Finally, the wait is over.
Amidst all the turmoil surrounding the Big East and the mass exodus from that conference over the past few months, the University of Louisville is finally jumping off of the sinking ship. At a 7am conference call this morning, the presidents of the Atlantic Coast Conference unanimously voted to accept Louisville as the 14th member of the ACC, set to replace the University of Maryland when they depart for the Big Ten in 2014.
Now, time for a sigh of relief. No more speculation about who would be the next school ripped from Louisville’s conference lineup. No more sour stomach at the lack of appeal from the new member institutions the conference tries to add in. No more anxiously awaiting an invitation from somewhere, praying not to get left in the dust again.
In 2003, following the news that a host of nationally relevant football powers were leaving the Big East for the ACC, Louisville AD Tom Jurich accepted an invite to the Big East conference set to begin in 2005. Jurich and company effectively shored up two big problems facing the university: first, that we were a historically dominant basketball program playing in a less-than-stellar basketball league. The Big East (then) was a national powerhouse in basketball, a league made even more impressive by the Conference-USA additions, including Louisville. Second, Louisville used to be the Boise State of the BCS system, the school on the outside looking in. The Big East had a seat at the big table, and so joining the conference gave Louisville a guaranteed shot not to be left out anymore.
As conference realignment has hit hard the last couple years, the Big East no longer offers Louisville either of those opportunities. The basketball league is a shell of itself without Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia; Notre Dame fled as well. Connecticut is barred from the postseason, and had been openly pleading with the ACC for an invite, too. The Big East is still no slouch with Georgetown and Villanova, but the balance of power clearly shifted to the ACC. Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse all in one conference? Not to mention the “lesser” teams of the ACC tend to outplay the lesser teams of the Big East routinely (both leagues legitimately went about ten deep before, but a lot more under those ten in the Big East, is my point).
In football, the Big East has lost nearly all it’s schools at this point, trying desperately to ban together as many marquee programs as are left in the nation by stretching across the country and asking schools to only take a cut of the football profits, and by scraping every penny it can out of the remaining Conference-USA big markets. As a result of the new playoff system, the Big East is guaranteed a seat within the six-bowl structure only if it’s champion is ranked higher than any of the other non-power leagues. Big East commissioner Mike Aresco can call that a win all he wants with the perceived prestige of the Big East, but considering it’s membership consists of basically just Conference-USA at this point, then the Mountain West has the real edge. Especially with Boise State, Brigham Young, and San Diego State all talking about a return to the Mountain West at this point; not to mention that the contracts signed by most of the new Big East additions have outs in them should the league’s new media deal not exceed the amount originally promised. The Mountain West and Conference-USA have more to gain by retaining their members and forming a de facto football mega-conference instead of letting their core teams go off to essentially form two divisions for the Big East.
Tom Jurich’s decision to apply for the membership position to be vacated by Maryland and join the ACC is simple, really: survival. The Big East appears to be, yet again, on it’s last leg. Going to the ACC is really just a ten-year delay on doing the same thing he did back in 2005: he’s securing Louisville’s place in the best basketball conference in the country, and he’s securing Louisville’s place in the big-bowl BCS conversation.
Louisville gets the best of both worlds, ACC and Big East. Considering that the bulk of the teams constituting the Big East have moved on, most to the ACC, many rivalries will remain intact. Rick Pitino doesn’t lose his precious connection to New York with Syracuse still on board. Charlie Strong is looking at a football upgrade with Clemson, Florida State, and Virginia Tech in conference. He gets to keep his recruiting ties, fighting it out for Miami signees, considering we share a conference with the Hurricanes now. And now the basketball slug-fest like we saw last Saturday night in the Battle 4 Atlantis between Louisville and Duke will become a regularly scheduled conference game.
Certainly the best part of the deal is basketball, because the football conference is largely considered to be the next worst in the pack of the “big six,” ahead of the soon-to-be-defunct Big East but squarely behind the SEC, Big XII, Pac-12 and Big Ten. But the league does get a little deeper with Louisville coming aboard, and with regularly scheduled visits from Notre Dame (five games a year).
For my part, I still think John Swofford has a very simple next step that unfortunately, I think he’ll never take: invite Cincinnati and Connecticut.
For the last year, Connecticut seemed to be the favorite to join the ACC. In the last week, the rumors of Louisville becoming the 14th member became the new hot rumor. Just yesterday, Cincinnati made their case. To me, the math is simple: 13 + 3 = 16. Be the first conference to go Super-16, take the Connecticut team that the ACC presidents really wanted in the first place for its academic and basketball résumés, and pick up the Cincinnati school that is as well rounded as Louisville athletically, higher rated academically, and which would add the recruiting hot-state of Ohio to the ACC’s map. As far as basketball is concerned, you’d be talking about the two divisions of the ACC being the two best conferences in the country. And as far as football is concerned, with the only exception being West Virginia in the Big XII, the ACC will have absorbed every Big East football champion since the 2005 realignment (Cincinnati 2008, 2009, 2011t; Connecticut 2007t, 2010t; Louisville 2006, 2011t; and Pittsburgh 2010t). So there is some quality in that quantity, as well. The ACC can end the Big Ten’s poaching into the northeast territory (unless they want to assist in paying an ACC member’s $50 million exit fee), finish off the Big East as it exists today, and re-negotiate a new TV deal (their current deal covers 14 teams already, even though Louisville may be considered an upgrade over Maryland in key areas).
Why will this never happen? Notre Dame. The ACC is still holding out hope that it’s new pseudo-relationship with Notre Dame could turn into full-fledged membership in the future. But Notre Dame enjoys it’s football independence, and somehow, I doubt a National Championship game berth this year is going to affect their desire to remain independent. Even though it took a ridiculously large number of chips to fall exactly the right way in order for it to happen, Notre Dame will look at their current independent setup as the best way instead of what it really was this year, the lucky way. The pollsters will surely push either Alabama or Georgia back to the #1 spot after the SEC title game this week, meaning the luck of the Irish pays off only because both of the SEC championship game participants, Florida, Kansas State, and Oregon lost games at inopportune times.
The ACC should just say okay, Notre Dame stays independent, and snatch up Cincinnati and Connecticut while they are available. Because I really look at Louisville’s departure from the Big East as the final straw that will break the camel’s back. Tom Jurich has preached solidarity and Rick Pitino has begged for more basketball schools in the Big East up to the point that it just can’t come true anymore. So if the Big East dissolves, those schools are going to need a home somewhere, and Cincinnati will surely be high on the Big XII’s list (right behind BYU) now that Louisville is off the table. The ACC might still be able to swing Connecticut because of geography in the end, but losing the connection to the state of Ohio isn’t something that the ACC should risk while we all know that Cincinnati wants in. In terms of future viability, think of it just like the presidential election this year: the campaigning is going to be heavy in Ohio for the Big XII, maybe the Big Ten, and maybe even the SEC, should they decide to grab one of the last big schools available from a dying conference without having to pay the exit fee of a school from a major conference.
All outside conference expansion talk aside, today is a good day for Louisville fans. For football fans, the ACC might not have the “sex appeal” that the Big XII could offer, but the ACC does have a seat at the big table, they do have some big national names, and heck, they include the vast majority of our Big East rivals.
I’d love to see Cincinnati along for the ride, but the ACC presidents’ desire to leave a vacant seat at the table for Notre Dame is going to play a huge factor in whether or not that traditional rival sees us every year or not. We sacrificed Memphis for a move to the Big East, so we can survive without Cincinnati. We’ll still have non-conference games with Kentucky in all sports, for sure (the administrators at either school would be insane to leave those games off the calendar).
From a travel perspective, we’ll get to eliminate those cross-country trips the Big East was preparing us to take in having league football games played in California and Idaho; pair that saved cash with the extra money we’ll get from the ACC over the Big East for membership, and the athletics budget (which was already higher than any school in the current ACC to begin with) gets a nice boost. Whatever Big East exit fee we have to pay (should there even be one, in the event the Big East ceases to exist) will pay for itself one year in the ACC.
For basketball fans, it’s the biggest win yet. Instead of remaining in a Big East depleted of many of it’s top teams, we’ll be joining those top teams in a new league which was already considered to be option 2 if not 1b in the “best basketball conference” argument. We’re now going to be part of undoubtedly the best basketball conference (just imagine if Cincy and UCONN came as well…I digress).
I can’t blame Mike Aresco for the death of the Big East – it was dead upon his arrival. He did everything he could to keep intact the mess he inherited from Marianatto, including this notion of going coast to coast in football. Even this week, San Diego State’s president confirmed his school’s commitment to the Big East plan. But what he, and most of the other incoming school presidents failed to disclose is that wonderful loophole that almost all the incoming schools’ contracts included – the “out” should a new media deal fall through or not be as lucrative as promised. As more schools exit, that market value drops below what it was before, forget about increasing. Boise State and San Diego State? They’re probably out. The discussions with BYU? You can forget them getting involved. Houston’s contract with the Big East is the one that opened Pandora’s Box about the “out” clause, so you can guarantee they’ll never join the Big East, nor will their local partner SMU, either. Navy has already stressed concerns about the Big East’s stability, and Air Force will shy away again for the same reasons.
That leaves the Big East with a membership consisting of Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis, South Florida, Temple, Tulane, and East Carolina for football assuming all the above schools back out. We know that Cincinnati and Connecticut have applied for the ACC already, so consider them gone. Who could join up with UCF, Memphis, USF, Temple, Tulane and ECU to make the Big East viable?
I’ll get off my soapbox now and stop pushing for the ACC to admit Cincinnati and Connecticut; just know that it would be a great deal, John Swofford!
Here’s to a bright future in a league full of schools looking to make a name for themselves instead of make a break for the exit door (I’m looking at you Clemson and Florida State, you need to stick around for this to work!).