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Big East still hopeful, but tectonic shifts have league's fate in doubt

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma remembers when everyone affiliated with the Big East -- then a tight-knight cadre of northeastern schools -- could fit comfortably into a room at the Ponte Vedra Inn to discuss conference matters. When he arrived at the conference's annual meetings Sunday, Auriemma saw representatives from Memphis, Southern Methodist, Central Florida, Boise State and San Diego State. Auriemma will see longtime colleagues from Syracuse and Pittsburgh on the court, but he will no longer see them in the meetings.

"Last night, there were a hundred-and-some people," Auriemma said Monday. "You've got people who are here, but they don't really vote. Then you've got people who aren't here who are going to be playing this year. It's just the most unusual situation I've ever been a part of."

When (if?) Navy joins the league for football in 2015, the Big East will have 13 football members and 18 total members. The mood this week seems hopeful that the coast-to-coast arrangement will thrive. But as college sports' tectonic plates continue to shift, league members wait and hope the conference can remain intact until September, when the Big East can begin negotiating a new media rights deal that could offer some security. Unfortunately for most of the delegations here this week, the decisions that will affect the Big East's future are being made in other leagues. "Somebody in the Big 12 decides, 'This is what we're going to do,'" Auriemma said. "Everybody in the Big East is going, 'Holy [something that isn't usually holy]. What happens to us?' It's just the craziest thing."

While blame has been tossed liberally at recently ousted commissioner John Marinatto, it isn't anyone's fault that the Big East roster is so tenuous at the moment. The market decides which schools -- and therefore which conferences -- have value, and the market has decided that the Big East's collection of schools is not worth as much as several other groups of schools. Last week's announcement of an SEC/Big 12 partnership for a postseason football game, coupled with grousing a week earlier about the amount the ACC secured in its new media rights deal, only crystallized the new order. When the BCS was created prior to the 1998 season, there were six major conferences. Now, there are four: the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. The ACC is No. 5, and the Big East is No. 6. If the Big 12 chooses to expand and a school climbs uphill from the ACC, the resulting shuffle will harm the Big East. With the exception of non-football member Notre Dame, everyone in the Big East is at the mercy of some other league. That makes it quite difficult to plan for the future.

"All we can do is take what we have," South Florida football coach Skip Holtz said. "We don't have the luxury to project five years down the road and make our decisions predicated on that. We're making our decisions on where we are today."

A year ago, UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun emerged from a meeting and declared the relationship between the football and non-football members couldn't last. "My own personal opinion -- and I won't probably see this -- in the next couple of years, four or five years down the road, I think you'll see a separation," Calhoun said in May 2011. "I think it's inevitable." At the time, the Big East seemed to have survived the worst of realignment. The league had turned down a lucrative extension from ESPN because leaders hoped to get more on the open market. The Big 12 seemed the league most in danger of falling apart because of squabbling between members.

The Big 12 did lose Texas A&M and Missouri, but it invaded the Big East to replace those schools with TCU and West Virginia. Meanwhile, the ACC swiped Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Big East finally expanded, but the moves forced the league to enlarge its borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific and created an unwieldy group that still doesn't seem secure. Meanwhile, the Big 12 schools have agreed in principle to a grant-of-rights deal that will lock in members until at least 2025.

Still, those who have spent years in the Big East noted a marked difference between this year and 2005, when the exits of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech cast a pall over the meetings and left coaches and administrators wondering if the conference could hold together. "It was a funeral around here," Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey said. "Everyone was saying, 'Woe is me. We're done.' I remember [Syracuse coach Jim] Boeheim saying, 'You'll be all right in the Big Ten.' ... We didn't even cover any business."

Monday, coaches and administrators discussed the league's entry into the Dallas, San Diego, Memphis and Orlando markets. Representatives from NBC and FOX made presentations, giving league members confidence that those networks will pay to obtain the Big East's rights if current partner ESPN doesn't offer a lucrative enough deal during its exclusive negotiating window.

Still, questions remain unanswered. Boise State, which offers the best hope of football relevance if it comes on board as a football-only member in 2013, still doesn't have a home for its other sports. It had planned to use the WAC, but realignment has decimated that league to the point where it likely will dissolve. San Diego State, which will achieve the distinction of being the first school to concurrently belong to the Big East (in football) and the Big West (in everything else), has tried to convince the Big West to take Boise State's other sports, but Big West members have been reluctant.

Boise State reaffirmed its commitment to the Big East late last week, but the Mountain West stands poised to keep the school as an all-sports member if all else fails. At the moment, the Broncos seem determined to play football in the Big East, but if they can't find a home for their other sports, that could change. If Boise State doesn't come, San Diego State doesn't have to come, either.

"We're trying to gather information," Boise State athletic director Mark Coyle said. "It's changing for everybody. We're in a unique spot because of the WAC and what they've gone through with some of the transformation they've had. We continue to talk with everybody and try to find the best long-term decision for our institution."

Meanwhile, everyone continues to watch the Big 12. The chair of Florida State's board of trustees popped off more than a week ago that the Seminoles should consider leaving the ACC for the Big 12, but so far no one in the Big 12 -- which won't have a permanent commissioner until Bob Bowlsby takes over June 15 -- has indicated whether that league would want to expand. If it does, any poaching from the ACC probably would result in similar poaching from the Big East by the ACC. And don't forget that Big East member Louisville has already once tried to bolt for the Big 12 only to be outmaneuvered by West Virginia.

The contingent that seems the happiest with the Big East at the moment is the one that could most easily defect to another league. Notre Dame's Brey said he loves the league and the opportunity to play and recruit on the East Coast, where Notre Dame has a huge alumni base. "We're in with both feet," he said. "I don't want to lose the Big East." Brey is lucky. Notre Dame wants badly to remain independent in football, so unlike his counterparts at Louisville, UConn and Rutgers, he doesn't have to worry about the conference whims of the sport that drives the train at most schools. (That could change if NBC doesn't want to keep paying top dollar to televise Notre Dame football, but those negotiations have yet to happen.) "I've not been concerned about where our football program is going to yank us," Brey said. "At least not now."

Meanwhile, the rest of the Big East members wait to learn if realignment will yank them or their league again. "When these people make these moves, you don't want to come out and be critical," UConn's Auriemma said. "Because, you know what? Your president could come out and do the same thing tomorrow."

Auriemma said the realignment waves have battered college sports so hard that he has almost become numb to the constant fretting over conference membership. He worries that frequent change may simply be the new normal. "Two years from now, you may be back down from here talking to some other people," Auriemma said. "That's just the nature of where everything is right now."

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