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Monday, September 26, 2011

Comfortably Numb

(And no, that's not the new studio album from the Northwestern University Marching Band)

It was just over a week ago that the announcement was made that Pittsburgh and Syracuse would be the latest two schools to leave the Big East conference for the ACC. I'll be the first to admit I was a bit blindsided; in the most recent expansion I felt, surprisingly, the the Big East was in a position of power. The ACC didn't seem to be planning any power moves and seemed ripe for fleecing from SEC expansion, while it seemed the Big East may be picking up the pieces from a decimated Big XII. There had been rumors of Texas to both coasts, via the ACC or the Pac-Tweezy, but they continue to prove to be the Great White Buffalo to all suitors. In an era of big media and big mouths, the ACC, Syracuse, and Pitt kept their wheelings and dealings surprisingly quiet until it was time to pull the trigger.

When I--along with fans of other Big East schools who fear being left behind in the superconference rapture--heard the news, the proclamations of the falling sky was loud and clear. As a USF alum, I'll admit I feared a return to Conference USA or the like. A look at the map of Big East and Big XII leftovers, had Texas, Texas A&M, OU, and Oklahoma State headed west as it seemed was evident, shows a surprisingly neat east-west swath bounded roughly by I-70 and I-90 with three notable outliers: Baylor, TCU, and USF. Three also happens to be the magic number of schools that would need to be left out to fit into the neat little 64 team scenario. But in the past week, a bit more news has come to light that puts superconference talk on hold, at least for the time being. The Pac-12 has stated that they are staying at that very number. The remaining members of the Big XII have pledged allegiance to one another, to at a confort level that has allowed them to legally clear Texas A&M to make the jump to the SEC, which is now official. So while the ACC won the race to 14, 16 still has not been realized by anyone and doesn't seem to be a done deal, at least not yet.

It's easy to place blame on Syracuse and Pitt for this move and the then-believe demise of the Big East, but quite frankly, I can't blame them. This isn't the situation from 2005 that led Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech out of the conference and USF, Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, and DePaul in. At this juncture, there is credible reason to believe that the Big East was in mortal danger, and Pitt and Cuse were heading for more stable ground. I can't blame them for that; in fact, you've heard me in this very blog state that while I love the Big East and what it has meant to USF, I'd welcome a move to the ACC. Similarly, I'm hard-pressed to blame the ACC for poaching. While I don't know which side started it, we know that Pitt and Cuse applied to the ACC, and similarly, they had reason to believe that if they didn't make steps towards the 16 team reality, they too would be left behind.

The ACC looks stronger for the change. They do northern outlier Boston College a solid by bridging the gap between College Park and Chestnut Hill. They bring in two programs who, if they don't strengthen the football picture, certainly won't weaken it. They make an already strong basketball conference downright beastly, and they move ACC lacrosse one step closer to being a real conference with an AQ they don't need.

That said, I'm interested to see the culture of the new conference, and I'll have a front row seat for it. Certainly before the last expansion, and even afterwards with the exception of BC (and to a lesser extent, UMCP and Miami) the ACC was at its core a southeastern conference. The Syracuse and Pittsburgh basketball fans will be trading in Madison Square Garden for the Greensboro Coliseum; Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim has already made his voice heard on that change. The venue change is palpable, and that's to say nothing for the potential culture shock. And while the geographic center of the ACC is still pretty close to Greensboro, the addition of two more northern schools may have the conference thinking of locales like DC, Philly, and maybe even NYC itself for both the conference tournament and the football championship. And while it's an interesting proposition, consider the likes of Miami or Florida State--and their respective fanbases--headed to Philly in December.

So what's next for the ACC? Will the make the push to 16? Rumor has it they have already turned down an application from West Virginia, which helps hammer home my point that conference expansion has little to do with competitive acumen and everything to do with media markets. UConn and Rutgers have been rumored as potential targets; picking up both would strengthen their northeastern/NYC presence and push the conference to 16. It's worth noting, from the band perspective, that they'd be a conference 16 teams deep with still no Sudler to speak of. And while I realize football drives the bus, I honestly think that the ACC should look at Hopkins as a lacrosse-only expansion target. While Hopkins has been traditionally independent, three of their annual rivals, Syracuse, UVA, and College Park, are now in one place in the ACC. Might not be a bad line to cast.

Finally, what will become of the Big East? Well if the carousel has stopped here, or even with the departure of Rutgers and/or UConn, I think the plan is what it was back in 2005: Rebuild. ECU has reportedly already applied (this NC resident and Conference-USA-era alum would welcome this); Temple's recent success has had them mentioned as a possibility, despite their history with the conference. And there's still the possibility the Big XII will destabilize, most likely through a Mizzou-to-SEC move. I can speculate with the best of them, but the real answer is that we'll all just have to stay tuned.
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