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USF Bulls quiet as Big East ponders conference realignment options

As rampant speculation goes, the Big East surely prefers potential addition to subtraction.

After days of reports of possible losses following Sunday's announcement that Pittsburgh and Syracuse will be joining the ACC, much of the attention surrounding the league shifted Wednesday to options for new Big East members to offset the conference's departures.

While most potential additions are attributed to unnamed sources, East Carolina unabashedly announced it had applied to join the Big East, even as the Newark Star-Ledger reported that the presidents and athletic directors from the Big East's football schools had eliminated from consideration all Conference USA schools except Central Florida.

Could this be the break the Knights have been waiting for to join USF in the Big East? That could depend on how many schools the Big East seeks to add. After the departures and the addition next year of TCU, the Big East would have seven football teams and 15 in basketball. Several national reports had Navy and Air Force as the Big East's top targets, joining the league as football-only members, with Army as another possibility if one of the other military academies joined the fold. UCF has been mentioned, as well as Temple, which was kicked out of the Big East in 2004 for low attendance.

After a meeting Tuesday in New York, Big East commissioner John Marinatto told the Associated Press that the seven remaining football schools (USF, West Virginia, Rutgers, Connecticut, Louisville and Cincinnati, plus TCU) had committed to stay in the league, but that seems like an overstatement, judging by the tone of statements released by member schools Wednesday.

Connecticut's president issued a statement that did not so much as mention the Big East, asking fans "for their patience during this time" and stating that the school "will always do what is in the best interests for the University of Connecticut." The Associated Press reported that UConn had not committed to remaining in the Big East.

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck mentioned the Big East meeting in his statement but nothing proclaiming loyalty to the league, reiterating that "we are, and will remain, a national player in college athletics."

Marinatto insisted he will hold Pittsburgh and Syracuse to their contractual obligation of 27 months' notice, meaning they wouldn't join the ACC until the summer of 2014, though some saw that stance as legal posturing intended to leverage a heavier buyout fee than the Big East's regular $5 million in exchange for an earlier exit.

Marinatto said the league isn't under a tight deadline to find new members, but it might be prudent for the Big East to move quickly and insulate itself against additional defections from current members.

USF football coach Skip Holtz, who coached at East Carolina for five seasons and led the Pirates to C-USA championships in 2008 and 2009, has said he'd like to see ECU in the Big East. If UCF joined the Big East, USF would have a natural rival — with both schools geographically isolated from the rest of the league — but lose the advantage of being in a more prestigious conference. The Bulls went 4-0 against the Knights from 2005-08.

Adding the military academies would add to the Big East football lineup without complicating its already large basketball roster. It's possible, too, that Temple could join the league as a football-only member, knowing that another Philadelphia school, Villanova, might try to block the Owls' joining as an all-sports member. Villanova, which plays football at the I-AA level, is another option to join the league in football without interfering with the basketball lineup.

How quickly the Big East acts remains to be seen, and there is still the potential for additional losses as other BCS conferences decide whether to expand themselves. USF athletic director Doug Woolard, who spoke with reporters Tuesday and reiterated his belief that the Bulls are in a strong position, declined comment Wednesday. USF president Judy Genshaft, who was also in New York for the Big East meetings, was not available.

"I think everybody is waiting to see what happens in the Big 12," UCF coach George O'Leary told the Orlando Sentinel. "And the Big East's now shy people. So it'll be interesting to see what happens. You just want to be in the mix when it all settles."

USF Bulls quiet as Big East ponders conference realignment options 09/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 10:25pm]
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