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The Path Forward for the Big East

 

With the events of the last week, the future of the Big East has once again fallen under a cloud of uncertainty.  I posted the following on my blog as a path forward a few weeks ago.  Any reasonable person has to acknowledge that it is only through significant change that the Big East can survive; this is my plan for survival.  Fair warning, it's pretty long (2 parts) but getting more relevant every day.

 

With the Big East meetings coming to a close, the expansion talk is once again heating up. So I thought, why not throw my hat into the ring and give my take on strategy.  And what better way to analyze a set of strategic moves than comparisons to “The Godfather,” a study in strategy if there ever was one. 

This post turned out to be pretty long, so I split it up into 2. Part I is all the moves that I think would be less than ideal: the Don and the Brothers' moves. Part II will be my new vision for the Big East: Michael's moves.

Let us now speak, as men.

Vito – Add Villanova or Central Florida

This is the safe move.  When Vito politely denied the offer of a business partnership with Solozzo, he did so in the spirit of prudence.  He was an old man, had been doing this awhile and was in no hurry to take risks.  He had his empire, was in the process of handing it over to his sons and simply wanted to maintain the status quo.  Unfortuately The Don learns that you’re either growing or dying, and standing pat is never an option. His decision, which appeared prudent and intelligently conservative in the moment, unwittingly leads to his attempted assassination and open warfare. A bad move.

Similarly, a move to add Villanova or Central Florida (and those attractive TV markets), while on the surface a safe move that doesn't devalue the league, also doesn't strengthen it for the next round of realignment (more on this in Part II).  You dilute the football payout pool with a team that, in the case of 'Nova and their 20k person sellouts, will not pull its weight. With UCF you add a basketball program with no value whatsoever. It’s just not a long-term visionary move and, much like the Don's decision, attempts to maintain the status quo for the next round of realignment. But as we said, there is no status quo, you're either growing or dying. After this past season of Big East football, which direction do you think things are going?

Fredo - Add Memphis

Fredo was weak. Fredo knew he was weak and more importantly everyone around him knew it, too. Unfortunately, Fredo wasn't willing to just accept this about himself and settle for simultaneous cocktail waitresses (the poor bastard). He got in over his head trying to prove his worth and set off a course of events that he never had a chance to control and ultimately ended in the worst fishing trip ever.

This would be adding Memphis.  You'd be adding a team just to do it. You might as well start shouting "I'm smart! Not DUMB like everybody says!" No good comes from this. No potential big TV market ('Nova), no prime recruiting ground (UCF). Nothing. You get free overnight shipping, that's about it. This team has no fan base, no tradition and no chance to be competitive. "A homeless man's Cincinnati" is not a compliment.

You've brought in someone with no chance of bringing in their share of required revenue, in effect costing every other team money.  Aside from that you further dilute the conference, create fodder for more jokes and add (another) weak conference game to the schedule of any team that seeks to challenge for a national title.  On the basketball side, you're adding a marginal "power" to a league that already carries around big time basketball programs “like so many nickels and dimes.”  No good that comes from this move.

Sonny - Add Central Florida, Villanova & Another team of similar stature, most likely Houston

Sonny was a hothead but when he acted, took a full swing. You shoot his father, he puts 100 button men on the street and goes to the mattresses. You smack his sister around, you're getting beat with a trashcan lid. Unfortunately Sonny's decisive actions were born of the moment and seldom thought through, exposing him to bad situations. You know, like getting shot roughly 1,537 times in 30 seconds on the causeway.

Adding a 3 piece combo of UCF, 'Nova and Houston is a big move that does a lot of good things. You get to 12 and qualify for a conference title game. There's a reason that 2/3 of the AQ 6 do this currently. You bring in some extra revenue and give a possible late season push to any title contender. Make no mistake, 12 is the way to go.

Unfortunately, you're still bringing in teams with unproven track records and fledgling fan bases. Scenarios like this year's UConn Fiesta Bowl fiasco (setting fire to piles of money) would become more likely. You quite possibly over-expand strictly for the sake of getting to 12 and weaken the overall product.

And this is all aside from basketball, where you will have created a mega mess of a conference 2/3 the size of the NBA. I won't even go into the resulting SNAFU. Suffice to say it would be horrible and the conference tournament would have to start in February. Seriously, if you need me to explain to you all the ways that a 20 team basketball conference would suck just stop reading now.  Godfather Part III was probably your favorite of the series, too.

On balance, this doesn't amount to a terrible move, but it a) doesn't significantly upgrade football in quality (even if it does in quantity) and b) fails to address the elephant that's been in the room since 1991, started a family, died and now has left a room full of baby elephants - the co-existance of basketball and football in a conference where all members don't do both.

Tom Hagen - Add SMU

Stop laughing.

STOP DAMMIT!  You done?  OK, let's begin.

Tom was smart.  He was the one whom people turned to for thoughtful advice.  And if you read the book you know he was a shrewd businessman: finding hidden value, sneaky smart, buying low and selling high. He makes the family truckloads of money by getting them into the movie business after flying out to meet with Johnny Fontaine.  I'll confess, this is by far the biggest stretch I've presented but a) I couldn't in good conscience leave out Tom and b) I really wanted to trot out my crazy SMU theory.

When I was watching that fantastic "Pony Exce$$" 30 for 30 documentary, I couldn't shake the feeling I was watching a sleeping giant that just might be ready to awake. This is a fanbase that's tasted success in a region that lives for football.  The school seems to have righted the ship and at worst it seems you'd get someone at least as competitive as Rutgers, and if they start winning, you've got an instant power.  You've already planted your flag in Texas with the TCU aquisition, why not give them a good regional rival and siphon off a little more of that Lonestar State talent.  They're at LEAST as good an acquisition as Villanova - and quite possibly UCF or Houston.  If you're just going to add one team, why not one that actually brings something to the table.  The potential upside of having a pair of football powers in the Dallas area (RECRUITING!) would seem to make it worth the gamble.

So there's Part I - what the Don and the brothers would do.  But as we know none of them possessed that special combination of intelligence, creativity, audacity and ruthlessness it took to save the family.  That special blend was Michael's alone and tomorrow we'll unveil the grand plan for Big East re-alignment.

 

And here's Part II:

 

In Part I of the Big East/The Godfather review of expansion scenarios, we worked our way through different possibilities as they compared to major members of the cast: Vito, Fredo, Sonny, Tom.

Now finally, we get to Michael and a new (if somewhat radical) vision of the Big East.  A quick note, there would obviously be myriad details involved  in taking any of the below actions.  In the interest of not posting a 10,000 word Bill Simmons-esque blog, I left those alone.  My goal was to take a step back and broadly discuss the larger existential questions of the conference and its future.  If this post generates interest, maybe I look a little deeper (existing TV contracts, etc.), but for now we're just spit-balling.  Let's proceed.

First, lets take a moment and discuss Michael.  What made him special?  What made him different?  What made him successful?

I can't remember if it was in the book or from a "making of" feature on the movie, but I once heard Michael described as "the ultimate rational man." Equal parts brilliant, thoughtful, prudent, audacious and ruthless, he has no time or patience for sentimentality.  Everything he did was aimed at creating the most rational path that provided the greatest probability of success.  He didn't plan the christening day shooting spree because he hated the heads of the other families, he did it because it was kill or be killed and a bloodbath was the only way he saw to insure the survival of his family.

The Michael Corleone Blueprint in a nutshell: plan meticulously, place your pieces on the board and then STRIKE. Swiftly, boldly, decisively. And when the dust clears you've not simply survived or improved your fortunes in the moment, but you've put yourself in position for long-term, sustained success.

I tried to let this mentality guide me in creation of my path to Big East prosperity.

The plan was formulated with one prime thesis: from a revenue generation standpoint, football is where it's at.  Period.  Yes basketball moves the needle, especially in the Big East, but across the country we see consistently that football brings in the most money and, most importantly possesses the most growth potential (yes, I realize basketball makes more money in the Big East but once again, football holds the key to any real growth).

I challenge anyone to read Dan Wetzel's excellent Death to the BCS and not be staggered by the money left on the NCAA table when it comes to football.  While the NCAA has turned the Men's Basketball Tournament into the most exciting event in all of sports (and one of the most profitable), the BCS has been allowed to grow organically, (see: half-assedly with no cohesive vision) serving only the interests of those who run bowl games.  With costs continuing to rise and the payment of student athletes being discussed, I would gamble that the untapped oil field in the NCAA backyard won't stay that way for long.

The Big East contains as much potential for football growth as any conference as a variety of revenue streams remained untapped.  The new TV contract, a possible championship game; all ways for the league to not only protect but enhance it's position on the college football landscape.  And this is BEFORE you even begin to consider ramifications of a playoff.  Wetzel's book was a watershed moment because for the first time it pulled all the pieces together and educated fans and players - it laid bare the absurd bowl system and exposed the money that could be available.  These aren't the type of things that people forget about.  Change is coming.  Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but I'd wager that NCAA college football looks much different in 5-10 years than it does now, and the Big East needs to be positioned to benefit in that new order as much as anyone.

On to the plan:

First, the unhappy but necessary step of killing Tessio. Eliminate the non-bowl championship subdivision (BCS) football members. It's a no-brainer, as will be obvious once you set aside your attachment to Georgetown (I'm looking at you UConn and Syracuse) and put on your "I'm an emotionally dead bad-ass" Michael fedora.

If we've agreed football is going to serve as the primary money generator, creation of a conference title game is a no-brainer.  This requires jumping to 12 members and that requires sending the non- BCS footballers on their way. Fact of the matter is the size of the Big East basketball conference passed practicality long ago and only becomes more absurd with the addition of TCU.  Even ignoring future growth, the current size of 19 (including TCU) weakens the fabric of the conference and dilutes the product.

Here's why.

What holds conferences together?  In a word - rivalries. It's rivalries that make for compelling contests, sold out stadiums and must see TV. Sure you're always going to have the top of your conference playing each other in marquee matchups, but rivalries are the lifeblood continuously pumping through your season regardless of the standings. Florida/Georgia is a story no matter where they're ranked. Same for Texas/Oklahoma. And the beauty of college is those rivalries spread across multiple sports, transcending the individual games and permeating both fanbases. You wanna get a softball crowd in Tuscaloosa fired up? Throw Auburn jerseys on the other team.

And aside from the blood feuds that highlight the season, there's just a level of familiarity that conference play creates. Do Michigan fans live and die for their game with Indiana - no. But they've been playing them long enough that it doesn't take long to find a reason to care. Familiarity breeds contempt and in college football (or really any college sport) contempt breeds drama, theater and those moments we all live for as college fans. Simple as that.

Unfortunately in today's Big East there is so much disconnect between the worlds of football and other sports that those rivalries don't get a consistent helping of the fuel they need to burn. The basketball schedule is such a crap shoot you seldom play teams more than once a season.  I would argue that, in the entire conference there is only one real all-sport hatefest: WVU / Pitt. Sure blood feuds like Georgetown and Syraucuse exist on the hardwood, but it's the gridiron where so many rivalries grow and evolve into something else, and in a conference where 8 members don't even play the others in football, you're limited.

There's another reason that kicking the non- BCS footballers out makes sense:

Force Notre Dame's hand.

Michael didn't take any shit off Moe Green and he certainly wouldn't have taken it from Notre Dame.  Give them the ultimatum - join all the way or not at all, and if they want to be independent in every other sport then let them damn do it.  I've never been convinced that the Irish are valuable enough in the other sports to justify this one-sided arrangement.  They've been having it both ways for two decades, enjoying the benefits of the conference membership and bringing nothing to the table in the one sport where they would be a real asset.  It's like dating Scarlette Johnannson but she won't take her top off.  Sure I'll listen to your stories. Of course I'll take you to dinner. But this street has to run both ways.

Notre Dame wants to operate alone, fine.  Enjoy piecing together a basketball schedule and making an NCAA tourney.

But if they don't..........well, the Big East just became a made man (yes I know that's a Goodfellas reference, but I couldn't resist). If you're John Marinatto, you gotta take that shot.

Next step: adding members. With or without the Irish, you need to pick up more teams.  Every scenario I've heard discussed in the last couple years (and all of them we discussed in Part I) relegates the conference to choosing from the remaining scraps of available non-auto bid leagues, picking someone up and hope they turn into a major program. It's the same strategy employed after the 2002/03 ACC raid. To the conference's credit, they've done this well with USF, Cincy & UConn, but I think the necessity to add value in the short term and be prepared for the next big round of re-alignment necessitates picking up someone with street cred.  Therefore I propose taking a page out of Mike Leach's book and tapping into our inner pirate.  Time to swing that sword.

I look across the Mississippi River and see a Big 12 reeling.  Sure they're putting up a nice show with Texas as their frontman, but they have the same problem as the Big East.  Long term prosperity is completely contingent on a title game, which hinges on 12 members.  Personally I'm shocked they didn't immediately make offers to TCU or Boise State when Nebraska and Colorado bolted, but they didn't and for some reason seem content to stand pat at 10.  Looks like a flat-footed Barzini caught in a revolving door to me.

My prime candidate for poaching - Missouri.  They almost bolted to the Big 10 anyway, so do you REALLY get the feeling that they're that attached to the Big 12?  They have exactly one rival in that conference that anyone cares about - Kansas.  So hell, bring them, too.  With the addition of TCU, the Big East opened up the entire middle of the country.  No reason to feel constrained to Villanova or Central Florida - there's a big wide world out there.  Another possibility would be Kansas State.  I think the Oklahoma schools are tied together and would be surprised if any of the Texas schools bolted (although I'd at least send feelers to Texas Tech or Baylor).  The Kansas brothers and Mizzou seem the most vulnerable to me.  I'd offer them some weighted revenue sharing in the new TV contract and make it hard to say no. And if they resist, maybe they wake up see the head of Truman the Tiger staring them in the face.

(Author's note: maybe in hindsight that weighted revenue isn't such a great idea...)

Is it a bit radical, yes - but instead of being caught flat-footed like the conference was in 2003 and almost again last year, why not be the aggressor? What do you have to lose?

This final item is just a little notion I've been nursing. I left it for last because I don't necessarily think it vital, but I do think it could a) provide a fresh start for a renovated conference, b) avoid a truckload of wise cracks down the road and c) provide a nice little parting gift to the non-footballers when they're sent packing.

Move the family to Nevada.  Re-brand the entire conference.  New name, new logo - just start over. Give the name to the schools that were booted and let them form a new Big East. The won't even have to change their stationary.

Here's what I know: the Big East is far from a premium name in college football and conceptually limits the scope of the conference to, well, the east.  Maybe there's some value in de-coupling yourself from a certain region and becoming a more viable option for teams in the middle of America looking to make the jump (for instance if conferences start going to 16). As the college football world is on the cusp of a dramatic shift, what better time to start a conference from the ground up?  Signify the beginning of a new era and the arrival of a new player in major college football. Break with the checkered history of the conference as a football playing entity. I'm a strong believer in the power of branding and think a facelift could be exactly what the conference needs.

(Personally I've always been a Big East fan and would hate to see the name go, but I thought it was at least worth throwing out there)

So there you go. My vision for a new Big East. Maximizing revenue. Sacrificing quantity to increase quality. Opening up the possibility of a mega-name joining the ranks and not being afraid to bring the best into the fold - not just the best available. Re-packaging the product.

Is it a little radical, maybe. Would it take someone with serious vision and smarts to pull it off? Most definitely. Would it take someone with even larger cojones - without a doubt.  Is John Marinatto that man? I honestly have no idea.

But I do know this - the wheels are in motion.  College football is changing and the current incarnation of the Big East is unsustainable.  So my final question is to Marinatto and his staff: do you have what it takes to make the right moves?  Do you have the stones?  Are you growing or dying?

Are you a Michael or are you a corpse?

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