Seven northern Catholic basketball schools, including St. John's, on Saturday officially announced their plans to secede from the loose confederation of football schools that currently identify themselves as the Big East Conference.
Presidents of the departing group, known for now as the "Core 7" -- DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova -- issued a joint statement declaring their intention. But the timetable for a move that harks to the roots of the Big East as a basketball conference remains the subject of complex negotiations.
The statement of withdrawal read, in part: "We voted unanimously to pursue an orderly evolution to a foundation of basketball schools that honors the history and tradition on which the Big East was established . . . We believe pursuing a new basketball framework that builds on this tradition of excellence and competition is the best way forward."
Big East commissioner Mike Aresco and presidents of the remaining football schools -- Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida and Temple -- responded with a statement thanking the "Core 7" for their contributions. But amid the recent defections of Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, TCU, Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers and the planned influx of such schools as Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, SMU, Central Florida, Memphis and East Carolina, the whole had become far less than the sum of its far-flung parts.
In a conference call with the New York-area media, the Rev. Donald J. Harrington, president of St. John's, answered the easy question first. "As far as why, we believe at St. John's that it's important that we shape our future rather than having it happen to us," Harrington said. "In this context of conference shifting and realignment, we do believe this move will put us in the strongest strategic position to compete."
As part of the Big East, the basketball schools receive a reported $1.6 million annually in television money. A basketball conference such as the Atlantic-10 receives only $350,000 per year for each school, according to a sports television industry source. But Harrington and St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch indicated they expect to do at least as well financially as they are now.
Monasch noted that new broadcast entities are in the market for sports programming. "We feel very comfortable that we will have a substantial package," he said of eventual TV rights fees.
Harrington said the "Core 7" ideally will add enough schools to have 10 to 12 conference members by the time they begin play. According to multiple sources, the leading candidates for admission are A-10 schools Butler, Creighton, Dayton, St. Louis and Xavier, with the outside possibility of Gonzaga and St. Mary's on the West Coast.
"As far as being better off financially, finances didn't drive this decision, but we are confident that this decision will not hurt us financially," Harrington said. "We're far from resolution in these things because they're too complex, but we're fairly confident we can move it relatively quickly."
Clearly, two major points of contention between the football and basketball schools will revolve around who retains the "Big East" brand name and which conference plays its basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. Harrington and Monasch expressed hope that negotiations will be "collegial" in nature.
"St. John's would love to keep the Big East name," Harrington said. "I would want to hear from the football schools how important that is to them, and then we would come to some resolution. It would be difficult for us to lose that name, but at the same time, that would not stop us in this process."
Because the "Core 7" is leaving together, the schools won't have to pay an exit fee. But the separation process is complicated because the current Big East basketball TV contract ends after this season while football's deal runs another year. Harrington suggested the new conference could be ready as soon as the 2014-15 academic year, but the departing schools are prepared to wait longer if necessary.
"As we looked at it, we said, yes, if we're really going to control our future, shape our destiny and keep that focus on basketball that is so much a part of our Big East tradition, this was clearly the best way to do it for us," Harrington said. "That's really how it all transpired."