[note: most of this post was written before I read BOTC’s similar piece; good to know that others are thinking along the same lines]
When Nebraska announced its move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten on Friday and Chancellor Harvey Perlman cast blame on Missouri’s wandering eye, he became the first man ever to jump off a ledge because another man peered through a window. He also may have been the first jumper ever to bring the whole building down with him, as we wait to hear whether the Big 12 will hold together as a ten-team league, or whether five more members will leave for the Pac-10 and/or SEC.
The analogy is strained, though, because the Huskers are actually softly parachuting into a giant pillow of cash. The schools left behind – Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor – are the ones in free-fall. And as seems reasonable for folks who see the pavement approaching at terminal velocity, alumni and fans of these schools have reacted in ways ranging from serious concern to all-out panic.
But fear not. Only a failure of imagination can keep Missouri out of a major conference. And it may not be the major conference that people have been discussing for the past year.
If the Big 12 implodes (and the chatter this morning is that a lot of love and $17 million per annum might hold this ragtag bunch together), is there a chance that Mizzou could still sneak in to the Big Ten or the SEC? Sure, especially if those leagues evolve into sixteen-team superconferences. Missouri should jump if offered.
But that chance is based on the hope that someone who doesn’t need you invites you to their awesome party. And hope is not a strategy, not when you’re at someone else’s mercy. Missouri doesn’t need hope. It needs a plan. Here’s a start.
What do needy schools need? A needy conference. Right now, no league is needier than the Big East. And despite preconceptions, the Big East could be a surprisingly good fit for the heartland quartet (Baylor, you’re on your own*) that has been together since Kansas State Agricultural College joined the Missouri Valley Conference in 1912.
[*This is speculation; I’ve not read the Big 12 governing documents nor have I brushed up on the relevant law, but it may be worth sticking with Baylor and having a five-school Big 12 merge with the Big East – rather than leaving the Big 12 individually and joining the Big East – if keeping the Big 12 intact as a legal entity protects the remaining schools’ ability to collect payments due from the departing Big 12 schools]
As currently constructed, the Big East is a big-time football anachronism: an eight-team league, four teams short of the number needed for a championship game, and a single defection away from oblivion. Though a sixteen-team monster in basketball, the Big East is a solid but unspectacular football alliance consisting of Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse and West Virginia. And at least three of those schools – Connecticut, Rutgers and Syracuse – stand to be potential targets for expansion by the Big Ten and/or ACC. The Big East needs to expand to get to a championship game; it also needs to expand to ensure its survival as a football conference.
The name is a misnomer. In football, the conference is Big East-ish, with Cincinnati, Louisville, Pitt and West Virginia – none exactly eastern – making up half the league, and the regional sore thumb that is South Florida sitting hard by the Gulf. Add Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Missouri and special guest Memphis (a notion I had even before learning that Fed Ex is willing to pay top dollar for Memphis to join a BCS league), and you can draw a tidy line from Ames to Manhattan to Lawrence to Columbia to Memphis to Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Morgantown that reveals a surprisingly natural geographic continuity. More than that, the schools possess a surprisingly natural institutional continuity. The four former Big 12 schools and Memphis are all public universities with between 20,000 and 31,000 students (Baylor, private, has just under 15,000). Seven of the eight current Big East football schools are public institutions (Syracuse is not), and five of them have enrollments between 19,600 and 29,000 students (Cincinnati at 39,700, USF at 44,000 and Rutgers at 52,500 are the outliers). These schools fit together. And with thirteen members for football, you have enough to have a championship game, enough to survive one or more departures, and flexibility to add others if need be (also known as Baylor’s best hope).
Moreover, there is a continuity of football culture. Here are the average home attendances for each school in 2009:
West Virginia 57,317
South Florida 52,553
Kansas State 46,763
Iowa State 46,242
Memphis’s average attendance would almost certainly jump considerably with a move to a BCS conference; Baylor, for reference, averaged 36,306 in 2009, a number sure to drop if separated from the other five members of the Big 12 South.
The new league would break easily into a seven-team Western division of Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati, with a six-team Eastern division of Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Connecticut and South Florida. If you feel compelled to even things out a seven teams per division, add someone like Temple (or Baylor and ship Cincinnati to the East), but keep in mind that one of the existing Big East schools could easily jump to the Big Ten or ACC, bringing the number from thirteen to twelve. Scheduling would follow the old Big 12 model; play everyone in your division each year, and play an alternating roster of three teams from the other division. The division winners face off in a championship game, perhaps in a domed NFL stadium that sits near the geographic center of the reconfigured league (that’s St. Louis if you didn’t crack the code), or in an open-air NFL stadium in Kansas City, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.
But, you wonder, when you add in the Big East’s non-football schools, wouldn’t a 20 or 21-team basketball conference be unruly? Perhaps, but in the best possible way. The Big East is already a spectacular hoops league. The five proposed new members include both teams that played for the 2008 national title, plus two schools that have been to the Elite Eight since then. It becomes a mind-blowing assemblage of basketball power. And the scheduling is far tidier than you might expect.
First split the league in two, creating the Heartland and Coastal sub-conferences. Then split each sub-conference into two divisions – the Plains and Central divisions in the Heartland, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast divisions in the Coastal.
Plains: Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Marquette
Central: DePaul, Notre Dame, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida
Mid-Atlantic: Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Georgetown, Villanova, Rutgers
Northeast: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Syracuse, Providence, Connecticut
[In a perfect world, Marquette and DePaul would be in the same division, but something had to give. Marquette gives Iowa State a reasonable geographic partner, and Memphis goes to the Central instead of the Plains because of proximity to Louisville and as a bridge to South Florida].
[Note that the Central has six teams instead of five; as soon as one team leaves – say, Notre Dame – we’ll fix that].
Each team plays each member of its division home and away each season; each member of the other division in the sub-conference once each year; and each member of one of the divisions in the other sub-conference once each season, alternating between divisions every year. That makes for an 18-game schedule (assuming four five-team divisions). For instance, in the first year, Mizzou would play each team in the Plains twice, each team in the Central once (three home, two away), and each team in the Mid-Atlantic once (two home, three away). The next year, they would play the Northeast schools instead of the Mid-Atlantic teams.
That’s a manageable regular season. But what about the conference tournament? How do you have a tournament with 20 teams? You don’t. You have two tournaments.
We’ve heard repeatedly that conference realignment is all about football because that’s where the money is. And it’s true, up to a point. But as the recent $10.8 billion agreement between the NCAA and CBS and Turner for the rights to the next fourteen NCAA basketball tournaments shows, there is money to be made in college basketball. When a conference is deciding how to best generate revenue, it has to exploit its most valuable assets. And in the new supersized Big East, basketball is a license to print money.
Here’s a modest proposal. Each March, the Heartland basketball teams – Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Memphis, Marquette, DePaul, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida (and Notre Dame if still around) – meet in St. Louis, while the Coastal programs – Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Georgetown, Villanova, Rutgers, St. John’s, Providence, Connecticut, Syracuse and Seton Hall – meet in New York. Each site plays a tournament to determine the sub-conference champion. And two days later, the two winners meet at Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament Championship.
Sounds crazy. Crazy awesome. It makes the tournament far more accessible, especially for fans of the schools in the Heartland, and allows the league to double its ticket sales, while making a huge splash on television.
We’ve plotted out football and men’s basketball. There’s still legitimate concern over costs associated with non-revenue sports. Can Iowa State really afford to travel regularly to Providence, Seton Hall and UConn for track meets and softball games? Probably not. So don’t.
The easy answer is to treat the two sub-conferences as separate leagues for non-revenue sports. Get all the teams together for a conference tournament if you must, but keep the regular seasons contained within the ten-team Heartland and Coastal leagues. Problem solved.
This plan gives Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State a soft place to land that is far preferable to the Mountain West or Conference USA, while allowing those schools to maintain ancient rivalries and to have familiar partners in a new conference, and it gives Memphis a giant upgrade in conference affiliation. It gives the Big East access to televisions in Wichita, Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines and Memphis, and to top-flight facilities for conference championships, including two NFL stadiums, an NBA arena (Memphis), an NHL arena (St. Louis), and the best indoor facility currently without a pro franchise (Kansas City). The Big East gets existing rivalries that are among the best in the country, including a football game (Missouri vs. Kansas) that has drawn more than 70,000 fans in recent years. It gets stability in football, plus the conference championship game that it has never had. And it gets marquee basketball programs that make it – inarguably – the premier hoops conference in the nation.
That’s a pretty good deal for everyone.
This isn’t a finished plan, it’s a conversation starter. It’s the work of one guy who spent some time thinking about it over a weekend. Surely, a group of college administrators and TV execs could sit around a table and improve on it. Or a group of savvy readers in the comments section. Have at it.