While fans can use various on-field accomplishments to measure their favorite conferences, there's really only one metric for a commissioner's success rate: whether or not he wins the trust of his conference presidents.
Big East commissioner
Kudos to former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg (who left in 2007) and Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese (2009) for getting out when they did.
Over the past decade, university presidents and chancellors have exercised a more hands-on role in major athletics decisions, and while the intent is noble, it's hard to see how athletics has benefitted. Having a bunch of distinguished physics professors and English scholars help negotiate billion-dollar television packages makes about as much sense as having conference commissioners deliver physics and English lectures.
In the ideal working dynamic, the presidents put their trust in the hands of a capable commissioner like Mike Slive or Jim Delany to do the heavy lifting, then come in at the end to give their stamp of approval. Pac-12 presidents took little time before entrusting their 2009 hire Larry Scott, and in turn he's radically reinvented that conference and made the presidents' institutions a whole lot of money.
Contrast that to the Big 12, where Beebe walked into a mess of conflicting egos and political grandstanding that only grew worse when Realignment Mania kicked into high gear two years ago. First Texas and Nebraska butted heads, then Texas A&M and everybody else. When schools started fleeing, the presidents first kicked Beebe to the curb, then, under the direction of interim successor Chuck Neinas, proceeded to adopt nearly all the key recommendations (equal revenue sharing, grants of TV rights) Beebe had been pushing for years.
Marinatto isn't quite as sympathetic a figure. The career Big Easter seemed in over his head from nearly the day he replaced Tranghese, and his biggest mistake may have come before he even rose to the commissioner's seat: As Tranghese's former lieutenant he helped devise the awkward marriage by which eight FBS football schools and eight primarily basketball-driven schools continued to operate as one entity.
Less than three years later, most of those disparate parties are still clinging together, the last guests left at an increasingly uncool party. While Marinatto deserves part of the blame, his presidents should garner as much if not more.
The Big East had no shortage of opportunities to avoid its present state of dysfunction. If anything, it was operating from a position of power once it became clear two years ago that the Big Ten had no designs on its members. With a potentially lucrative television negotiation upcoming this fall, the league talked openly about becoming proactive in maintaining its status in the football landscape, which began with the addition of TCU in November 2010 ... and then stalled out.
Marinatto's demise may be most directly tied to remaining loyal to the league's basketball ranks after it became clear football would dictate the Big East's fate. While schools like Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Louisville pushed the league to go after more attractive football programs, the presidents stopped and waited on ... Villanova, a move that never came to fruition. Against Marinatto's own advice, the presidents shot down a new ESPN deal last year that would have given the league stability, choosing instead to take their chances on the open market.
In the meantime, the ACC swooped in and grabbed Pitt and Syracuse, the beginning of the end for both Marinatto and the Big East as we know it. Pitt in particular got tired of waiting for the Big East to get its football house in order. West Virginia followed shortly thereafter, with Louisville and UConn practically begging to come along. TCU, which had agreed to join the league, chose instead to head to the Big 12.
Given the dire circumstances, Marinatto did everything in his power to rebuild the league. There were no feasible targets that would have allowed the Big East to maintain favored BCS status, but he wasn't going to make the same mistake again. By going big (Houston, SMU, UCF, Temple, Navy) and national (Boise State and San Diego State), there was no mistaking the Big East's desire to protect football. Marinatto threw Rick Pitino and the basketball guys a bone by adding Memphis.
So of course, precipitating Marinatto's ouster, "the basketball members in the Big East were upset that they had no say in the expansion process," a source told ESPN.com.
Perhaps congratulations are in order for Marinatto getting out, though in reality this is a crushing day for the Providence native.
In a statement that likely reflected his ousters' wishes more than his own, Marinatto said he is leaving so that someone else can lead the conference into its upcoming TV negotiations. Certainly, there's no shortage of qualified individuals to do that. Associate Commissioner Nick Carparelli Jr., the league's "football guy," would be the logical in-house candidate, but it's probably going to take a strong outside personality to unite this band of misfits. Certainly a call should go out to Greg Shaheen, the recently ousted NCAA tournament czar who negotiated that property's $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner.
Whomever the league approaches should tread carefully. Bob Bowlsby, the former Iowa and Stanford AD who last week accepted the Big 12 job, was asked on a conference call about concerns that his job would entail being Texas' "puppet," one of the lingering criticisms of Beebe. "I would just suggest that you do a little homework on me," Bowlsby said. "I haven't been very good at being a puppet over the years."
Similarly, the new Big East commissioner must command the respect and authority to turn around and tell the presidents who hire him: "I've got this," handing over a finished contract for them to sign once he, in theory, gets done bidding ESPN, Fox and NBC against each other.
College athletics is not the same business guys like Beebe and Marinatto grew up in. It's a place where new-age commissioners like Scott implement long-term visions for their brand, then grow it accordingly, rather than cautiously waiting to see first what might happen somewhere else.
In other words, it's a completely illogical place for career academics. But everyone has a boss, including the commissioners.