The Big East Conference, slowly being ripped apart by conference realignment in college athletics, appears to be on the verge of dramatic change that could threaten the league's existence. And that crushing blow could come sooner that expected.
The Big East's seven Catholic schools are nearing a decision to leave the conference, according to several reports earlier this week. After a meeting Sunday with Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, there was growing sentiment that the seven non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools would decide their future in the coming months.
But ESPN.com reported early Thursday morning that the presidents are scheduled to conduct a teleconference with Aresco Thursday and then issue a statement "on their schools' future in the next 24 to 48 hours."
Those schools are DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova. The schools could attempt to dissolve the league or they could head to another conference as a group. There has been speculation the seven could head to the Atlantic-10. There are reports the A-10 has discussed the possibility of a 21-team basketball conference.
The Providence Journal reported an athletic department official at one of the seven schools said Wednesday "the train has left the station. Get on board or get run over."
According to Big East bylaws, the league can be dissolved through a vote of league members but it requires a two-thirds majority. Since last fall, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Louisville and TCU (which never actually played a game in the Big East) announced their intentions to leave. That leaves the seven Catholic schools, Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida as current voting members and the group of seven could dissolve the conference with a 7-3 vote.
Marquette athletic director Larry Williams openly criticized the future membership of the Big East during a radio interview Tuesday night.
"The Big East that Marquette joined in 2005, boy, that's a different looking animal going forward over the next couple of years," Williams told 540 ESPN Milwaukee. "It's prompted some deeper discussion what futures are for schools such as Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova."
Williams specifically referred to the recent addition of Tulane as a full member.
"I was not pleased that we issued an invitation to Tulane without any diligence to what effect that would have on our basketball product, the draw on our RPI and other such things," Williams said in the interview. "I was disappointed that I wasn't able to participate as a member of the conference in the deliberation that went into adding that."
"Part of this is just everybody's uneasy with all these questions that everybody's got in their own minds. There was something really cool about the Big East. You could rely on it to get six or eight or nine bids in a year.
"It was home. Now that home has been sort of changed, and somebody came and put new furniture in, and boy, do we still fit here is what everyone is sort of thinking about."
ESPN.com cited sources saying that UConn president Susan Herbst has been in contact with officials from the seven non-FBS Big East members and has been pleading with them to stay in the Big East.
Since the announcement that Pitt and Syracuse were headed to the ACC, Herbst has openly lobbied for UConn's addition in the ACC. When ACC presidents voted recently to invite Louisville into membership, choosing the Cardinals over UConn and Cincinnati, there were expressions of dismay from Herbst and UConn athletic officials.
A Big East official told UConnPlaybook.com last week the league office has not been pleased with UConn's public courting of the ACC.
The Big East has been in negotiations for a new media rights contract since Sept. 1. The constant shuffling of membership has slowed that process. With so much instability, the television networks cannot get a firm grip on the final product that will be available. A report last week by CBSSports.com projected the value of the rights revenue to be between $60 million and $80 million. A departure of the seven schools would significantly decrease the value of the rights, perhaps as much as 15 or 20 percent, according to ESPN.
The voting process and the departure of seven schools would be complicated and attorneys would be called upon to determine the rights to the Big East name and financial issues. But the seven schools do have a great deal of power, including the support of NCAA rules.
A group of seven schools that have been together as conference members for more than five years can keeps its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament if the group moves to another league.