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"I can't predict what's going to happen," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese says. "I'm not Houdini." Some might disagree, pointing to the fact that the Big East managed to keep its BCS tie-in last season even though the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech made it a mediocre, seven-team league without a worthy big-bowl team. Others will point to how Tranghese, in his 16th year as commissioner, has kept the Big East viable through several storms, building the basketball league to its current status as a 16-team super conference.
The Big East presidents and chancellors seem to like Tranghese's work. Earlier this month, they extended his contract through the 2009-10 academic year. The football coaches believe in him, too. "It's always good to have a leader who can steady the ship," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "He's been very helpful for us in terms of our program going from I-AA to a BCS conference. It's nice to see that the presidents rewarded him." Tranghese insists there was no hocus-pocus behind keeping that lucrative BCS bid. He scoffs at charges of cronyism levied by those who wonder whether his power-brokering history put him in a position to curry favors. Among his many posts, Tranghese served as the lead administrator of the BCS (2002-03) and chairman of the NCAA Men's Basketball Subcommittee on Television (1997-2001), where he helped to secure a $6 billion contract from CBS for broadcast rights. "Everybody keeps talking like I did something to make this happen," Tranghese said in a phone interview Monday, when asked how the league kept its BCS bid. "When we lost our members, we simply went to the others [in the BCS] and said, 'You know what? You have to make a decision.' They evaluated, saw that we were one of the founders [of the BCS] and recognized that the Northeast section of the country was a very good thing to have. And we made a very good case." Tranghese is particularly irked at the charge that he used some sleight of hand to get Louisville counted as a Big East team last season even though it played in Conference USA. The Cardinals, who joined the Big East this season, finished with a No. 6 ranking that will count on the Big East ledger when it comes time to review the BCS bids in 2007.
The reviews will take the previous four seasons (2004-07) into account, looking at criteria such as where the highest-ranked team in each conference finished. "I was obviously opposed to that," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson told the Orlando Sentinel last month. "Louisville didn't play a single Big East opponent last year, and yet their great season is credited to the Big East. It makes no sense." Tranghese says that when the BCS "decided to give us a four-year opportunity" at a meeting in February 2004, it asked for the league's "lineup" for the 2004 season. Tranghese said he responded by listing the teams in the conference that year. They included Boston College, which would play in '04 before defecting to the ACC, and Temple, which was known to be headed into its last Big East season (it was kicked out). "The Big Ten said, 'No, BC and Temple are not going to be in your league [after '04], so they shouldn't count, because we're trying to evaluate you over four years. Cincinnati, South Florida and Louisville; we think they oughta count,'" Tranghese said. Furthermore, Tranghese said, "The Mountain West sat at the table and voted in favor of it, and now they're bellyaching about it after the fact. They need to keep quiet and go prove themselves. If they deserve to get in, they'll get in." Thompson, the Mountain West commissioner, did not return a phone call seeking comment. A Big Ten spokesman said Monday that commissioner Jim Delany was not available for comment and wouldn't be until Thursday. Tranghese said it's not people from the other BCS conferences who are ripping the Big East, which is 0-5 in nonconference games against ranked teams this season and just 13-12 against Division I-A competition. "You're getting it from the conferences who are outside, and you're getting it from the media," he said. "I tell people we have [the bid] and we're going to play hard and prove ourselves. People say we're arrogant, and that's the furthest thing from the truth. We're very appreciative of it, and we think we're doing OK. Would we like to do better? Of course we would. We'd like to win the national championship. But the BCS poll is coming out this week, and I think we're going to have two teams in the top 18." Indeed, when the latest BCS poll was released, West Virginia (9-1) was ranked 12th and Louisville (7-2) 18th. Another conference newcomer, South Florida, garnered votes in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 and will win the conference if it wins its final three games, including the Dec. 3 season finale against West Virginia. South Florida in a New Year's Day bowl? The Bulls (5-3) deserve credit for building a competitive program so fast -- it's only their fifth year of Division I-A competition -- but this is the kind of thing that gives Big East bashers plenty of fuel. Tranghese doesn't want to hear it. He looks at South Florida and UConn and sees great growth potential. He also said it took some convincing to bring South Florida into the conference. A few conference presidents were skeptical. Bulls coach Jim Leavitt will forever appreciate Tranghese's advocacy. "I would think probably a lot of people were [skeptical]," said Leavitt, whose team stunned Louisville 45-14 in September. "Here's a program that's only played 10 years of football. How many people are going to have the strength to do something like that? I think he saw a chance. We're certainly not there. We have a long way to go. But I think he saw a chance that we might be a decent team." Leavitt said he has met the fiery Tranghese only a few times but was left with a deep impression. "I love him," Leavitt said. "I think he's the best. I really do. He handles things so well, in my opinion. He understands coaches. I think he understands what we go through." That might be true, but Tranghese also wants to see his schools beef up their nonconference schedules. The optimist in him says West Virginia, South Florida, Rutgers and Louisville will continue their ascent, while Pittsburgh and Syracuse reclaim past glories and Cincinnati and UConn grow up fast. Adding a ninth team would give each team an eight-game conference schedule and allow each to play just four nonconference games instead of scrounging for five. Most would love to see that ninth team be Notre Dame, of course, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon.
The reality is that the ninth-team candidates that have surfaced have been much less attractive. "I don't see adding a ninth team just to solve scheduling problems," Tranghese said. "In a perfect world, that would strengthen us, and every time our football directors [meet], it's the most talked-about subject, but I just don't see any simple answers out there."
The Big East lost its Insight Bowl tie-in but replaced it Tuesday with the EV1.net Houston Bowl, which begins play in 2006 and will pit a Big East team against a Big 12 opponent. Tranghese hopes to put a team in the not-yet-established "Toronto Bowl" next year and perhaps institute a "Big Apple Bowl" in New York City within about five years.
Many predict the conference will have split by then because of the unpredictable marriage of small, basketball-only schools and large football schools.
Predictably, Tranghese disagrees. "That's not what the people who sit in our rooms and see the sense of presidents making commitments to one another are saying," he said. He figures that if a split were going to happen, if would have occurred when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted. He was ready to leave the conference himself at that point. "The football people looked at it for a month and said, 'We don't want to separate,'" Tranghese said. "If they didn't want to separate, then I certainly didn't."
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.