Is Memphis Big East-worthy?

December, 22, 2008
12/22/08
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

I came across this article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal over the weekend by Geoff Calkins, who had a Q&A with Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson. As you'll recall, the Tigers got left behind in Conference USA when Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida bolted for the Big East in 2005. Johnson has some interesting things to say in regards to his school's future BCS aspirations and how the Big East might play a role. Let's listen in:

R.C. Johnson: See, I think we're still seeing the evolving of changes. Lou Holtz said the other day that we ought to do away with all this. Everybody should be in the BCS. Every conference should add two teams. I know that sounds way out there. But if you and I were talking six years ago and we said Cincinnati and Louisville were going to be in the Big East, we would have said that's way out there.

The thing that we've got going for us is how well our programs are doing, Central time zone, airport is easy to get in and out of. Now, people don't all buy it but the truth is location did hurt us last go-round. That is a factor. The ultimate thing for us, we should be in the SEC.

Geoff Calkins: But that's not going to happen.

RJ: Yeah. So you look around at the leagues, at our opportunities, and I've contacted every league, from the Pac-10 to the Big Ten, I've contacted them all. And the truth is that the only realistic opportunity for us right now would be the Big East because the SEC isn't going to happen. You keep hearing about Colorado going back to the Pac-10, Arkansas going back to the Big 12, yada, yada, yada. Missouri may be going to the Big Ten so they can get an even number. All those conversations. Every time I'm at an NCAA meeting those conversations come up but I don't see it happening. I think the most realistic opportunity for us is the Big East.

Later, Calkins asks Johnson about whether the Memphis football program, last seen getting blasted by South Florida in the magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl, is BCS-worthy.

GC: In the last round, we saw that football matters much more than basketball in the BCS calculations. When you drew 15,000 for your last home game, and you're playing to get into a bowl, how does that impact things? Do you feel like the football program, where it is right now in terms of facilities, attendance and momentum, is hurting you? You look at East Carolina, I think they're ahead of you in terms of football. you look at Tulsa, right now they're ahead of you in terms of football. Do you think football is strong enough right now for people to say, "Boy, I want that Memphis program in the Big East?"

RJ: I think so and I'll tell you why. You're right, the last game was not what we wanted at all. I was very disappointed in that. But I think what we have done is -- Tommy [West] has taken us from one level to the next level, no question about it. On a national scene, they know we're going to bowls. They're familiar with our program. We're on television actually quite a bit. Tommy has a good reputation. We're farther along today than Cincinnati was when they went in from a football standpoint. Louisville had gone ahead of us but now they've kind of backed up a little bit. So I'm good there. I think we're OK. You're right, East Carolina is coming to the Liberty Bowl this year but I think we're just that close. I don't think there's a big gap anymore. I think we're equal.

And here's one answer that might not sit too well with a couple Big East schools:

GC: You look at Louisville and Cincinnati with a sense of bitterness or possibilities?

RJ: Possibilities. I think we're better than they are and they did it, so we can do it. They just happened to be in the league that we're not in right now so we don't have the avenue.

So ... is Memphis a team the Big East should consider adding? League officials have repeatedly stressed that expansion is not an issue on the agenda at this time, though it's known the conference would like to have a ninth football member for scheduling purposes.

The pros on the Tigers' side include its strong performance in men's basketball and other, non-revenue sports, plus good name recognition and existing rivalry ties with Louisville and Cincinnati (especially after that last comment from Johnson in the story).

Cons include location, as expanding to Memphis would really stretch the definition of "east" in Big East, and the state of the Tigers' football program. Memphis has yet to seriously contend in Conference USA in football, and the school's facilities -- including the aging Liberty Bowl -- badly need upgrades. The Tigers are planning to add a new weight room and renovate the locker rooms at the Liberty Bowl, but much more needs to be done.

Then there's the basketball issue. Memphis surely wouldn't want to join as a football-only school, and there's no way Big East men's basketball coaches want to add yet another high-caliber opponent in the already ludicrously deep and unwieldy 16-team conference. The Tigers would have a much better chance of getting into the league if a split among the basketball-only and football-playing schools ever happened, though Big East officials say that's not a concern for them.

What are your thoughts about Memphis potentially joining the Big East some day?

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