The seven basketball-geared Catholic schools of the Big East bolted the league en masse, rendering the conference obsolete for all intents and purposes. Of the eight teams that played in the football league in 2012, at least four are headed elsewhere in the next two years — Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big “Ten” — and the remainder are left in a limbo as perilous as that of the WAC.
The league pursued its salvation with a Manifest Destiny mentality that saw them target BCS Buster media darling Boise State along with their Mountain West foil, San Diego State, to bolster their credibility in a drastically altered college football landscape. They also reached for former Southwest Conference rivals SMU and Houston, Memphis and Tulane, and a Floridian expansion to Orlando with UCF’s addition.
The last-gasp plan failed. After next season, the Big East will no longer have guaranteed access to the post-BCS postseason structure. Now lumped with the “Group of Five” that comprise the divide between major and mid-major at the FBS level, the conference continues to slide toward obsolescence. Its best teams continue to be poached, and the league is combing through the dregs of their fellow mid-majors without regard for geography or demographics.
While the Big East has a moment of celebration in the wake of Louisville’s 33-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida on Jan. 2, the reality is that the Cardinals’ imminent departure to the ACC after next year only makes the victory hollow.
Have Big East teams stood up to powerhouses in the past? Sure… as the BCS Guru, Samuel Chi, points out at SB Nation, the Big East has a better bowl winning percentage over the past three years than EVERY other conference. But the teams that have racked up those victories — teams like West Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville — have proven by their actions that they merely viewed the conference as a rest stop en route to bigger and better deals.
The repeated poaching has resulted in the loss of both founding flagships and neophyte flagbearers of the conference. Last year it resulted in the departure of TCU to the Big XII before ever playing a league game in the Big East; this year it is Boise State reneging on their previous decision to move eastward.
In essence, the Big East has become no different than Conference USA, or the Mountain West, the two leagues it has spent the most time poaching in hopes of retaining legitimacy on any level possible. And as the tides shift and the latter of the two mid-majors starts punching back, we’re going to see the battle for supremacy in the Group of Five become even more virulent in the coming seasons.
Already this season, eleven conferences became ten when the various mid-major leagues picked the carcass of the WAC clean. Now the two preeminent mid-majors of the future college football landscape are jockeying to be the gladiator still standing come 2014. The MWC earned the biggest victory of the two leagues last week, when Boise State announced after their Las Vegas Bowl victory over Washington that they would stay in the Mountain West instead of swapping conferences.
With one haymaker, the Big East lost its most marketable asset to try to land the most possible money in an as-yet-unnegotiated TV contract. Its founders are disappearing, with the football-playing founders finding their way to newer and more stable homes and the basketball-only founders recognizing the shift in the sands and reasserting the basketball preeminence that was a staple of the original Big East mandate. Even teams it poached less than a decade ago from other leagues are seeking — and finding — new homes.
At one point the Big East thought it would boast a league that included a mix of new and historic powerhouses like Boise State, Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt and Cincinnati. In the recent past it has had teams like West Virginia, South Florida and the Bearcats on the cusp of national championship contention.
Yet it was really the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2004-05 that led the Big East down the path of obsolescence. There were only so many legitimate league-boosting mid-majors the league could poach away, stretching further and further from its geographic roots as it expanded.
Like the WAC fifteen years earlier, the Big East simply became too bloated to fund members that brought little value to the table during TV negotiations. The reversal of teams like TCU and Boise State, departing the league after accepting membership but before they’d officially joined, indicates that lack of perceived value. When a more tenable situation appeared — or the option to remain in comfortable environs reemerged — both teams jumped at the opportunity.
So while the loss of the Catholic Seven may prove to be the final nail in the Big East coffin, the real lethal injection came years earlier when the conference started bleeding its biggest assets and never found the right formula for replicating the successes of the 1990s. As the dunes blow across the college football landscape, the Big East continues to be buried further under, an oasis in peril.
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