Commentary

Time for 'basketball' schools to unite?

Originally Published: September 19, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

"People thought we were crazy. No one thought we could do it. No way."

That's what the late Dave Gavitt said about the Big East just three years after he persuaded six other college administrators to take a leap of faith and join the league in 1979.

Now, 32 years later, the league might again have to defy conventional wisdom to survive.

The conference stands at its most critical crossroads, with administrators from football-only members meeting in New York City on Tuesday night and other conferences eyeing the league for more raiding.

The general consensus is that to survive, the Big East has to find other football schools to bolster its ranks.

But what if there was another direction? What if, instead of becoming an Ellis Island for woebegone football, the Big East went back to its roots and formed a basketball superconference?

[+] EnlargeSt. Johns
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireMight schools like St. John's and Georgetown find a home free of FBS football schools?

One man thinks it could work.

"Yes, there's no question it can," said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. "If you have schools playing basketball at a high level, you can have success. Can you make money? Yes. Can you be competitive? Absolutely. Can you have as much success as the current Big East? Maybe not, but I'm not sure any league will ever match that success. But you can be successful and be happy."

Tranghese, it should be noted, has a dog in this fight. He was the league's first full-time employee, Gavitt's right-hand man and the league commissioner for 19 years. The current commish, John Marinatto, was his handpicked successor. The Big East is as much his baby as it was Gavitt's.

Nevertheless, loyalties aside, Tranghese is as plugged in to the machinations of college athletics as anyone else. A former power broker himself, he knows how the pie is divided and knows what can and can't fly.

And he believes strongly that there is enough of a power base for a basketball league to not just survive but thrive.

"If Butler can make it to the national championship the last two years, why can't Georgetown or Villanova or St. John's?" Tranghese said. "I'm not saying this would be easy, but it would work."

Seven Big East schools play FCS football or have no football at all -- DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova.

Since the Big East expanded nearly a decade ago, the fate of those seven has been tenuous at best, constantly pushed to a ledge and at the mercy of their football-playing peers' whims.

What they lack in football, however, they more than make up for in men's basketball. Together they form a solid foundation of tradition and history, counting 16 Final Fours and three national titles among them.

By Tranghese's count, the league would need only 10 teams to be viable.

"You could separate by divisions, playing within your division during the week and the crossover games on the weekends," he said. "That would minimize expenses, travel time and time away from class."

Of course, it would mean opening up another round of conference raiding. Xavier, Dayton and Butler would be at the tops of the wish list, putting folks at the Atlantic 10 and Horizon League on high alert.

That's just the first of several roadblocks to overcome for this sort of fantastical vision to come to light.

For starters: the conference name. If the football schools and basketball schools from the Big East split, who retains the brand name? That's far more than just a marketing question.

"There is such a rich history and association with the Big East and basketball that I would think people in the television networks would want them to retain that," former television executive Neal Pilson said.

But it is even more critical than mere marketing appeal. For basketball, it could determine just who gets an automatic bid.

Steve Mallonee, the NCAA's managing director of academic and membership affairs, explained that to receive an automatic bid, a conference must meet several requirements: It must be composed of at least seven members that offer men's and women's basketball, and there must be continuity in membership, meaning that seven of the members must have played together for at least eight years.

Most important, the current NCAA model is designed to confine automatic qualifiers to existing membership conferences.

In other words, if football keeps the name Big East and the basketball teams come up with a new name, they may not automatically be recognized for a bid.

[+] EnlargeNCAA logo and basketball
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe NCAA doesn't play a role in realignment, but the tourney factor could come into play in this scenario.

"I'm not sure how a new conference could meet the requirements if they haven't been in existence for at least eight years," Mallonee said. "Right now this is all fair discussion that we really don't have answers to. How all of this realignment affects automatic qualifiers is something we have to watch."

The second and perhaps bigger question is about money. That's at the root of all this to begin with, as universities scramble to get their payouts. Can a league without football money make it?

As recently as five years ago, plenty of people thought it couldn't.

In a 2005 Philadelphia Daily News article, Saint Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia mockingly called the NCAA tournament "the BCS Invitational."

Since then, schools are defying the odds. In the past six years, a quarter of the 24 Final Four spots have gone to schools that don't have FBS football (Butler twice, VCU, Villanova, Georgetown and George Mason), compared to just three in the 15 years prior.

"Dave Gavitt once told me that if you're a Catholic school or, in this case, a non-BCS school, you need to do one thing right: hire the right basketball coach," Tranghese said. "The schools that have done that are winning."

But a coach can throw only so much pixie dust. There has to be a revenue stream, a good one, to support recruiting and facilities and to keep the line between the haves and have-nots from being drawn in bold strokes.

Typically, that comes from television. The carrot of huge TV payouts is what has conferences clamoring for new homes, their heads turned by the pretty piles of cash.

Basketball already has a pretty sizable cash pile courtesy of the $10 billion deal for the NCAA tournament, but as individual conferences add to the cash flow with their own gigantic deals, a basketball league would have to generate comparable revenue to compete.

The Big East's current deal is set to expire in 2013, and the fact that the league failed to negotiate a new deal is at least part of the reason Syracuse and Pittsburgh bolted.

"They have value as a basketball conference," Pilson said. "Will it be as much as with Division I football? Of course not. But these are the cards you've been dealt, and it can still be a premier basketball conference that will have value for strong television contract."

And although the numbers may not be as astronomical without the pigskin, Pilson added that there will be less cost without football and likely fewer teams to split the revenue.

The final hurdle might be the most difficult, and that's finding the courage.

Tranghese believes that this is inevitable, that eventually those schools without football will have no other choice but to align.

But will they be pushed, or will they willingly jump?

"The group needs a leader," Tranghese said. "What they need is a Dave Gavitt."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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