Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Memphis move does little for football
By Andrea Adelson
The Big East has always fashioned itself as a basketball conference that just happens to play football.
That mindset has nearly destroyed the league, not once but twice. In this latest round of expansion mania, the split between the basketball faction and the football faction has become so dysfunctional, it took a near crippling blow to get everybody on the same page — and only because it was a matter of survival.
The Memphis Tigers finished their 2011 season with a 2-10 overall record, and 1-7 in Conference USA.
So you look at the addition of Memphis for the 2013 season and know this has nothing to do with football. Never mind that football brings in the cash, that football is the dominant sport in America, that nearly every conference does what is best for football first. Rising from its deathbed has not woken the Big East from its hoops dreamworld.
The Big East wants to protect its status as the No. 1 basketball conference in America. This is an obvious hat-tip to the hoops schools, to Rick Pitino, to all those unhappy over losing Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia in favor of UCF, SMU and Houston. Basketball pride clearly comes first, and if you are the Big East, perhaps you realize and understand your place in the football world.
Was adding a good football program at the expense of basketball really going to change the perception of the league? Or its bid to retain automatic qualifier status? Probably not, so basketball won this round as a thank you to presidents who agreed to expand the league as far west as San Diego in the name of football.
"We understand how important this was to Rick. But that wasn't the driving force in us moving forward with the decision to explore and then invite the University of Memphis to the Big East conference," commissioner John Marinatto said Wednesday on a conference call. "The Big East conference, its genesis really is in men's basketball. That's where it established itself some 32 years ago. I think the moves that we've made overall strengthen the conference.
"But for different reasons, I think we're always going to be very, very strong in men's basketball. With the addition of Memphis, I think we solidify our position of being the best conference in the country for men's basketball, and for that matter women's basketball."
There are definite pros to adding Memphis. Big TV market. Good corporate sponsorship. Good facilities. A school in the Central Time Zone to help out the recent additions of San Diego State, Boise State, SMU and Houston. A final piece to get the Big East a championship game.
But the football program is not one of them. Memphis has been among the worst teams in America for the last three years, winning a combined five games from 2009-11. Only three were against opponents from FBS conferences. You have to go back to 2003 to find a nine-win season -- the only one over the course of the last 10 years.
In its recently completed 2-10 season, Memphis ranked No. 116 in the country in total offense and No. 117 in total defense and was outscored by an average of nearly 20 points a game. Coach Larry Porter was fired, and TCU co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente was hired to try to reinvigorate a program that has been trolling the bottom of Conference USA. Even in its most recent "successful" season, Memphis got to 6-6 in 2008 and made a bowl game. But the Tigers got blown out 41-14 by USF.
It does not take a football expert to know this sport must be improved, and that was a part of the discussion Marinatto had with athletic director R.C. Johnson when he went to take a campus visit to Memphis.
"We're a diverse conference in a lot of ways," Marinatto said. "A very common element that rings through to all of our schools is our respective commitment to excellence in a variety of ways. Football, as you know, is the driving force not only with regard to realignment in moving forward but the value of our television contract, which will keep our membership together as we understand it and believe it for the long-term.
"So football is very important. We feel confident not only with regard to the moves that the university has made in the past in upgrading its facilities but, as I mentioned earlier, with the personnel and administrative moves they've made in order to solidify their situation going forward."
The Big East will get its big-money TV contract regardless of how good Memphis football is or will be in the future. That makes this move easier to take. But it still leaves questions about how the Big East is perceived on a national level -- and how it perceives itself.