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Friday, October 14, 2011
Updated: October 15, 5:42 PM ET
Source: Big East invites 5 schools

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

If all goes according to plan, the Big East will end up replacing outgoing Pittsburgh, Syracuse and TCU with full-time members Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida, while adding Air Force and Boise State in football only.

According to a source with direct knowledge of Friday's Big East conference call, the conference has sent conditional invitations to Houston and SMU for all sports and Air Force and Boise State for football only.

The Big East informed the four schools that if all four agree to join the Big East then the remaining schools would agree to an increase in the exit fee from $5 million to the $10 million range to show a commitment to the incoming schools.

The Big East leaders are scheduled to vote Monday on the exit fee increase, a conference official told the Associated Press Saturday.

However, the six remaining football playing schools won't commit to raising the fee unless all four commit to joining the Big East in football with Houston and SMU joining in all sports.

Meanwhile, the Big East sent a separate all-sports invitation to UCF and are expecting the Knights to accept, the source said.

An official in the Big East, speaking on condition of anonymity because the conference had not authorized anyone to speak publicly about its plans, told The Associated Press that commissioner John Marinatto was in Cincinnati on Friday meeting with UCF's president and athletic director.

The Big East also is working on a separate deal with Navy, the source told ESPN, but the Midshipmen are skeptical.

If Houston, SMU and Central Florida accept for all sports that would restore the Big East to 17 teams in men's basketball, while adding Air Force and Boise State in football only would get the conference to 11 team in that sport, pending a Navy decision.

The Big East was considering adding Temple, but that is a backup plan now, according to a Big East source. Temple, which was kicked out of the Big East in 2005, plays football in the Mid-American Conference.

The Big East announced earlier this week it wanted to expand to 12 football schools.

The two conferences affected by the Big East's expansion plans -- the Mountain West for Boise State and Air Force and Conference USA for UCF, SMU and Houston -- announced Friday they would form a 22-team merged league in football only, with two divisions and a conference championship game.

According to a source with direct knowledge about Boise State's and Air Force's situations, the conferences went ahead with the alliance when Boise State indicated to the MWC that it didn't plan to leave the conference.

The source also said Air Force had soured on the Big East deal a bit when Army decided against joining the Big East and Navy became skeptical of the plan.

MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said on a conference call to announce the alliance he had been notified by the leaders of Boise State and Air Force that they had been in contact with the Big East, but the presidents of those schools also participated in the league's unanimous vote to approve the merger with C-USA.

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said the president of UCF took part in his conference's vote and that he and Big East commissioner John Marinatto have been in contact about Central Florida.

"I hope UCF will stay," he said. "But if a school feels like it's in a better situation somewhere else that's OK."

The source said that if Boise State and Air Force had reservations about the MWC, C-USA or the alliance between the two, they would would have abstained or been absent from Friday's conference call. The source cited Missouri's absence from the Big 12's conference call announcing the addition of TCU as an example. Missouri The Tigers are currently deciding whether to leave the Big 12.

Big East officials made protecting the league's automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series their expansion priority. That pushed Boise State, which is in its first season in the Mountain West after a decade in the Western Athletic Conference, to the top of the Big East's most wanted list, along with the service academies.

The Broncos are 71-5 since 2006, finished 10th in the final BCS standings last season and are 5-0 and ranked No. 5 entering this weekend's games. Big East officials believe putting Boise State's record on the Big East's ledger when the BCS reviews which leagues should have automatic bids beyond 2013 should allow the conference to make the cut.

Right now, the Big East has only six schools committed to play football in the league beyond this season.

Pittsburgh and Syracuse have announced they will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference, though Big East rules require them to stay in the league for the next two seasons, and Marinatto has said he will hold the Panthers and Orange to that. However, that seems unlikely if the league can't grow to 12 teams for next season without them.

TCU was slated to join the Big East in 2012, but the Horned Frogs reneged on that commitment and accepted an invitation to the Big 12 last week.

Trying to recruit new members has been tricky for the Big East because its remaining members might also be looking for new conference homes.

Louisville and West Virginia are possible targets for the Big 12 if it needs to replace Missouri, which is pondering a move to the Southeastern Conference, or decides to expand back to 12 teams.

Connecticut has interest in joining the ACC if it expands again, and there has been speculation about Rutgers moving, too.

By agreeing to conditionally raise the exit fee, the Big East is trying to ensure the schools it is recruiting that the conference will be viable in the long run. Boise State, Air Force and Navy, an independent in football, all had reservations about the Big East's long-term health.

A veteran conference commissioner told Katz that he would be surprised if Boise State would accept an invite without knowing the long-term security of the Big East.

The source also said the Mountain West-Conference USA alliance could persuade Air Force, Boise State, Central Florida, Houston and SMU to say no to the Big East.

"We will continue our efforts to achieve the university's goal of competing at the highest level of college athletics and are evaluating opportunities in the conference landscape," SMU athletic director Steve Orsini said in a statement released during halftime of Saturday's SMU-Central Florida game.

Thompson previously told ESPN.com he was hopeful the merger would gain a BCS automatic qualifier for the winner of the merged leagues.

The Texas schools would replace the presence in the state the Big East thought it was going to have with TCU, and help make the move to the Big East more palatable to Boise State.

Boise, Idaho, is nearly 1,900 miles from the closest current Big East member, Louisville. Though the trip to Houston is about as far, having a presence in Texas is alluring to Boise State.

Houston's athletic director Mack Rhoades, wouldn't comment on the speculation about this school's conference future.

"We are flattered to be mentioned as an athletics program of national importance and we are grateful for our strong traditions and the dedication of our fans, alumni, staff and student-athletes," Rhoades said in a statement from the school Friday.

Boise State and Air Force would have to find a conference to house their other sports. A return to the WAC is possible for both, though WAC commissioner Karl Benson said Friday he has only had hypothetical conversations with Boise State and Air Force officials about those schools joining as non-football members.

The departures of Pitt and Syracuse leave the Big East with six football members: Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers, Connecticut and South Florida. Notre Dame remains a football independent but is otherwise a full-sport Big East member.

The Big East also has seven schools that do not play in the football bowl subdivision: Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette and DePaul.

Notre Dame's goal is to remain a football independent. But if the Big East crumbles, the Fighting Irish could end up with no place for their basketball, baseball and Olympic sports to compete. That could force Notre Dame to finally give up football independence and put its storied program in a conference, as it's unlikely another league will give the Irish the same deal they have in the Big East.

Andy Katz is a senior college basketball writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad and The Associated Press contributed to this report.