TCU has accepted an invitation to become the 17th member of the Big East Conference and the 9th football member, beginning in the 2012-2013 season. The move puts the basketball conference in a very precarious position, as a league with 17 members, with potentially more members to come, makes scheduling, organization, and distribution of revenue very difficult. By comparison, the 2nd largest basketball conference, the Atlantic 10, has 14 members, and has neither the money nor the national prominence of the Big East. Such a prominent conference with so many teams will be difficult to manage. However, like most decisions with regard to conference realignment, it was driven by football and the money that comes with it.
Big East football is struggling, and its position as a major football conference has been in jeopardy. The BCS evaluation period for the Big East’s automatic bid ends in December 2011, and recent history suggests that the conference is not always worthy of an automatic BCS bid. An addition of a perennial power like TCU is essential for the Big East to retain its BCS automatic bid and the revenue that comes with it. The Big East will be able to report TCU’s accomplishments and prominence to the BCS for this evaluation, which will most likely secure the BCS automatic bid until the next evaluation period for the 2016-2017 season. Also, the addition of the Dallas television market, one of the top 5 markets in the country, is a major benefit for the Big East.
The move to a major conference was important for TCU as well. By joining the Big East, TCU will have an opportunity to earn a BCS bid every year, without concern about BCS rankings or the image of non-automatic qualifying schools. In addition, the Horned Frogs’ strength of schedule will improve with the move from the Mountain West to the Big East. The opportunities that exist for the TCU football program in the Big East were unmatched. The decision to move to the Big East was a perfect match for both entities, as both were filling a void for the other, and now both are in a much better position athletically and financially moving forward.
Where does the Big East move from here? With 17 schools for basketball, and 9 schools for football, an addition of at least 1 more school is likely. The Big East desires at least 10 football schools so that it can lobby to the NCAA, just as the Big XII did, for a conference championship game, even though traditional NCAA regulations require 12 teams for a conference championship game. Candidates for the 10th football spot include Conference USA teams like UCF, Memphis, and Houston, among others. Another possible addition for football is Villanova, which is already a basketball school in the Big East with a football program at the FCS level. The offer was made to Villanova to move the football program to the Big East at the beginning of this season. The potential move by Villanova is currently being reviewed by the VU Athletic Department, and is being led by Athletic Director Vince Necastro. The decision will be made by early Spring 2011, according to President Father Donohue. I have been strongly against the potential move from the FCS to the FBS, for many reasons (See my Letter to the VU Athletic Director and the President, http://bobsportsblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/nova-to-the-big-east-in-football/).
How will the Big East change beyond football with the addition of TCU? First, the scheduling and organization of basketball will change dramatically. At this point, each conference team plays all other teams at least once, and plays 3 teams twice in the regular season, which fulfills the 18 game conference schedule. With the addition of TCU, and perhaps more schools, the number of repeat conference games per season will decrease or even disappear, which would lead to more balanced scheduling but greater disparity among the quality of teams in the Big East. In addition, the format of conference tournaments in all sports will need to be changed significantly. A 17 team conference will become extremely difficult to schedule efficiently and effectively.
Another concern is the travel for TCU. The Big East consists of teams primarily on the Atlantic Coast, and primarily in the North. Teams like Marquette, Depaul, Notre Dame, and South Florida are the exceptions. However, none of these teams are nearly as far from “Big East Heartland” as TCU. TCU joins Depaul as the only other Big East team in the Central Time zone, and joins South Florida as the only other Big East team located below the state of Kentucky. TCU is the farthest outlier geographically, which will certainly affect sports besides basketball and football in terms of transportation. It is interesting to note; however, that TCU is actually less of an outlier now than it was during its time in the Mountain West. While in the Mountain West, TCU was the only team in the Central time zone, and more than half of the teams in the conference were 2 time zones away, in the Pacific time zone. Therefore, long distance traveling will not be new for TCU athletes, but will certainly affect scheduling for the Big East, which hasn’t had to deal with a school located so far from the rest of the Big East schools.
In terms of competition in athletics, TCU will bring an unique presence to the conference. In basketball, TCU will struggle in a conference that has been the best in college basketball in recent years. In baseball, TCU will dominate, and will fight with Louisville for conference supremacy most years. In football, TCU will finally get a bit of a test in conference play. It will be very exciting to see how TCU will fare against West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, and others in the Big East. In the same vein, it will be exciting to see the impact TCU will have on the conference on the whole, and if recruiting, quality of play, and general excitement around the conference will change with the addition of the program.
TCU brings a new era and a new opportunity to the Big East with the change in affiliation. Big East football is thankful for the opportunity given by TCU, and TCU is thankful for the opportunity given by the Big East.