- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

NEWPORT, R.I. — The Big East begins its strange season of teams coming and going.

The conference’s season in limbo essentially started Tuesday with football media day. Of the eight members represented in a ballroom at the Hotel Viking, two are leaving the league after this season (Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the Atlantic Coast Conference), one re-entered on short notice a few months ago (Temple), and the rest have been exploring options beyond the Big East. Some (Louisville and Connecticut) have expressed an interest more publicly than others (Rutgers).

One year from now, there will be six new members, coming from three different time zones — Boise, Idaho, to Orlando, Fla., — creating a coast-to-coast 12-team football conference. By the end of this month, Big East officials hope to have a new commissioner, and the league will begin working on a new television contract that ultimately will determine whether this far-flung group can become a viable long-term entity.

Only one year ago, John Marinatto was in Newport as commissioner of the Big East, delivering a speech noting the conference had never been stronger. Back then, the Big East was waiting on the arrival of TCU in 2012 and looking at bringing in new members not to replace departing ones, but to add to what it had.

Within a few months, the league was on life support, with members bailing or looking to bail and without a long-term television deal. Marinatto resigned under pressure earlier this year. Big East football, which even in the best of times has had difficulty gaining respect on a national level, has become an easy mark for critics and fans who see the conference’s future as tenuous at best.

“It’s frustrating,” said Associated Commissioner Nick Carparelli Jr., after giving his state of the league speech. “This year is a transition year. We have two schools in this room that won’t be here in the future, and I have a lot of respect for the people that represent those schools.

“We also have a bunch of great schools we can’t wait to be a part of us, but they’re not yet. And we also have a lot of respect for where they come from. We have to get through this year, as best we can. Work on the future.”

Who will be in charge of getting that message out is to be determined. Interim Commissioner Joe Bailey said the conference presidents are considering five commissioner candidates. Names are being kept under wraps, but Bailey did say the league would like to make its choice before the season starts Labor Day weekend.

So Carparelli delivered this message: The Big East is as balanced and wide-open as any conference in the country, and that should make for compelling television viewing.

Louisville was the overwhelming pick to win the conference, receiving 24 of 28 votes in the preseason media poll, but don’t put too much stock into that.

The Cardinals went 7-6 last season, and while they have 17 returning starters, they only have nine seniors. Third-year coach Charlie Strong still is in the rebuilding process with his young team.

“Don’t get caught up in all of sudden being picked first,” Strong has warned his players. “We really haven’t been a program that’s been a consistent winner.”

South Florida, which went 1-6 in the conference last season, was picked second, and Rutgers was chosen third. Cincinnati was fourth, followed by Connecticut, Syracuse and Temple.

Louisville has ascended quickly under Strong, the former longtime Southeastern Conference defensive coordinator, but the Big East’s future is something he — and all the other coaches in the league — have had to address on the recruiting trail.

“Every kid is asking that question,” he said.

Louisville pitched itself to the Big 12, but the conference ultimately took West Virginia from the Big East. There’s still speculation that if the Big 12 does go back to 12 members, Louisville is on its wish list.

Strong tells prospects: “We will be placed in the best situation for the University of Louisville. We’ll be placed where you’re going to have a chance to go compete for a championship.”

The Bowl Championship Series is going away in two years, but for now the Big East still is still guaranteed a spot in a marquee game. The future of the league is murky, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

“Change can be a little uncomfortable sometimes,” Temple coach Steve Addazio said, “but change is exciting and it brings about great things.”

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