PITTSBURGH -- They're much like a jilted lover, their feelings alternating between sadness, anger and regret. Making the breakup even harder is the fact they must see each other for another year, a much-too-visible reminder that the good times are all but over.
They're the teams that were left behind -- the football-playing Big East Conference schools that are picking up the pieces of their shattered relationship with Miami and Virginia Tech. It was a union that brought much attention and considerable riches to all, only to end when the Hurricanes and Hokies ran off with a wealthier suitor from the South.
After one more Big East season, the conference's two most successful football members will bolt for the Atlantic Coast Conference. That will force Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Boston College, West Virginia, Rutgers, Connecticut to go courting, but only after they decide whether to go through a breakup of their own.
As he pondered the uncertainty and apprehension that faces the Big East at a key juncture of its existence, Boston College football coach Tom O'Brien summed up the feelings of those left behind.
"Are we going through marriage counseling?" he asked at the recent Big East preseason gathering. "Or are we going to have a divorce?"
Even as Miami is packing its bags, the lawsuit filed against the school and the ACC by Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia is continuing through the discovery stage. The lawsuit alleges Miami lied to the Big East schools about its negotiations with the ACC and acted against the best interests of the conference while still a member.
No matter what happens with the suit, the Big East is resigned to losing the Hurricanes and Hokies and already is focusing on which schools will replace them. Before that decision is made, the conference that reshaped the college basketball world in the 1980s with its strategic alliance of Eastern superpowers may jettison some of the very schools that helped accelerate its rapid ascension.
In September, the football-playing schools will decide whether to split from the basketball-only schools (Providence, St. John's, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova). If they do, the result would be a slimmed-down conference that almost certainly would add Louisville and Cincinnati, and perhaps one other school.
Other possibilities are emerging programs at South Florida and Central Florida, which would provide access to expanding TV markets in Tampa and Orlando.
Other schools mentioned as possible expansion targets have deficiencies that, according to some Big East ADs, seem certain to exclude them: East Carolina (too-small market), Marshall (too-small market; academic and athletic incompatibility) and Memphis (no winning football seasons in nine years).
The split would be made not just to protect the football-only schools' best interests, but to avoid an oversized basketball conference that would result in some members playing others only every couple of years.
"We have strong teams," Pittsburgh athletic director Jeff Long said. "And we need to keep them strong."
Notre Dame, currently a basketball-only member, may go along in the same role with the slimmed-down conference, but the Fighting Irish have given no indication they will ever abandon their lucrative independent status in football.
No matter which way the football schools go, they are expected to add new members by 2005. Louisville and Cincinnati are known more for basketball than football, but they would provide access to decent-sized TV markets in football and would be marquee replacements in basketball for Miami and Virginia Tech, the conference's two weakest hoops schools.
"We've got to get it done quickly, no later than the winter of 2004," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "There are no Miamis out there, and we need to find programs who are academically compatible and who play at a high level."
While there aren't any Miamis to grab, Long said, "we believe we will be able to find some Virginia Techs, schools that will be taken into the conference and grow from within."
Still, as Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway said, "There's not a magical answer."
The replacement schools must be chosen in a hurry because the BCS system will be re-evaluated beginning a year from now, even though the current plan will stay in place through 2005. The Big East's primary task is to preserve its status as one of the six conferences guaranteed of sending at least one school to a major bowl.
The financial implications should the BCS decide to replace a weakened Big East with the Mountain West Conference, for example, would be staggering. Last year, the Big East realized just over $20 million in bowl revenue, all but one-fifth of it from Miami's $16.5 million payday in the Fiesta Bowl. By comparison, Conference USA, to which Louisville and Cincinnati now belong, received only $4.78 million in bowl revenue.
Long, a former assistant athletic director at Oklahoma, is a relative newcomer to the East, but he cannot see the BCS abandoning some of the nation's largest TV markets by shunning the Big East.
"I have a strong sense the Big East will be a part of it in 2006," Long said. "About 50 percent of the population is in the Eastern time zone, and the highest concentration of TV homes is in the Northeast. It would be very difficult to have a BCS system that leaves out a significant portion of the country."
Economics are certain to shape many of the Big East's decisions in the next year, and not just because ABC and ESPN are all but certain to seek givebacks in the $15 million-a-season football rights contract that runs through 2007. The conference already is getting less TV money in basketball.
The Big East was paid nearly $10 million by ESPN for its basketball rights each of the last two seasons, but the conference will get only $7 million this season -- a loss of about $200,000 per school. The lower rights reflect the steep drop in regular-season ratings in the last decade. Also, there's no guaranteed annual appearance for every conference school, as in previous deals.
Adding Louisville and Cincinnati would strengthen the Big East's position in future basketball rights negotiations, though that money probably won't offset the lower rights fees in football.
There are other worries for the short term, too.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which already don't play to full houses in football, will lose two of their biggest gate attractions once Miami and Virginia Tech depart. Pitt coach Walt Harris said recruiting has become harder because competing schools are whispering to recruits that the Big East may lose its BCS exemption and, with it, the chance to play for the national championship.
No matter what happens, Syracuse football coach Paul Pasqualoni is certain the Big East will remain a force in football, even if it is a slightly weakened one.
"I haven't been tossing and turning at night, saying, `What are we going to do now?" he said. "I think the quality of the programs in our league will be proven. The wrong thing to do now would be to panic."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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