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Big East dwindles as Boston College becomes third school to defect

Only 5 schools remain

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With Boston College's defection, the Big East Conference is smaller, weaker and angrier than ever.

 
 
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Boston College will bolt for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which already has raided the Big East of Miami and Virginia Tech. The newly configured ACC will have 12 teams, possibly as soon as fall 2005. The ACC plans to increase its wealth by splitting into two divisions and adding a league championship football game.

As for the Big East, it's left with just five members -- Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse, Rutgers and Connecticut -- that have Division I football teams. Now it must pirate schools from other conferences if it hopes to remain in the upper echelon of major-college football.

The mood yesterday on Big East campuses ranged from anger to calculated silence toward Boston College.

Syracuse Director of Athletics Jake Crouthamel emerged as Boston College's most outspoken critic, saying the school's administrators put money ahead of loyalty and tradition.

"Three months ago the presidents, chancellors and athletic directors of the six remaining Big East football schools sat face to face and pledged their loyalty to one another and the Big East. I guess handshakes don't mean much anymore," Crouthamel said.

The Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College, said jumping to the ACC was in his school's best interests in terms of academics, athletics and finances.

Boston College football coach Tom O'Brien made it plain that he would rather talk about games than the politics of conference realignment.

"These decisions are made by presidents," O'Brien said yesterday during a conference call of Big East coaches.

"I support the decision of BC. Obviously it was a thought-out decision."

Other coaches, such as Pitt's Walt Harris, were equally careful to say that Boston College's departure and the search for a replacement in the Big East were the responsibility of university presidents. Even so, Harris criticized Boston College, saying it looked out for itself without regard to the rest of the Big East.

"I think it's too bad," he said of Boston College's departure. "There's got to be some team in this thing. Stars have got to be team players."

The ACC is known for one powerful football team --Florida State -- but many powerful basketball teams -- Duke, Maryland, North Carolina and North Carolina State. To strengthen its football reputation and expand from nine to 12 members, the ACC began courting Big East members in June.

Syracuse, Miami and Boston College were the first three schools the ACC pursued. Irate administrators at Virginia Tech joined a Big East lawsuit to stop any raiding of the conference. Then Virginia Tech's administration flip-flopped, deciding their school would join Miami in moving to the ACC.

Syracuse decided to stick with the Big East and, it appeared, so did Boston College. After the ACC embraced Virginia Tech, it rebuffed Boston College.

But the ACC, still searching for a 12th member, then made a new round of overtures to Boston College. This time it accepted, and a fresh wave of chaos swept across the Big East.

"For the second time within four months, the ACC has intentionally tried to destroy the football side of the Big East Conference with the clear motive of attempting to eliminate it as a competitor and Bowl Championship Series participant," said Syracuse's Crouthamel.

Switching conferences will cost Boston College a $5 million penalty, but its administrators believe their school will profit over the long haul by being in the ACC.

Miami and Virginia Tech paid $1 million fines for leaving, after which the remaining Big East schools stiffened penalties for defectors. Miami remains the target of a conference lawsuit that accuses it of conspiring with the ACC to ruin Big East football. The ACC also was sued, but a Connecticut court last week dismissed that portion of the case.

Now Boston College could face a round of lawsuits,

What next for Big East?

Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia's football coach, said he was not surprised by Boston College's move to the ACC. The Eagles, even after recommitting to the Big East, still seemed interested in the ACC.

Rodriguez said the remaining Big East schools are committed to holding together what's left of the conference and expanding it.

"I'm pretty confident in the remaining schools. We'll be able to crank it up so we're a viable Division I-A football conference," he said.

Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni was not so upbeat. He said the growth of far-flung super conferences was bad for college sports.

In his view, students and fans are best served by regional conferences. Players have fewer disruptions in their course work if they're competing close to home, and fans become more invested in games between natural geographic rivals, he said.

In simpler times, when money was less likely to dictate conference alignments, no more exciting autumn Saturday existed than when Penn State's team came to Syracuse, Pasqualoni said.

"I can't say I'm overjoyed with the prospects that Eastern football is in with Penn State in the Big Ten and BC going to the ACC," he said.

Now the Big East will try to do some raiding of its own. To survive as a football conference with a chance at the highest-paying bowl games, the Big East freely admits it must entice new members, even if that means disrupting another league.

"I am very comfortable in saying we will be a conference of eight football-playing institutions," said Pitt Athletic Director Jeff Long.

He declined to name any university that might be recruited by the Big East, but Cincinnati and Louisville often are mentioned as candidates. Both are members of Conference USA.

DePaul and Marquette -- two other Conference USA schools without Division I football programs -- might be pursued by the Big East for their basketball programs.

Greg Hand, a spokesman for the University of Cincinnati, said people on his campus are intrigued by the Big East because it could shorten travel, heighten the university's exposure in Eastern media markets and enhance regional rivalries.

"It's hard to get a large contingent of Cincinnati fans to go to a game at Southern Miss," he said.

Hand said Cincinnati administrators do not know if the Big East has a serious interest in their school. "Ultimately we're dealing with a hypothetical situation because we have not received an invitation."

Temple, which was voted out of the Big East Conference two years ago by the university presidents and is to depart after the 2004 season, hopes the recent upheaval might give it a second chance.

Football coach Bobby Wallace said Temple would like to remain in the Big East, especially now that it has a new stadium.

The Owls have not had a winning season since 1990 and they used to draw only about 5,000 fans for home games. They have enjoyed an increase in interest since they began playing this year at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Between 18,000 and 25,000 tickets have been sold for Temple games in the new stadium.

Wallace admitted that the rise in ticket sales could amount to little more than a curiosity factor. Nonetheless, he said, he hopes Temple will be reconsidered by Big East presidents now that its has upgraded its program.

The Owls also have beaten Rutgers four straight times, so they could argue that they are competitive on the field, too, Wallace said.

Of the Big East schools that the ACC pursued, only Syracuse has not departed. Pasqualoni said Eastern football may be in disarray because of the shakeups, but he is happy Syracuse stayed put.

"In my heart, from an integrity standpoint, I wasn't convinced that it was the right thing to do," he said of jumping to the ACC.


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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