Bowl to talk about a future model that might better serve everyone," Tranghese said. "But I think that once this Big East-ACC thing happened, now we have President Cowen and all of his comments. I think it's stoked the thing up pretty good."

No one knows how this is going to shake out, but all eyes, for now, are focused on Providence.

Tranghese said several of his employees have not had a day off this year as the Big East sorts through a multitude of issues.

First question: What becomes of the Big East? Its presidents must decide soon whether to stay together under a 16-team umbrella that would have eight football schools on one side and seven basketball-playing schools (plus Notre Dame) on the other.

That would mean adding two schools on the basketball side and two in football.

The other choice is splitting into separate conferences.

"We've got to make this decision by early October, I mean separation or stay together," Tranghese said.

Time is critical because Miami and Virginia Tech opted to leave the Big East in 2004 instead of 2005, leaving Tranghese with significant scheduling problems.

Tranghese maintains that Miami, which originally planned to leave with Boston College and Syracuse, had the right to change leagues, but not the right to hold secret negotiations and deny him the chance to hold his conference together.

"We were never notified by anyone that they were talking," Tranghese said of Miami's negotiations with the ACC.

The Big East was left holding the baggage. With Miami and Virginia Tech playing as lame ducks, and Temple getting the boot after 2004, the conference might be renamed the Big Least.

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