As Memphis Steps Up, Big East Steps Back
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 8, 2012
Last October, Memphis athletic director told a local television station that “ultimately,” the university wanted a spot in the SEC. “We think we deserve to be” in the SEC, he said, drawing a national response of shrugged shoulders and muffled guffaws. This was when every major athletic program with a pulse was punch-drunk on expansion Kool-Aid; for Memphis in particular, this was the period after the SEC added Texas A&M and before it added Missouri, meaning the Tigers were angling for the conference’s 14th spot — or 15th, or 16th, should the SEC have continued expanding in perpetuity. Unfortunately, Memphis’ bait, a dangling worm of basketball prominence tinged with only a faint trace of a football program, was not nearly tasty enough to entice the biggest fish in the F.B.S. pool.
It was good enough for the Big East, however. That league remains basketball-first, has for generations, and adding Memphis to its soon-to-be diminished basketball product soothes some of the conference’s pain over losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia to the A.C.C. and Big 12, respectively.
This is great news for Big East basketball; when it comes to Big East football, on the other hand, adding Memphis further dilutes an already weakened product. The Tigers will join the ranks in 2013, along with another handful of former non-B.C.S. conference programs in U.C.F., S.M.U., Boise State, Houston and San Diego State. Navy will join the Big East in 2015.
If all goes according to plan — if it doesn’t lose any more programs — the Big East will have 13 members in 2013 and 2014 and 12 in 2015, after Syracuse and Pittsburgh depart for the A.C.C. and Navy joins the conference. That total may be lower in 2013 and 2014, should the Orange and Panthers get out of their current arrangement with the Big East ahead of schedule, much like West Virginia seems to have done in advance of its move to the Big 12.
Based on the precedent set by the Mountaineers, the Orange and Panthers should not encounter too much difficulty leaving the Big East in time for the 2013 season. It’ll take a sizable exit fee, but that the league is stockpiling new programs does indicate that the Big East is preparing for the inevitability of that pair leaving one year before their projected departure date.
Saying that the Big East will be significantly weaker come 2014 — if not sooner — doesn’t fully illustrate the league’s cloudy future. Adding Memphis gives the Big East one of the worst programs in college football, and not merely in recent terms. The Tigers are 5-31 since 2009, a period that spans Tommy West’s final year and the entirety of Larry Porter’s disastrous two-year tenure.
But it’s not merely over the last three years that the Tigers have scraped rock bottom. Memphis doubles as one of the weakest football programs in college football on a historical level. No conference hardware of any kind since the Missouri Valley championship in 1971 — the Tigers went 5-6 that fall. Zero double-digit win seasons since 1940. A career mark of 43 games under .500.
The conference took a nice step forward when it added Boise State, even if that stretches the boundaries of an East Coast-based conference. Adding Memphis takes the league one step back; even in the Big East, Memphis’ ineptitude stands out. It’s hard for the league to be taken seriously when it replaces West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse with S.M.U., U.C.F. and the Tigers.
Not even adding Boise State can offset Memphis’ future arrival. On day one, the Tigers will be the worst program in a major F.B.S. conference.
But it’s not about being taken seriously. For the Big East, this is a move entirely based on survival — and on basketball, where Memphis does improve its overall product. The Big East now resembles a new staff scrambling to fill spots in the weeks leading up to national signing day; you can’t play the game without the requisite number of players, so let’s take any warm body we can find.
Meet the new Big East. The league wanted to add enough teams to have a conference title game; thanks to Memphis, the Big East will have 12 teams once Navy joins the league in 2015. And what a league it is: weaker than its current incarnation, which says much about the Big East today and the Big East for the foreseeable future.
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Tags: A.C.C., Big East, Boise State, Conference Expansion, Memphis, Navy, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia
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