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Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The new Big East circus rolls on

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Nine priests and one university president walk into a boardroom ...

Oh the punchline? That would be the Big East Conference.

The league opens for business on Monday, July 1, four months after Catholic members of the original Big East seceded to take charge of their future. It was a bold, gutsy decision and ultimately the right one. The seven schools have since fought to retain the conference name and Madison Square Garden as the basketball tournament homecourt, plus added Creighton, Xavier and Butler to the roster, all equally smart decisions.

Stern/Ackerman
Val Ackerman has professional sports experience but hasn't worked in the college world.

But on the seventh day, the priests and president rested, rested to the point that Rip Van Winkle is poking them to wake up.

With days to go before business begins and maybe a month to go before Big East athletes congregate to start practicing for their fall sports, the league is stuck in a self-inflicted purgatory.

There is no staff, no schedule, no cool logo or website -- mostly because there is no commissioner.

T minus four business days, and the college sports world is still awaiting the fumata bianca from the Big East chimney -- an effort even more problematic since there isn't an actual office site yet for the chimney to attach to, but that is a minor detail for another day.

Last week, ESPN.com's Andy Katz reported the league was in negotiations with former WNBA president Val Ackerman, but nothing has been formally announced yet (the conclave, by the way, negotiated the deal with Pope Francis in three days. Just saying).

The jury, or at least this seat of it, is still out on whether Ackerman would even be the right hire. She's a terrific mind and unafraid to ruffle feathers -- her opus on what's wrong with women's basketball better be a wake-up call for that entire sport -- but she's something of an out-of-the-box, even risky hire for a league that right now is in need of solid, reliable footing.

Ackerman has plenty of basketball chops, and this will be first and foremost a basketball league, but she has not been involved in college sports in any direct capacity. That may work out just fine, but in an era when the power brokers of college sports are the commissioners, it will be, at the very least, an intriguing hire to watch.

There's no doubt, though, that Ackerman will be a step up from the current leadership of the Big East. The woman isn't afraid to make decisions and is quite capable of getting things done.

Which is more than we can say for the current crew in charge, the nine Revs and Prez, who apparently have been cryogenically frozen since March. Although we really shouldn't be surprised. This, after all, is the same group that allowed the Big East to bastardize itself until it was largely unrecognizable, all for the glory of football and at the expense of basketball. They acted only when the 11th hour was 30 minutes beyond its expiration date.

What's more, the Big East is merely a microcosm of the new model of college athletics, run by college presidents and chancellors instead of people who actually know what they are doing.

Under the guidance of the Revs and Prez, the league has been gripped with a common university ailment -- the bureaucratic flu, also known as paralysis by analysis. There is no simple decision that can't be meeting-ed to death, no easy choice that can't be endlessly discussed, tabled, reintroduced and tabled again.

I do not say this flippantly. I worked for two years at a small college and most days wanted to put my head through an ivy-covered wall, frustrated by campus inertia.

And those are meetings where the academics actually know what they're doing, where their past experiences and authority has some merit. Here, they are wildly over their heads. Asking college presidents and priests to make athletic decisions would be like asking Bob Huggins to choose the next astrophysicist at West Virginia.

Brad Stevens
Adding Brad Stevens and Butler was one positive of the new league's offseason.

In theory, the academic shift was designed to keep athletics in check and offer up a more balanced place for college athletics. In practice, the presidents and chancellors have offered up convoluted NCAA reform, most of which has been either shot down entirely, tabled or revisited, and led us directly down the path of conference realignment, hashtag #$$$$.

The Big East faux leaders have been intentionally circumspect with their athletic underlings, completely cloak and dagger (conclave-like, if you will) about the decision-making process. It's rightly ticked off the people in the sports wings of the 10 campuses, who'd like answers to some simple questions, such as who are we playing, where are we playing, who's doing our PR, compliance, governance and where to mail conference correspondence.

Not surprisingly, the Revs and Prez have flailed through this entire search, reportedly swinging and missing on various professional sports executives (who wouldn't have worked) and even Dan Gavitt, whose father, Dave, started the league.

The saving grace in all this is that the product will be good despite the fumbles and bumbles to the finish line. The 10 schools offer up a basketball-centric league, comprised of schools that are dedicated to the sport and not compromised by the competitive mess of football.

While there isn't geographic logic to a league named East with Omaha among its destinations, there is at least a balance to the conference map and more like-minded schools on the roster.

But there is still work to be done, important work, starting with choosing a leader.

Nap time is over. It's time for the Revs and Prez to stop making the Big East a joke.