- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2012


Now that Navy has signed on to join the Big East as a football-only member beginning in 2015, conference commissioner John Marinatto needs just one more school to fulfill his desire of 12 teams broken into East and West divisions.

But before he continues that quest, he should reopen negotiations for incoming members Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida; the deal is off unless they pry away their current league’s name and bring it with them.

Because Conference USA is a much more appropriate moniker for the amalgamation that Marinatto is constructing.

Navy has cast its lot with a conference that, if nothing else, refuses to go down without a fight. If adding schools in Texas, California (San Diego State) and Idaho (Boise State) smacks of desperation, it’s in response to college football’s shifting landscape and growing crevices that might reduce the Big East to rubble and irrelevance.

Those rumbling forces convinced Navy to relinquish the football independence it relished for 133 years, though coach Ken Niumatalolo’s metaphor isn’t based on tectonic plates and fault lines.

“There’s a storm getting ready to come, a hurricane,” he told reporters after Tuesday’s announcement. “Those that are in homes don’t worry about it. It’s the people outside looking in that need a place for refuge. … We had to find a home, and we feel like we found a great home in the Big East.”

A great home? That’s debatable. You could argue that the Big East is a lowly fixer-upper trying to masquerade as a stately mansion in the Bowl Championship Series neighborhood. But the reconfigured Big East still looks out of its league compared to the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12.

However, Marinatto might be onto something with this strategy. Residing in the cheapest house in the most expensive neighborhood isn’t too shabby. Besides, even if the Big East loses its automatic entry to a BCS bowl — a distinct possibility in 2014, when all automatic bids might disappear — the league isn’t much worse than the ACC, if at all.

And it’s clearly stronger than the five non-BCS leagues (C-USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC and WAC). The equivalent of starter homes, those properties will remain grouped on the wrong side of the tracks, regardless, whenever the shakeup ends.

Marinatto has done the math. There are 11 conferences in Division I (or the Football Bowl Subdivision, if you insist), and one them has to be rated No. 6, the line of demarcation between haves and haves-not.

As crazy as it sounds for the “Big East” to have schools in four different time zones, that’s the league’s only shot at maintaining its football profile — maligned, but nonetheless national.

“When people look back, they will mark this as a truly historic day for the Big East,” Marinatto said of Navy’s membership. “America’s first national football conference is adding a program with true national appeal.” He said Navy’s willingness to give up its independence “demonstrates the value of our new expansion model and the long-term viability of our football product.”

For Navy, the move is a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained. The Midshipmen should benefit from the Big East’s next TV package (2014), which Marinatto hopes will rival the long-term, billion-dollar contracts signed last year by the ACC and Pac-12. Navy’s route to first-tier bowls will be clearer, provided it wins enough games. And scheduling becomes more simplified, while leaving intact the traditional rivalries with Army, Air Force and Notre Dame.

But Navy is risking its ability to perform like it has over the past nine seasons. The Middies are 75-40 in that span, good for the 20th-most wins in the nation. They’ve been to a bowl game in eight of the past nine seasons, and they have 18 victories against BCS schools — the most of any non-BCS school. The Big East schedule leaves just one open date to schedule a likely victory.

It will be a challenge for Navy to compete regularly against Big East schools with better athletes and lower academic requirements. The fear among some observers is that Navy will have an experience like Army, which joined Conference USA in 1998 and went 9-41 in the league before departing after the 2004 season.

“Are we biting off more than we can chew?” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t know, but our players are excited about it.”

Probably not as excited as Marinatto when he envisions promotional opportunities in the conference’s new markets in Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Fla., and San Diego. As long as another wave of expansion doesn’t lead to four 16-team superconferences in football, the Big East should survive, which seemed unlikely before its radical, aggressive growth spurt.

But Marinatto has to lose the name. C-USA has baggage and might be out of the question, anyway. So I suggest the following: From here on, it’s no longer the Big East conference.

It’s the Coast-to-Coast conference. We can call it the 3C for short.

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