- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The departure of Miami and Virginia Tech could be a precursor to a split of the Big East Conference into two smaller leagues.

The 24-year-old conference soon will decide whether to divide into one league of football schools and another of basketball-only programs. Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said he expects to determine that within two months, and until that matter is resolved, any Big East expansion plans are on hold.

“Are we going to move ahead collectively … or are our members going to elect to separate and move forward as two separate conferences?” Tranghese said. “That’s what our [university] presidents are looking at right now. That’s a decision that will have to be made in the near future because we can’t proceed until we have an answer to that question.”

That statement, made yesterday at the league’s annual media day at Giants Stadium, comes with the league reeling from the defection of its top two football schools to the ACC for the 2004-05 school year. The Big East will be left with six football schools, five nonfootball schools and Notre Dame, which plays football as an independent and all other sports as a conference member.

The conference plans to decide on a direction quickly and would offer any invitations to potential candidates during the winter so the schools can become members for the 2005-06 school year.

Timing is key; the Bowl Championship Series television contract ends after next season. The BCS controls most bowl money, and its six conference champions — the ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and PAC-10 — are guaranteed berths in the four lucrative BCS bowls. The other two spots go to at-large teams.

But Miami and Virginia Tech’s departure has left the Big East in jeopardy. It would need to expand and convince television executives and the five other conferences it is worthy of remaining a BCS conference.

“We can’t be evaluated until we know who we are,” said Tranghese, who added the BCS negotiations will begin in September 2004. “That to me is the driving force. We can’t invite people to play until 2005-06 because the ACC concluded its expansion on the last day of June.”

Players and coaches from the Big East’s eight football schools talked about the upcoming season yesterday, but the overriding topic was the Big East’s future with three of those teams in departure mode. Last year, football-only member Temple was asked to leave by the conference after the 2004-05 season based on its poor on-field performance.

Connecticut recently moved up to Division I-A in football and will become the conference’s sixth team next season after the departure of Virginia Tech, Miami and Temple.

Surprisingly, there was little animosity toward the Hurricanes or Hokies as they head for the security and big-money potential of the ACC.

“There isn’t a coach in this room that if their school was involved wouldn’t have done the same thing,” said Boston College coach Tom O’Brien, whose school, along with Syracuse, was spurned by the ACC. “It was important for Boston College to be aligned with Miami. As far as Miami is concerned, it holds the keys to the castle.”

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer called his program’s move bittersweet. The coach knows the Hokies used the Big East as a vehicle to becoming a national power.

“I’m happy for Tech because we are right in the heart of ACC country,” Beamer said. “We wanted the Big East to stay together. If not, we wanted to be part of expansion.”

Miami coach Larry Coker, who led his program to the national championship in his first season two years ago and the title game last season, didn’t see the ACC as a boost for the football team. However, he understood it helps the school’s other programs. Coker said the lame-duck season will be strange.

“It is a little awkward from a personal standpoint and what the other teams are dealing with,” said Coker, whose team has won the last three Big East titles. “Of course, everybody has their own agenda.”

And Miami’s is to win another national title. The Hurricanes again are an overwhelming favorite to win the league and are ranked as high as No.2 nationally in preseason polls. Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh also are ranked in the top 15 of many polls.

In a poll among reporters, Miami was picked to finish first in the Big East on 21 of 24 ballots, followed by Pittsburgh (one first-place vote), Virginia Tech (two), West Virginia, Boston College, Syracuse, Temple and Rutgers.

Coker wasn’t in favor of going to the ACC, but his players liked the move.

“It’s time to change,” said Miami’s Antrel Rolle, a junior defensive back. “It’s time for Miami to go over and try to dominate another conference.”

Hurricanes senior linebacker Jonathan Vilma put it this way: “A family doesn’t always stay a family.”

The Hokies and Hurricanes can expect some hostility on the road in their final season. O’Brien said he plans to write a letter to Boston College students to make sure they act appropriately. West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez won’t take that precaution.

“I don’t want them to throw things,” Rodriguez said. “That would be a penalty. … I’m sure there will be lots of emotion.”

And certainly lots of changes ahead.

“It’s sad,” Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris said of losing two marquee programs. “Real sad. But it’s out of my hands. It’s over.”

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