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Big East adds five schools to conference

Andrew Soukup | Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Ending a seven-month process that saw three of its members leave for a rival conference, the Big East Conference announced Tuesday that five Conference USA schools had accepted the conference’s offer to join the league in 2005-06.

Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida accepted invitations to join the Big East in all sports. DePaul and Marquette – traditional Notre Dame basketball rivals who don’t have football teams – will be the fourth and fifth additions.

Notre Dame, which some newspapers previously reported had entertained offers from other conferences, will remain in the new 16-team league in all sports except football, which will still remain independent, school spokesman John Heisler said.

“It’s been a complicated summer for everyone in college athletics and particularly for the Big East,” Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said in a statement, “and today’s announcement represents a resolution and a plan to move forward for all those associated with the conference.”

The conference turmoil began in June when Miami and Virginia Tech accepted the ACC’s offer to leave the Big East. A few months later, Boston College joined the two schools in jumping ship, and the future of the Big East appeared to be in jeopardy.

But in just a few months, the league regrouped, plotted its course and lured five other schools from another conference to make a monstrous 16-team league.

The additions make the Big East arguably one of the best basketball conferences in the nation. Seven teams in the new conference are ranked in the top 25 of most preseason basketball polls.

The potential for the eight-team football league, however, is not so bright. And it wasn’t immediately clear if the addition of Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida – who haven’t had historically strong football programs – would be good enough to ensure the conference keeps its automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series when the BCS contract expires after 2005.

South Florida was a particularly surprising addition, because the school is not geographically located near any of the other schools. But while the defection of Miami and Virginia Tech stunned the collegiate world, Boston College’s decision sent an already expansion-minded Big East looking to add another football school. In South Florida, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said he believes the conference has an up-and-coming program that can help the conference remain dominant.

“[The conference presidents] know who we are, and they know where we’ve been,” Tranghese said. “I still think we’re one of the six best football-playing conferences in the country.”

The conference dominoes aren’t likely to stop falling with the Big East’s Tuesday announcement. After the Big East announced it had added the five C-USA teams, the C-USA responded by adding five more teams of its own – WAC members Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa and Mid-American Conference members Marshall and Central Florida.

Although league presidents took the final vote on expansion Tuesday, the Big East’s expansion effort had been underway for several months, Tranghese said. The process involved meetings with schools targeted for expansion, evaluating the potential for a football-only member, and visits at every school to ensure acceptance of invitations, the league commissioner added.

Notre Dame benefited from adding the Midwest schools because it could potentially reduce travel costs while at the same time maintaining the school’s recruiting presence by playing conference games in the Midwest.

Tranghese said the league briefly flirted with, but ultimately rejected, adding a football-only playing school. And when Notre Dame emphatically repeated it had no interest in joining the league as a football member, the Big East decided to keep the football-playing members at eight schools rather than continue to expand.

But Heisler said that Notre Dame’s independence is not necessarily set in stone.

“At some juncture, it doesn’t make any sense to say [we’ll stay independent forever],” he said. “We don’t know where the world is going to go. We’re not going to sit here and guarantee that we’re not going to be an independent.”

Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia are the top remaining football programs in the Big East after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College leave the conference within two years. Connecticut will replace Temple as a member after this season. Rutgers is the final team in the football conferences.

The six existing non-football playing teams are Villanova, St. John’s, Providence, Georgetown, Seton Hall and Notre Dame.

“I never said we’re the best conference in the country,” Tranghese said. “What our goal is is to be viewed as one of the best. And clearly, we’re there.”