Buzzards circling the Big East again

The buzzards are back, circling around the Big East in an all-too-familiar pattern.

Nothing, it seems, can hold them back from raiding a once-proud conference, now reduced to what amounts to the sale rack at your local clearance outlet.

Did we miss a sign hanging outside the Big East offices reading, "EVERYTHING MUST GO!"

Rutgers is the latest to be claimed from the heap, leaving the Big East for the Big Ten on Tuesday with a grin as wide as the Raritan River. You know why. Rutgers is the Cheshire cat of conference expansion, a football program that has had two 10-win seasons in its 143-year history.

This is a program that could still easily be hanging around the Big East basement were it not for the hard work and many hours Greg Schiano put in transforming the Scarlet Knights from laughingstocks into winners. But that is only a small part of how this happened. If Rutgers were in Paducah, Ky., this day would have never come.

So it goes in the suddenly revived world of conference alignment. The Big East once housed football programs in virtually every major market on the East Coast from Miami to Boston, and was close enough to the Washington, D.C., area as well.

Given shifting dynamics and a premium placed on TV dollars and households in major markets, those programs became attractive enough to get picked off, one by one. It began in 2004. It goes on today, just when it seemed the Big East would hang on and survive the defections of Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia a year ago.

Now, the Big East is left with one original football-playing member: Temple, a team that just rejoined the league after an eight-year absence.

More could follow. Navy is set to join in 2015 as a football-only member, but athletic director Chet Gladchuk told The Annapolis Capital he is concerned about what is happening to the league. UConn and Louisville are candidates to join the ACC; sources told ESPN that incoming football-only members San Diego State and Boise State have had talks with the Mountain West about the possibility of returning to that league.

How much more can this league stand? Questions about its future are nothing new, of course. The Big East has lived with them like an unwanted house guest for years now. After Notre Dame broke ties with all its other sports to join the ACC back in September, Big East death notices began to be published.

Big East commissioner Mike Aresco defiantly declared, “That's utter nonsense” in response. The belief in the Big East office was that a looming television negotiation would keep members happy enough to stick around for the long haul.

But that was foolish, wasn’t it? The Big East has never been in a position of strength, raiding only the weaker conferences. It has left itself open to being picked as clean as a Thanksgiving turkey by conferences much savvier -- and much richer -- than them.

Even if this league had stayed together as originally constructed, it would not have brought in the kind of television money the Big Ten -- or even the ACC -- can offer. When you need to put your program’s own interests first, loyalty goes out the window.

Rutgers has run up a large amount of debt in its athletic department and come under scrutiny from its own university, student body and state legislature. Money from a new Big East TV deal would come nowhere close to what Rutgers can get in its new Big Ten digs.

So the Scarlet Knights move on. And the truth is, if every remaining Big East program got an invitation to take a step up in class, they all would jump without much of a second thought.

That is what the Big East is today, and will be into the future: a halfway house for programs on the lookout for something better.