Bearcats, 4 other schools jump to Big East

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 5, 2003

NEW YORK - The Big East's expansion returns the conference to its roots as a premier basketball league. Football is another story.

Five members of Conference USA moved to the Big East on Tuesday, more than making up for the recent defection of three schools to the Atlantic Coast Conference when it comes to basketball, but not even coming close to restoring its luster in football.

''We're going to be loaded right now in basketball,'' Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. ''I think we're going to get better in football and we'll have to.''

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Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida joined the Big East just months after the 25-year-old league lost Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC. The new members will begin competing in the 2005-06 academic year.

Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida replace those three in football to keep the Big East at eight members for that sport. DePaul and Marquette join for all other sports, giving the Big East 16 members, several of which are the country's premier basketball programs.

But in the current financial climate of college sports, it's football that matters, and the Bowl Championship Series bids that come with it.

''We're going to have to step up in football,'' Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel said. ''Maybe we relied a little too much on Miami in recent years. We're all going to have to step up.''

The remaining football schools in the Big East are Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia, with Connecticut becoming a full-time member next season. The other members are St. John's, Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Seton Hall.

''In 1990, when Miami joined the league and Big East football was created, we were measured on potential,'' Tranghese said. ''These presidents are looking past today, to five, 10, 15 years down the road to what this league can be.''

Conference USA moved quickly to replace the schools it lost, adding Marshall, Rice, SMU, Tulsa and Central Florida.

''While we clearly would have preferred that no Big East expansion occur, that expectation was unrealistic given the actions of the ACC,'' Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said.

Tranghese was forthright in his criticism of the ACC during its expansion for the way it went about it.

''We had no choice,'' Tranghese said of taking another league's members. ''The ACC had a choice and they made it.''

Big East officials hope the new league will be attractive enough to keep its automatic berth in the BCS. The current BCS contract expires after the 2006 bowls, and negotiations for the new contract will begin in a few months.

''We're still one of the six strongest football leagues in the country and we will fulfill our contractual obligations, and I'm very confident we'll be there in the next go-around,'' he said.

Tranghese said there is no timetable for deciding if divisions will be formed and how the postseason basketball tournament will be held, except that it will be in Madison Square Garden, which last season completed the second year of an 11-year deal with the Big East.

Going on recent past performances, the new Big East could send half of its teams - or more - to the NCAA tournament.

''If we were all together this year, we would have seven of the top 25 teams in the country,'' Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. ''I can't remember the last time that happened.''

Louisville coach Rick Pitino was in the Big East when he took Providence to the Final Four in 1987. He's back.

''We have the opportunity to play in maybe the deepest, most talented conference in the history of college basketball. You may never see the likes of this again,'' he said. ''It will be very difficult for all of us. There will never be a night when anyone has an easy opponent.''

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said it's been difficult for him to watch the league go through such a drastic change.

''I liked the Big East when it was small, but it is growing and people come and go, and change happens and is needed,'' he said. ''It will be a great challenge for UConn and all the schools and I am excited about the new challenges ahead.''

The Rev. John Minogue, president of DePaul, sees one possible problem with a 16-team league with the likes of his school, St. John's, Villanova, Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence and Notre Dame.

''I think God's going to have a problem with all these Catholic schools,'' he said. ''There's going to be a lot of prayers going up there for a good win. We'll see how that works out.''