PHILADELPHIA - The names of the schools are scattered across the map, some with the green arrows of the arriving classes, some with the red arrows of the departing, some with question marks and some inscribed only lightly in pencil.
Add them up and there are more than 30 universities associated, disassociated or possibly associated with the once-tidy Big East Conference. They are trying to find a place for their sports programs on the national collegiate dance floor and all of them are willing to fox-trot across the fallen in order to locate one.
It is a dance that is driven by the harsh beat of college football and imbued with the frantic flop sweat of those who fear being shut out when the music finally stops. In one way, it is pure ego and greed - the horror of being stuck in a conference without a BCS affiliation! - but in another, it is merely survival, a way to keep alive the long list of nonrevenue sports programs that depend on Big Brother Football at most schools.
The seven Big East schools, including Villanova, that decided to create a world without big-time football, are taking a bold step into the past, and not one that is guaranteed to succeed. They opted to call their own tune, however, rather than wait for the conference to marginalize them onto the street. The old core of those seven “basketball” schools essentially created the Big East, but the commerce of modern athletics made their continued presence seem as outdated as wooden backboards and high-top Chuck Taylors.
Will it work? Will forming a conference in which basketball sits at the head of the table turn that union into a unique, premium league, or will it become a niche curiosity overwhelmed in recruiting battles by those schools whose facilities, resources and reputations are plumped up by football? In other words, will the Hardwood Seven, and the other schools the new conference might attract, become just the Ivy League with rosaries?
Good questions, and not ones that will be answered any time soon. If the seven schools - Villanova, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Providence, St. John’s, Marquette and DePaul - cannot negotiate a suitable exit fee, they are tied to the Big East until June 30, 2015. By that time, the landscape of college conferences might have been bulldozed and reconfigured another half-dozen times.
The schools that have been mentioned as possible fits to join the refugees - schools like Dayton, Xavier, St. Louis, Butler, Creighton and Gonzaga - have their own conference entanglements to pick apart if they choose to throw in with the new league. It is dicey business, and that’s before the make-or-break issue of securing a television contract to pay for the whole deal.
As you would expect, the breakaway schools would like to keep the Big East name and the cachet that comes with it. They would like to continue to hold their conference tournament in Madison Square Garden. That could be negotiated, too, particularly since the league being left behind is Big, but only remotely East.
The conference that will allegedly remain, which is running down the street trying to hold 10 pounds of football in a 2-pound bag, is a far-flung assortment that currently does or soon will include Houston, Boise State, East Carolina, South Florida, Central Florida, Memphis, Tulane, SMU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Navy and Temple in its arms. Some arrive sooner than others, some will play only Big East football, some - like Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers - are like the smiles of the Cheshire Cat and haven’t fully disappeared yet, so I might have missed a school or two, but you get the idea. It’s a hot mess.
There’s no blaming the seven schools for bolting and giving independence from football a try. It would be better timed if they had been more successful in basketball recently, but the timing was really foisted upon them.
Among the seven, only Marquette has done well in the NCAA tournament the last three years. St. John’s, DePaul, Providence and Seton Hall have collectively made the tournament once since 2006 (St. John’s, 0-1 in 2011), and Villanova and Georgetown are 2-5 in the last three tournaments. As for the other possible invitees, Butler and Gonzaga established themselves as overachievers from lesser conferences. Maybe they can keep that up. Xavier is a solid program, at the moment. The others are nothing special.
Making a super basketball conference out of that bunch will depend a lot on television, and although the core group is positioned to promise footholds, either real or fanciful, in the New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Washington markets, TV might think it smells of small-time and respond with lukewarm interest.
There’s no way to predict what will happen, and the seven schools were up-front in agreeing there is no certainty to the outcome. They all took a hard look at where they were, however, and also agreed there was no future in it for them.
So, the seven have kicked themselves to the perimeter, are trying a three-pointer and, really, it is a good shot.
Good, if it goes.