Realignment revisited: The beginning of the end for Big East football

Former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck still remembers, with vivid clarity, the day Pittsburgh and Syracuse officially announced they were bailing on the Big East to move to the ACC. He was headed east from Morgantown to the West Virginia-Maryland football game on Sept. 17, 2011, and made a plan to get to league commissioner John Marinatto as quickly as possible.

The two met alone in a suite inside Maryland’s football stadium. Marinatto sat in a high-backed chair at the bar as the two briefly discussed how exactly the Big East would survive as a football-playing conference. The elephant in the room, of course, was that Pitt and Syracuse had delivered a double gut punch that sent shock waves across the league, signaling to every remaining football-playing member that the time had come to forget about conference loyalties and look out for itself.

Neither said what appears obvious, in hindsight. Even if they wanted to, they never had the chance. Marinatto got a phone call five minutes into their meeting. Luck watched as Marinatto turned ashen and pale, then fell to the ground.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh my god, the conference is falling apart, the commissioner just [fainted] in front of me and I don’t know what to do,'” Luck said in a phone interview, adding that the call concerned Dave Gavitt, the Big East founder, who died just as his beloved league was breaking up.

Luck raced to find medical personnel, who helped Marinatto regain consciousness. But there is a reason, 10 years later, that Luck remembers that moment so clearly. That day serves as a point of demarcation where nothing would ever be the same for the Big East or its league members.

In short order, TCU pulled out of its agreement to join the Big East after just 11 months. Forty days after Luck met with Marinatto, West Virginia announced it was moving on to the Big 12, beating out Louisville in a high-stakes race that drew in high-powered politicians and pitted two Big East members against each other for the final open spot.

Skepticism among remaining teams was high; trust was low. Presidents, athletic directors and coaches made calls behind one another’s backs to find a secure conference home that would not only provide stability but also a financial windfall that guaranteed their own futures, all while sitting in Big East meetings identifying schools to add in an effort to save the conference. As Big East officials worked on creating a Western flank with Boise State and San Diego State, remaining schools Louisville, Cincinnati, UConn, South Florida and Rutgers kept making entreaties to other conferences to find an escape route.

To be sure, the Big East did not set off the wave of realignment that impacted every Power 5 conference between 2010 and 2012. The Big Ten did that when it announced in 2009 that it would begin exploring expansion possibilities before ultimately adding Nebraska in 2010.

But the Big East was the only major conference to lose half its football-playing members over that span, and that ended up delivering a blow from which the conference could not recover. Ultimately, the basketball-playing contingent retained the Big East name and split off; the remaining football-playing members joined with nine new schools and formed the American Athletic Conference.

For those with deep Big East connections who watched the events unfold in real time, hurt feelings, anger and sadness remain 10 years later. Marinatto, who died in June at age 64, blamed himself for what happened to his beloved league on his watch, according to multiple former colleagues. He never granted an interview after he resigned as Big East commissioner in 2012.

“I don’t know if anybody could have stopped what happened from happening,” one former league official said. “Especially when you had schools hell-bent on taking care of themselves.”

Of course, the schools that left view what happened much differently.

“We were all aware of the movement happening around us,” former Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said. “We just had a TV deal fall through with the Big East, and the Big East is looking like a burning ship, and there’s a cruise ship here to pick us up. So what are you going to do?”

TO UNDERSTAND HOW everything unraveled for the Big East, a short history lesson is in order. The Big East formed in 1979 as a basketball conference and stood proudly behind that sport, even rejecting Penn State as a member in the early 1980s.

But as football grew in power and financial stature, the league invited in Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and several others, and began sponsoring football in 1991, allowing long-standing league members like Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College to play football in a conference for the first time. But doing so always left the league slightly off-kilter compared to others because of the unusual football/basketball dynamic.

“Ever since the start of the Big East, there always was concern about the football schools breaking away,” one former Big East official said.

Realignment hit the Big East first in 2003 when Miami and Virginia Tech left for the ACC. That summer, the remaining Big East football-playing schools decided they wanted to split away, believing their interests were no longer aligned with those of the basketball-playing schools. Kevin O’Malley, a TV executive-turned-consultant, was brought in to help then-commissioner Mike Tranghese keep the league together.

“They had actually drafted a letter that was going to be sent,” O’Malley recalled. “As far as they were concerned, the basketball schools were history. What I pointed out was something that is a recurring theme through all of this, which is how much the basketball schools and the football schools needed each other. It took a while, but we put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.”

Boston College eventually left too. Though the league added Louisville, USF and Cincinnati to fill in the gaps, the growing importance of football from a revenue-generating standpoint, most importantly during television contract negotiations and making sure it had a seat at the table in the old Bowl Championship Series, only widened the chasm between the football and basketball schools.

It became much harder for the league to not only figure out its identity — caught between its basketball tradition and the riches of football — but also to keep everybody moving forward together.

“There are no rules in this game of realignment, right? There wasn’t an arbiter. You couldn’t go to the NCAA or the federal government. It was a game we likened to musical chairs. You don’t want to be the one standing when the music stops.”

Former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck

“Over time, it got more contentious because the basketball side was always wary of the football side,” one former Big East athletic director said. “And as we drove some of those ideas, it was viewed as more of a football play instead of a league play.”

That essentially is at the heart of where so much went wrong, starting in December 2009. When the Big Ten announced it would explore expansion over the ensuing 12-18 months, athletic directors across the country realized a seismic shift in the landscape was about to happen. Some schools and conferences would end up with an enormous financial windfall, while others would scramble to find a suitable home.

“The day the Big Ten announced that,” former Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said, “I think everybody said, ‘OK, here we go.’ If you don’t know whether you’re going to be one that’s going to be selected, the risk is high. So we really tried to come up with some kind of way to cement the Big East together. Understandably, a lot of schools just didn’t want to make that kind of commitment. They said, ‘Well, what if what if we had a chance to go to one of these conferences?'”

Gross remembers attending one set of meetings before the conference basketball tournament in 2011, looking at the agenda and seeing nothing listed on the topic of expansion.

“To this day, I have no idea why no one wanted to touch the subject,” Gross said. “It was almost like, if we don’t talk about it, then we don’t have to worry about it.”

He raised those concerns during the meeting. Afterward, another athletic director walked up to him and asked, “Are you guys leaving?”

Gross maintains that at that point Syracuse had no plans to leave. “I was just trying to figure out, ‘What’s the plan?'” he said. “I felt so lost. I thought for sure this would be the biggest discussion topic in the entire room.”

Whether the league was proactive or not is a matter of perspective. Multiple times, the Big East tried to form a partnership with several Big 12 schools, but it was only in response to the possibility that Texas and Oklahoma would leave.

Once Texas and Oklahoma decided to stay put, the idea fizzled.

Marinatto sent a bottle of champagne to then-Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe to congratulate him on keeping his league from disintegrating.

Soon, there wouldn’t be much to celebrate.

THE BIGGEST DISCUSSION topic in the Big East became its television rights. At the time, the Big East was working with ESPN on a new rights deal that would bump its annual payout from $36 million per year to $155 million per year. All told, the new deal would be worth more than $1.3 billion over the life of the contract. As its television partner at the time, ESPN had an exclusive negotiating window to make a deal happen with the Big East.

But there were multiple presidents and athletic directors who wanted to wait and take the Big East to the open market once that window with ESPN closed, believing its entire rights package was worth more than what ESPN was offering. That group included Georgetown, Pitt and Rutgers.

“We just felt like at the time that the deal didn’t reflect our value,” Pederson said. “As you looked at the numbers, you just said, ‘If you’re going to sign a long-term deal that you feel is undervalued, then you’re just going to be sorry almost the minute you sign it.’ We understood we were not in the same position at that point as the Big Ten or the ACC, but we felt we were in a better position than the way the numbers came out.”

Though the majority of league schools wanted to take the deal, those with misgivings controlled the conversation and became the loudest voices in the room. Things came to a head in May 2011 when the newly expanded Pac-12 with Colorado and Utah aboard announced a television package of its own with ESPN and Fox worth a reported $3 billion — substantially greater than the Big East offer.

That caused everyone in the league to reevaluate what was on the table, and the decision ultimately was made to walk away from the proposed TV deal.

“That deal came out of nowhere, and people started to ask, ‘If they’re willing to pay that for the Pac-12, why wouldn’t we be able to get more?'” one person with knowledge of the discussions said. “So now everybody’s thinking Comcast has all this money, and we had a year to go before the end of our contract, so people said we should go to the open market.”

One former Big East official said ESPN asked for a counteroffer, but none ever came. O’Malley described multiple athletic directors as being “in disbelief” that the league walked away from the deal.

“I’ve always been the ‘one in the hand is better than two in the bush,’ and that would have kept us very stable,” then-Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. “But I was the newcomer talking. We were very happy where we were, and maybe those schools weren’t happy. Maybe they had bigger aspirations. I don’t know.”

Officials from the schools that eventually left deny they were in negotiations with other conferences at the time the TV deal was nixed. But there are some former Big East officials who remain dubious.

One went so far as to say “sabotage” would be an accurate way to describe the way some schools led the push against the TV deal only to later leave, though others in the room at the time felt that was too strong of a word.

“There were so many people that just loved the conference and were so invested in it, and then you had double agents in the room,” another former Big East official said.

Multiple sources pushed back on that assertion.

“There was sincere and genuine effort put towards trying to figure out a way to shore ourselves up and present more value to the market to capitalize on our deal,” one former school official said. “This theory that we deliberately tried to stop the TV deal from happening because we were all at the finish line with other conferences is bulls—.”

Multiple sources confirmed that Pitt and Rutgers tried early in the process to get league members to agree to a grant of rights, in which schools relinquish control of their TV rights to the conference. But there was no consensus. With no grant of rights, no expansion plan and no television deal, there was simply nothing to hold the league together.

Add to that a perceived vacuum in leadership — with the more mild-mannered and less well-connected Marinatto now the commissioner instead of Tranghese — and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the competing agendas threatened to fracture the conference for good.

“There was no guarantee if we did that deal things weren’t going to still shift, but it would have helped the schools left behind to at least have that in their pocket, and if we had to renegotiate it down, fine, but we still had it,” a former Big East official said.

Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, league officials spoke optimistically at media days in Rhode Island in August 2011 about the lucrative potential for a TV package despite turning down ESPN. One league official told The New York Times, “We’re excited. It feels like the tide is turning in our favor.”

Clearly, not everyone felt that way.

Gross, who was in favor of taking the TV deal, said once that fell through “things were fragile and could fall apart or crumble.” He said he first heard from the ACC in early September, recalling that his phone rang as he walked to his car following a tennis match at the US Open. When ACC officials asked whether Syracuse would be interested in joining, Gross said yes without hesitation.

Within a week, the Syracuse trustees met at a hotel in Beverly Hills, California — where they had traveled to watch Syracuse play USC in football. Gross made a presentation, and the group voted to accept the ACC invitation. Similarly, the situation with Pitt and the ACC moved quickly in September. Both Gross and Pederson said they had no idea they would be joining together until the end of the process.

Despite the uncertainty and fragility of the Big East, multiple people described feeling “blindsided” that Syracuse and Pitt — two of the league’s most identifiable members, including one founding member — would leave. One person said it “shook the conference to its core.”

“Syracuse and the Big East were synonymous with one another for the entire history of the conference,” a former Big East official said. “When they left, there was no recovering.”

Added Jurich: “I know a lot of people’s feelings were hurt, especially the schools that had been in that league for a while. They were crushed because they had such a great loyalty and relationships with those schools.”

Pederson, when asked whether he thought the decision to leave surprised the league, said Pitt was always upfront about the situation. “I guess that would be from their perspective,” he said. “Nobody knew exactly where anybody might be going, and all those negotiations are very private. So maybe there were people that were surprised. I don’t know.”

At that point, any existing loyalties seemed to vanish.

“When one starts splitting away, then the avalanche occurs,” Jurich said. “Everybody was scrambling. It’s, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to survive? How do we keep our head above water now that the TV deal is out?’ You don’t have a chance to use that as any leverage. From our standpoint, all I cared about was our program.”

Meanwhile, TCU, which agreed in November 2010 to join the Big East as a way of boosting its profile as a member of a BCS conference, pulled out to join the Big 12 in mid-October. By then, the Big East was pushing hard for Boise State to join as a football-only member — all while Louisville and West Virginia were jockeying for the last open spot in the Big 12.

“There are no rules in this game of realignment, right?” Luck said. “There wasn’t an arbiter. You couldn’t go to the NCAA or the federal government. It was a game we likened to musical chairs. You don’t want to be the one standing when the music stops.”

BOISE STATE PRESIDENT Robert Kustra took a keen interest in realignment, believing his football program had positioned itself well for a move into a bigger conference with better access to the BCS. In 2010, he met with the presidents of Utah, TCU and BYU to discuss whether Boise State was ready to make a move from the WAC to the Mountain West.

“I gave my salesman pitch, and then I said to them, ‘How can I know that the Mountain West is going to be the Mountain West it is today?'” Kustra recalled in a phone interview. “‘Are you all going to be there for the Mountain West?’ And these presidents, they were either lying through their teeth or they were completely ignorant of their athletic directors’ plans.”

Only a few days after Boise State announced it would join the Mountain West, Utah accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10. Then BYU announced it was going independent in football. In November 2010, TCU agreed to join the Big East. This was not the Mountain West the Broncos agreed to join.

At this point, Boise State had played in two BCS games as an undefeated team (2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls) but had never gotten a legitimate shot at playing for a national championship. Beyond national championships, the Mountain West did not have an automatic spot into the BCS, meaning Boise State would have to go undefeated every year and then hope for a selection as an at-large team.

Kustra felt he had to do something to improve those chances. He had previously lobbied the Pac-12 to no avail. So when the Big East, with an automatic bid into the BCS, called in October 2011 to see whether the Broncos would be interested in a football-only partnership, he listened.

At the time, Boise State was ranked in the top five. On paper, the move made sense: Boise State needed access to a BCS conference, and the Big East needed to fill gaps and boost its football-playing profile. As a way to make its move east more palatable, Boise State needed a travel partner from the West, boosting San Diego State into the conversation.

“I personally thought that taking the Boise State story on the road with the Big East was a great opportunity to get national coverage that we weren’t getting here in the Intermountain region,” Kustra said.

The Mountain West had taken one hit after another during realignment and could not afford to lose Boise State, its highest-profile school. Commissioner Craig Thompson worked the phones to both Kustra and then-San Diego State president Elliot Hirshman, telling them both, “There’s a lot of money being dangled in front of your face, but there’s not going to be a Big East in the long term,” according to a person with knowledge of their conversation. Thompson declined to comment for this story.

The Big East also had conversations with Air Force, Navy and Army but ultimately opted for football-only partnerships with Boise State and San Diego State. In addition, UCF, Houston and SMU would join as full-time members. The moves gave the Big East the largest footprint in the country.

But because the conference looked so different, nobody knew whether it would retain its BCS status or what a future television deal would be worth. Skepticism remained that bringing in Boise State and San Diego State from the other side of the country would actually keep the Big East together. The basketball schools were not thrilled either.

Though Boise State coach Chris Petersen and San Diego State coach Rocky Long spoke in positive terms about the move publicly, they expressed reservations privately. Long declined interview requests for this story; Petersen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“There were some ideas that were not ideal, but when you’re in a position like that, you start to look at everything,” Jurich said. “They were not just saying let’s put our head in the sand and say we’re fine when it truly wasn’t. Did it fit for everybody? Absolutely not, including us. It didn’t, but I don’t think you could look at and say it’s about fit when you were looking for survival.”

Several former Big East officials still believe this alignment could have worked long term at the time. But in April 2012, a plan for a four-team playoff was announced, and it became clear there would be no automatic qualifying designation for the Big East under the new format, taking away a huge advantage the league had over the Mountain West.

Marinatto resigned in May 2012 with the league in turmoil. As one friend of his said, “He was just a guy that was the student manager for the basketball team for Dave Gavitt at Providence College and was Mike Tranghese’s friend, and was handed the reins by the two of them. And the conference collapsed. That’s the weight that he carried with him.”

Whether he could have done anything differently to keep the league together is a question up for debate, considering all the outside factors that were beyond his control.

“I don’t think anybody deserves any particular blame for anything,” Pederson said.

Mike Aresco was hired as commissioner in August with an eye toward maximizing television rights. But first, Notre Dame announced it would be taking all of its Big East-affiliated sports to the ACC while remaining independent in football. When Rutgers (Big Ten) and Louisville (ACC) announced their own departures over a one-week span in November 2012, the Big East as a football-playing conference fell apart.

For good.

In mid-December 2012, the seven Big East basketball-playing schools announced a split from the football-playing schools. A few weeks later, Boise State struck a deal to return to the Mountain West. San Diego State followed shortly after that. The Broncos were given the green light to sell their home games separately from the conference’s television package, allowing them to earn more money than the other members of the conference — about $1.8 million more per year in revenues.

Kustra said the Mountain West presidents at the time called him and offered more money from television rights as a way to get Boise State back into the league.

“I’m asked, if you had to do all over again, what would you do?” Kustra said. “And I’d say, I would do exactly the way I did it. I didn’t know that the Big East was going to fold. But look what we got out of it. We landed on our feet financially. And to this day, the Mountain West is still trying to figure out what to do about that.”

Tensions over the special deal Boise State secured have grown over the past several years — and it was a major point of contention during the Mountain West’s most recent television rights negotiation.

Meanwhile, the newly reconfigured Big East – with Xavier, Creighton and Butler – has been led by Villanova basketball over the last decade, winning national titles in 2016 and 2018. But perhaps the biggest news in recent years involved UConn, which decided to go independent in football so it could rejoin the Big East, where it thrived as a basketball power. The Huskies officially rejoined in 2020 after a seven-year absence.

The American Athletic Conference — renamed and rebranded after the basketball split — has thrived as a Group of 5 conference. The league has secured the most Group of 5 automatic bids into the four-team playoff. With the playoff format soon expanding to 12 teams, its chances of making the playoff have increased. But the same could be said for Boise State in the Mountain West.

“Realignment hit us pretty hard,” said Aresco, now the AAC commissioner. “We were in disarray, making sure that the conference would survive. But it turns out, not only did we survive, we thrived immediately. We’ve been thriving ever since.”

While that is true, there are still those with a deep abiding affinity for the Big East who remain emotional about its breakup 10 years later. Because, as one former league official said, “it’s not what it was and will never be the same again.”

ESPN reporter David Hale contributed to this report.

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