- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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In announcing TCU as the 17th member of the Big East and ninth football-playing team, league commissioner John Marinatto welcomed the Horned Frogs to what he called the "largest family in intercollegiate athletics."
In family terms, TCU and the Big East are kind of like a pair of teenagers who decide to get married after an unplanned pregnancy. It seems like the best move under the circumstances, though you have to wonder about the long-term compatibility.
This is truly a marriage of convenience for both parties, who need each other so much that obvious issues like geography and tradition take a backseat. The Big East badly needed to add a high-profile football program to enhance its profile and strengthen its image. A ninth team also greatly improves scheduling, as teams now only have to find four nonconference opponents instead of five.
There was no better, available football program than TCU, which just completed its second consecutive undefeated regular season and fourth top-10 finish since 2005. The Horned Frogs likely would have run away with the Big East title this season and figure to be strong contenders right away in 2012. The Big East could not have found a better addition that wasn't already playing in a BCS automatic-qualifying conference, and none of those teams is jumping ship to the lowest revenue-generating AQ league.
And even though TCU will go to its second consecutive BCS game -- likely the Rose Bowl, with an outside shot at the BCS title game -- it needed the Big East just as much. Competing in a non-AQ conference means the Horned Frogs have to go undefeated to make a BCS game, and even then it's not guaranteed. Had Boise State not lost to Nevada, there was a chance that TCU would have been left out of the BCS picture this year. Meanwhile, Connecticut may go to the Fiesta Bowl at 8-4.
The Horned Frogs saw the writing on the wall, especially after Utah and BYU bolted the Mountain West Conference. As TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte noted, "the Mountain West is a great conference, but it's not the same conference we joined."
The Big East won't be the same conference, either, as TCU is probably not the final addition. Villanova is still on the clock, and the league wants the Wildcats to let it know whether they will move up to FBS by January. If Villanova says yes, that would make 10 teams in football and might be enough to satisfy this latest expansion push. If not, Central Florida becomes a prime target.
Of course, there is the little matter of geography with TCU, as Forth Worth, Texas, is nearly 900 miles to the closest Big East school (Louisville). Travel is not really an issue in football since only four schools per year will make the trip to Texas (and vice versa for TCU to other Big East sites). Football travel is a massive undertaking, anyway, and many teams travel via chartered planes. It will be far more of an issue in the Olympic sports, where budgets are tight and added travel time and expenses take their toll. That's one reason why the Big East was initially interested in the Horned Frogs as a football-only member before it became clear that they wouldn't accept that fate.
TCU chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr., said that the Big East "transcends geography and ... historical contingencies." Del Conte pointed out that the Big 12 South teams nearly joined the Pac-10, while Marinatto said consultant Paul Tagliabue reminded him that the Dallas Cowboys play in the NFC East.
"TCU fans will feel right at home," he said.
Truthfully, the only real geography that matters anymore is local TV markets, and the Dallas/Fort Worth area is the fifth largest in the country.
The Big East proudly boasts that it resides in nine of the nation's top 35 TV markets, though several of its football teams (Pittsburgh, South Florida, Cincinnati and now TCU) are hardly the top show in town. Still, adding a market like Dallas/Fort Worth can only help the league's ability to increase its current TV package and possibly start its own network.
As a university, TCU has a lot in common with schools like Notre Dame, St. John's, DePaul and Marquette, with a small undergraduate enrollment and a religious affiliation. As a football program, it's more like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and South Florida, competing in an urban, pro-sports environment.
Rivalries will eventually develop, but it's still going to be jarring at first to see matchups like TCU versus Syracuse or TCU versus Connecticut. But if any league and team can absorb changes, it's the Big East and TCU. The conference has gone through multiple incarnations since it began as a seven-team, basketball-only alignment in 1979; the Horned Frogs will be joining their fifth different league since 1995.
Both parties are used to shotgun weddings. They've been thrown together by necessity, and time will tell whether it's a long-term love affair.