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As Memphis Steps Up, Big East Steps Back

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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Comments

  1. Michael says:

    The BCS, AQ label makes the team, not the other way around. Utah never had a top-50 recruiting class until the PAC label was bequeathed to them. Nothing else about them changed but the structural label. Recall the 2004 Liberty Bowl between #9 Boise State and #10 Louisville – two non-AQ schools, the Cardinals at the time lame-duck members of C-USA. Louisville’s ascension to the Big East, despite changing no other salient aspect of their essential ontology in any other respect, ensured they would not again be memetically linked with the baser and abjected grouping.

    Similarly, enshrining Memphis with the Big East label changes nothing about them- and absolutely everything about them. While Memphis – along with Boise State and San Diego State (and with Houston and SMU, who have once before been privy to the essentializing effects of this systemic bifurcation between haves and have-nots)- will not be changed in any immediate way, the payoffs in the near- and long-terms will be fantastic. The Big East could have anointed virtually anyone to this position and the results would likely be the same, if only because this is a system functioning systemically and not individual entities acting of their own subjective volition.

  2. Jay says:

    The biggest and best complaint from Big East bashers (and there are certainly plenty of them) is that the Big East doesn’t have any consistently great teams that are competing for the National Championship. Nobody ever seems to care that top to bottom (prior to all of these moves), the Big East was usually one of the most competitive conferences. So they add Boise St. who will hopefully be that top competitive team and then they add a doormat in Memphis. For all those who don’t give a crap about competitiveness and only want to see power teams, why is this a bad thing? Should the ACC kick out Duke? Indiana and Minnesota get booted out of the B1G? Until this year, Vandy out of the SEC? Most other BCS teams have their consistent doormats – I don’t see what’s wrong about the Big East simply acquiring theirs.

  3. George says:

    The Big East should just jettison football altogether and concentrate on basketball. The football product is getting worse and worse. I pity Boise State for joining this sinking ship.

  4. Hokieshibe says:

    Jay – I think the issue is that Memphis is just so bad… I mean, I’d take Duke over Memphis any day of the week. So for a conference that already takes shots about its quality (fairly or not, that’s not really the point), adding one of the bottom 5 teams in the entire FBS is a major cause for concern.

  5. Dave says:

    Agree with Jay. Look, the conference is just doing what it has to in order to survive – who can fault them for that? It’s not like the Big 12, whose decisions pushed teams out – the Big East has simply been the victim of poaching by other conferences, particularly the ACC.

    Which made the Orange Bowl that much more enjoyable…

  6. Hokieshibe says:

    Dave – There’s a reason though that the ACC was able to poach these teams. It comes down to the Big East not able to make itself desireable to its own members due to a lot of reasons (money, difficulties from clashes between basketball only and football members, etc). That is a fault of the leadership. And inviting teams like SDSU to play in a conference located along the North-Eastern area of the US, or inviting terrible teams like Memphis that really only bring stuff to basketball is just another example of this.

  7. RjTheMetalhead says:

    As a ECU fan at first all I could do was laugh at this move by the Big East.

    But then it occurred to me that the MWC may just poach some of the C-USA West teams and let the alliance die.

    Then ECU, So. Miss and Marshall would be royally boned.
    And the options would be:

    Go independent(which is a terrible idea as today you would have to play 7-8 road games a year and away-home-away with ACC and SEC schools), restock C-USA with some Sun Belt, MAC, and larger FCS schools(which is a terrible idea), or create a new conference with some Sun Belt, MAC, and larger FCS schools(which is a terrible idea ).

  8. SixWinSeason says:

    RJ, what I’ve been hearing is that the 8 teams left in CUSA and the 8 left in MWC are planning to merge into a single conference.

  9. Gotham Gator says:

    Memphis is obviously a bad football program, but count me among those who think it could really improve in a good conference. The university sits in fertile recruiting territory and will now start getting BCS paychecks, BCS bowl tie ins and BCS TV exposure. Those things count for a lot and can really help build a program.

    Think back a few years when USF joined the Big East. I told my friends in the Sunshine State that the old football order was over. It was only a matter of time before USF used the benefits of its new conference to build the program and challenge the Big 3. I was laughed at, but it wasn’t long before the Bulls started knocking off top programs and enjoying top 25 rankings.

    Of course, the Big East Memphis will join is weaker than the Big East that USF joined, and that could lessen the benefit, but the Tigers still have a good opportunity to turn that program around.

  10. Parker says:

    Hi Paul,

    While I am sure the Big East preferred to add BYU or Air Force (i.e former Big 12 targets) as football-only for the 12th spot, those schools decided to stay put for now. It came down to Memphis or Temple, and I understand that Nova has a problem with Temple.

    After fixing football by adding Boise St, Houston, UCF, SMU and Navy (who collectively more than make up for the loss of West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse on the gridiron), I’m sure the Big East brass was willing to give basketball more consideration for the 12th spot once BYU and Air Force said no.

    Memphis averages 16,000 a game in basketball. Top 10 in the nation and 2nd only to Louisville among future Big East teams.

    While Memphis sucked in football under Larry Porter, Tommy West took them to 5 bowls in 6 years from 2003-2008. They’ll improve under Fuente.

    Memphis averaged over 40,000 fans per game during their 24-win stretch in 2003-2005, so the town will support a winner. Especially now that they’ve realigned with traditional rivals Louisville and Cincy.

    Adding Memphis likely shores up the Liberty Bowl as a Big East bowl game. And FedEx as a Big East sponsor. In fact, I wonder what influence FedEx will have over the relationship between the Orange Bowl and the Big East . . .

    Finally, Memphis is the #48 TV market, bigger than Louisville, Providence, Fresno, New Orleans and Tulsa etc.

    Memphis is a Comcast market. I expect NBC/Comcast will be bidding on the Big East TV contracts after ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window expires this fall. All the media consultants are reporting that Big East all-sport schools should expect at least $10M per year in TV money under the new deal, if not significantly more than that.

    For schools like Houston and Boise coming out of C-USA and MWC, this will be a huge boon. Schools in those conferences currently receive approximately $1M per year in TV money. Accordingly, all the incoming programs will be getting a booster shot in terms of finances. This money will undoubtedly be used to hire/retain better coaches and improve facilities. There’s no telling what effect this will have on their level of competitiveness.

    The death of the Big East is greatly exaggerated.

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