The divorce between Syracuse, Pittsburgh and the Big East continues to be messy as the league and the two departing schools are now embroiled in another controversy: the SEC-Big East Challenge.
The night before Friday's release of the pairings for the 12-game challenge, which listed Syracuse playing at Arkansas, Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross wrote in an email to Big East colleagues that the Orange are "overcommitted and can't play at this point."
But Syracuse still plans on playing the game, at least according to its website, which said that Syracuse "was slated" to play at Arkansas.
The controversy heated up when Gross replied "all" to an email from the Big East that was sent to coaches, athletic directors, league administrators and sports information directors announcing the pairings and dates for the games. At that time, Gross said the Orange would not play. The email was obtained by ESPN.com from multiple league sources.
"Everyone is working cooperatively to resolve the issues with regard to scheduling the BIG EAST/SEC Challenge. We hope to have resolution very soon," Gross said in a statement released by the school.
Pitt and Syracuse are essentially in a bit of no man's land right now as they prepare for life as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Though former Big East commissioner John Marinatto said previously he was hopeful a resolution could be reached to allow the schools to leave the Big East a year early and join the ACC for the 2013 season, nothing has been determined.
Last year, Syracuse hosted Florida in the SEC-Big East Challenge. The previous year, Florida played Syracuse in Tampa. But that was part of the old agreement when it was an Invitational on neutral courts -- the challenge is in its second year of a new two-year agreement between the conferences. Syracuse hasn't completed its home/road obligation under the new deal. The previous deal for the challenge, which was signed in 2006 and lasted from 2007-10, was a four-game event at two neutral sites and each of the 16 Big East schools had to play once in a four-year period.
The new deal signed prior to the 2011-12 season was for two years, with six games at SEC schools and six at Big East schools. The Big East would choose four schools to play once on the road and once at home, and eight would play twice. This deal was struck prior to the decisions of Pitt and Syracuse to leave for the ACC.
Gross wrote to Big East associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian directly but sent the email to the entire conference. It read:
OJ this is premature as we are over committed and can't play at this point.
I wish we could have agreement as you have put us all in what could be an
We are not confirmed. I find it amazing that there is no discussion to make a better plan.
We have been collegial with the Big East yet it appears that there is no willingness
to cooperate. Daryl
ESPN.com contacted Gross through his email account Thursday night and he reiterated that communication was lacking and that the Orange are in a "very difficult scheduling predicament." Gross said that his intent was not to take this disagreement beyond the people included on the email chain. But the email was sent to the entire conference, and multiple league officials told ESPN.com that they interpreted it as if Syracuse would not play.
ESPN.com requested comment from ESPN programming on the SEC-Big East Challenge matchups: "Consistent with past practice, we worked with both the Big East and SEC to mutually agree on the participating teams and match-ups for this year's event. Both conferences have approved all of the games that were released today," the network said in a statement.
The Big East declined multiple requests to respond to Gross' email. Big East commissioner Dan Gavitt said earlier Thursday that the conference tells the teams that they have to protect dates but assume the team isn't guaranteed a game or a home or road opponent.
Pitt wasn't selected to play in the challenge this season, which came as a shock to athletic director Steve Pederson and coach Jamie Dixon when Gavitt called Wednesday. Dixon and Pederson told ESPN.com that they were promised by the league that it would be part of the challenge for the coming season -- and that the Panthers would play at home (Pitt played at Tennessee last year). Dixon said the Panthers had planned on the SEC game being one of their marquee home games as part of their non-conference schedule. Now, the Panthers are scrambling to find a replacement.
"We were led to believe we had a home game all along," Pederson said. "At no point were we told that we wouldn't get a home game. They've put us in a difficult spot. All Jamie and I were waiting on was who we were playing. We're very disappointed, obviously."
Gavitt said calling a personal friend in Dixon to tell him the news was one of the hardest calls he has had to make during his tenure in the league.
"We went on the road last year, and there was a clear assumption that if we went on the road that we would get a return," Pederson said. "I feel bad for our players. We have a hole on our schedule that we have to fill now."
Gavitt said there was always a possibility that Pitt would not participate. The Panthers currently do not have a non-conference home game against an opponent from a power-six conference.
The agreement between the Big East and the SEC and ESPN calls for the event to have 12 participants from each conference. The Big East didn't include Villanova, Marquette, South Florida or Notre Dame in last season's event. Gavitt said that the agreement with each school calls for a team to have either a home game, a road game or not be included each season and then can't repeat that status the following season.
The Big East lost West Virginia to the Big 12 and is at 15 basketball members for this season, which meant only three schools, rather than four, were not included in the challenge. Louisville was told by the Big East "long ago" that the Cardinals wouldn't participate, according to a university administrator. Connecticut was told the same thing and thus agreed to play in the Jimmy V Classic in New York. Louisville hosted Vanderbilt last season while UConn hosted Arkansas.
Gavitt said there were a lot of reasons for leaving Pitt out this season, and none had to do with the lawsuit the Panthers filed against the conference to leave by 2013 instead of the 27-month requirement that would keep the two schools as members until 2014. Pitt filed a lawsuit claiming the Big East has waived the requirement and should be allowed to leave without further penalty by the 2013-14 season. Pitt already paid half of the $5 million exit fee when it announced last September that it would depart for the ACC.
Pederson said there is suspicion that the Panthers were singled out because of the lawsuit.
Gavitt said he was hopeful the SEC and Big East, as well as ESPN, would continue the agreement to play the games. The Big East is entering its final year of its TV agreement with ESPN, and the makeup of the conference will change in a year, too, with the possible departures of Pitt and Syracuse and the arrivals of Temple, Memphis, Central Florida, SMU and Houston.
The SEC chose not to include its two new members, Missouri and Texas A&M, as possible participants in the challenge.