Wild west: Big East unveils 5 new football schools
TAMPA -- It is, quite literally, a new direction for Big East football.
"We have taken another bold and creative step in our history," commissioner John Marinatto said Wednesday in announcing a long-awaited expansion. "We are going west."
Are they ever. The conference, which first stepped out of its close-knit northeastern roots six years ago when USF joined as part of its last reincarnation, now has a truly national footprint, with Boise State and San Diego State joining as football-only members and Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist joining as all-sports members. It will be the first conference with a presence in all four time zones.
The new additions help offset the upcoming departures of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12. Marinatto is holding firm to contractual demands that the exiting teams stay through the 2013 season, even if it means a bloated football lineup of at least 13 teams in an overlap year with the new arrivals. (It could also be posturing toward negotiating earlier exits once a complete 12-team lineup is in place.)
For USF, it's a move that brings much-needed conference stability, with some familiar faces among the new rivals. USF's first football game against a I-A team was a loss at San Diego State in 1999, and the Bulls swept two meetings with Houston in 2001-02. And of course, there's UCF, which provides the Big East with its newest rivalry, rekindled after a four-game USF sweep from 2005-08. It hasn't been an easy task to identify USF's biggest conference rival to this point in its history; that won't be the case once the Knights are in the league.
"I would agree with that," athletic director Doug Woolard said. "I think the geography itself and the conference affiliation will create more of a rivalry."
USF President Judy Genshaft, who is the chair of the conference's executive committee, joined Marinatto in announcing the wide-reaching expansion.
"The Big East is a remarkable athletic conference, unique in its way from the other BCS conferences," Genshaft said. "The addition of these five new schools only adds to that singularity. ... This is a diverse and distinguished group of universities."
The league plans for two six-team divisions, and USF wouldn't travel to each west-division opponent but once every four years, with trips of 2,000-plus miles to Idaho and California. The odd national footprint could help the Big East as it opens negotiations next year for a new TV contract -- one that should be in excess of $100 milion a year -- with the intriguing possibility of a 12-hour window of non-stop Big East football.
"Four different time zones will also allow us the potential to schedule four football games on a given Saturday back to back to back to back without any overlap," Marinatto said. "It's a powerful model and one that we believe will be unmatched by any other conference."
The league still hopes to arrive at a new 12-team entity, though it looks like another of its original targets won't be joining the league. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported Wednesday night that Air Force, which had been courted as another western addition to the Big East, was opting to stay in the Mountain West Conference, a move that could impact the league's ability to lure another military academy in Navy.
The conference took a hit in basketball, losing Pitt, Cincinnati and West Virginia and replacing them with Houston, SMU and UCF; perhaps the next two additions will appease its basketball half, with options like Temple and Memphis among the possibilities.