- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

What Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino called the “worst kept secret in sports” became a reality yesterday when the Big East invited five Conference USA schools to join the league after losing three of its members to the rival ACC.

Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul will join the league for the 2005-06 season. Marquette and DePaul will compete in all sports except football, while the other three will be full members.

The Big East acted quickly in response to losing football powers Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech to the ACC. From a basketball standpoint, the five-school expansion makes the 16-school Big East arguably the best league in the nation.

“For me personally, the Big East is where it all got started,” said Pitino, who coached Providence for two seasons (1985-87), reaching the Final Four there in 1987.

“It’s great for our athletes to compete in maybe the strongest and deepest men’s basketball conference in the history of the game. And it’s unbelievable for the fans, who are now going to see competition like they’ve never witnessed before in the great tradition of Louisville basketball. It’s a win-win for everybody involved from the fans, our academic institution, the student-athletes and as a sidebar, me personally, just because I have so many great memories in the Big East.”

Marquette, Cincinnati and Louisville all made the NCAA tournament last season, with Marquette reaching the Final Four. Two weeks ago at Conference USA’s media day, several coaches — including Pitino and South Florida’s Robert McCullum — said they would prefer to join the Big East next season and not wait another year.

“It’s like a divorce,” an unidentified athletic director told the Tampa Tribune. “Once the divorce is final, why would you still live in that house for another year if you had another house waiting for you to move into?”

That’s because BC has not cleared out its belongings. The Eagles aren’t scheduled to join the ACC until 2006 unless the school pays a $5 million exit fee for leaving on short notice.

It’s highly unlikely BC will pay that fee. However, the Big East may agree on a lower dollar amount to get the Eagles out of the way and get their super basketball conference up and running for next season.

“[BC interprets] how they withdraw one way, and we interpret it a different way,” said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who is in his 14th year as Big East commissioner. “The question is can we agree on what the terms are. If someone wants to leave, they are going to leave, and $5 million isn’t going to stop anybody.”

Without the additions, the Big East probably would have ceased to exist as a football league. By bringing in Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida, the Big East maintains an eight-member league with Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia and, most importantly, could save its automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Under NCAA bylaws, a conference needs at least eight members for its schools to be eligible for a BCS bid, which is worth $12 to $14 million annually to the Big East. However, maintaining eight members doesn’t necessarily mean the Big East will remain in the BCS when the current contract expires after the 2006 bowls, particularly after losing its two marquee football programs in Virginia Tech and Miami.

“We’re still one of the six strongest football leagues in the country, and we will fulfill our contractual obligations, and I’m very confident we’ll be there in the next go-around,” Tranghese said.

Central Florida, out of the Mid-American Conference, was approached by the Big East for a football-only membership, but negotiations stalled a few weeks ago when the Big East’s presidents felt a nine-team football league wasn’t feasible. The Golden Knights accepted an all-sports invitation to join Conference USA along with fellow MAC member Marshall and Southern Methodist, Rice and Tulsa from the Western Athletic Conference.

How this expansion impacts Georgetown basketball remains to be seen. Tranghese remains undecided how the Big East will be configured — either with no divisions or with two. Tranghese did say the Big East tournament will remain a 12-team field, meaning four schools will be staying home every March.

The amount of conference games the Big East plays is still up in the air depending on what kind of television contract the conference can broker with CBS and ESPN. A new TV contract for basketball would help offset any losses from the departures of Miami, Virginia Tech and BC — a charter member of the Big East.

“With the strength in this league, we might be better off playing more conference games,” Tranghese said. “Our presidents want everybody playing everybody in the same year.”

Just playing in such a powerful league should help Georgetown coach Craig Esherick’s recruiting, and Georgetown understandably is excited about what the future holds.

“Our participation in the Big East ensures that Georgetown’s athletic teams will continue to engage in strong competition and enjoy long-standing rivalries, provides opportunities to enhance existing programs at Georgetown and other member schools and sustains the financial resources that membership brings,” Georgetown president John J. DeGiola said in an open letter to the university community.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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