One year after averting disaster, Big East in position of power

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- If he feared for his conference last year, Big East commissioner John Marinatto hid it well behind a wall of wisecracks and self-deprecating stories. Schlepping his luggage through the turnstile as he made his maiden voyage into the subterranean wonderland of New York's subway system; getting caught by a priest as he checked his text messages in church; comparing himself to Bud Fox and Big Ten counterpart Jim Delany to Gordon Gekko.

The jokes and the stories, fueled by a steady stream of Dunkin' Donuts coffee -- after all, Marinatto is a true son of New England -- tended to slow the questions he couldn't answer at the time. What would he do if the Big Ten raided the Big East? Would the Big East remain an automatic qualifying conference in the BCS?

A year later, Marinatto remains handy with a quip. When a reporter took a knee beside the commissioner Monday at the Big East's spring meetings, Marinatto gazed down. "Do you have something to confess?" he asked. But this time, Marinatto spoke from a position of power as he deflected questions about expansion. (It's coming; it's only a matter of whether the league will grow to 10 football schools or 12.) Then, when a question came about the league's impending media rights negotiations, Marinatto's chest swelled, and even though he sat in a chair, he seemed a foot taller.

"We sat here 12 months ago, and we were envious of what the ACC was able to do, because that reset the market," Marinatto said. "We sit here 12 months later, and the Pac-12 has reset the marketplace again. It sets the stage for us. ... College rights have been undervalued for a very long period of time. Each and every time our competitors go to the table and test the market and consequently reset it, it puts us in a positive position."

Why? The other five BCS automatic qualifying conferences are fully or partially locked down; the next rights that will come available are the primary rights for the Big Ten and Big 12. In 2016. That's a long time to wait for networks desperate to get in on some of the last television shows that people actually watch live. The Big East, despite its reputation as the weakest AQ conference in terms of football drawing power, stands to make a killing. That's why the league recently held off on a chance to re-up with ESPN. Its excellent basketball remains bankable programming, and, as Marinatto pointed out, big-conference football is an increasingly valuable commodity.

When Big East officials meet with ESPN suits in September 2012 to begin a 60-day negotiating window, Marinatto will hold the upper hand. Unless ESPN makes an offer that will seriously enrich the athletic departments of the league's member schools -- which could number as many as 20 by the time negotiations begin -- Marinatto will throw open the bidding process to Fox and Comcast/NBC. Fox already has proved in recent deals with the Big 12 and Pac-12 that it intends to be a player in the college football market. Comcast has millions of subscribers in the Big East footprint, but with only Notre Dame football in the fold, it desperately needs more college sports inventory to fill time slots on the recently re-branded NBC Sports Channel (Versus) and a slew of regional sports networks.

Marinatto knows all this, and this week he sounded like a man in charge. That's a stark contrast to last year, when Marinatto seemed so different from his counterparts. Certainly, Marinatto had toiled at the same business. As the consigliere to former commissioner Mike Tranghese, Marinatto had helped grow the Big East from a humble, New England-based, basketball-centric outfit to a name-brand conference with a seat at college sports' most powerful table -- the BCS. He also had helped save the league after the ACC poached Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. But he seemed too nice, too normal to fit in with the rest.

From the Pac-10 came Larry Scott, the swashbuckling former Harvard tennis player who thought nothing of slaughtering sacred cows -- Texas and Oklahoma? In the Pac-10? -- as he attempted to fortify his league's position. From the Big 12 came Dan Beebe, a bear of a man with a law degree who pulled hard enough to keep his conference together. From the ACC came John Swofford, a wise Southern gentleman who understood the politics well enough to know he should remain outside the fray after a lucrative new TV deal secured his conference's borders. From the SEC came Mike Slive, the former judge who always seems three steps ahead, who quietly pulled strings so his league would be ready if the tectonic plates began to shift. From the Big Ten came Jim Delany, who seemed to hold all the cards and who seemed to take delight as everyone wondered when and how he would play them.

Then there was the jovial Big East commissioner. The former altar boy spent four years in a seminary, but last year a man in a collar glared at Marinatto as he unsheathed a phone that wouldn't stop vibrating during Mass. The phone buzzed as the Big East reacted to a Chicago Tribune story that Delany's Big Ten had fast-tracked its expansion plans. Several Big East schools seemed ripe for plucking. If Marinatto lost them, the league might slip back to its mom-and-pop Providence roots and lose its seat at that high table.

So he enlisted the help of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. He reassured his constituents. He waited.

And nothing happened.

When the time came to make its move, the Big Ten looked west to Nebraska, not east. Beebe's Big 12 also lost Colorado, but Beebe kept the Pac-10 from splitting the remainder of the conference in two. That staved off the nationwide chaos a 16-team Pac-10 would have spawned, and the conferences settled. "Last summer was a summer where there was a lot of uncertainty about conference alignment," Marinatto said. "That initiated some of the dynamics of what has unfolded." In other words, the shifts in alignment helped reset the TV market again. What inspired fear at Big East headquarters a year ago has created the hope that permeates the building now.

Marinatto's next challenge is helping his member schools decide on expansion. Will Big East members allow Villanova to bring its FCS football program to the FBS and stop without bringing any new schools aboard? Or will the league deny Villanova and bring in Central Florida or Houston or East Carolina? Or will it bring in all three? The league's presidents will have to decide soon, because Marinatto needs to know what roster he'll sell to TV networks.

Of course, the fun of being a major-conference commissioner doesn't stop after riding out a potentially league-destroying storm and setting up a major future payday. As Marinatto discussed the league's newfound firm footing, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun stood a few feet away and predicted the next conference catastrophe on the horizon: a split of the football schools and the non-football schools. "In the next couple of years, four or five years down the road, I think you'll see a separation," Calhoun said. "I think it's inevitable."

No matter how many wisecracks he drops, know this: Marinatto, who has twice stared down his league's potential destruction and helped it emerge stronger, will be ready when that day comes.