Big East may be developing identity crisis

St. John's guard Malik Boothe in the corner St. John's guard Malik Boothe in the corner of the court against St. Bonaventure. (Dec. 7, 2010) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

What the Great Conference Shuffle of 2010 proves is that football still is king in college sports, and nobody wants to be left without a chair when this music stops.

So, now that TCU has tilted the Big East farther toward a gridiron-first operation, might the league's charter schools want to rethink their original premise?

Basketball was the Big East cornerstone when St. John's, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, Connecticut, Syracuse and Boston College pioneered the operation in May of 1979. Now that the Big East has ballooned to 17 institutions by continually seeking a larger football presence -- and still pines for Notre Dame football -- could the handful of current members that don't field football teams at the Bowl Championship Series level be thinking of secession?

Villanova, which joined the hoops-dominant conference in 1980, now is considering upgrading its football program to the highest level, which would leave only St. John's, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette and DePaul with basketball as their marquee sport. (Only Georgetown, of that group, fields a football team, though on the so-called Football Championship Subdivision -- the old Division I-AA level).

Last summer, Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star columnist Kirk Wessler floated the idea that conference football raids ought to have non-football schools thinking about going their own way. He proposed a 16-team league, split in West and East divisions that would have Bradley, Butler, Creighton, Dayton, DePaul, Marquette, Saint Louis and Xavier in one half and St. John's, Georgetown, Duquesne, LaSalle, Providence, Seton Hall, St. Joseph's and Villanova in the other.

Bradley's athletic director, Michael Cross, acknowledged that all manner of informal discussion is ongoing about the future of college sports. The Big East, he said, "could wake up and say, 'We're tired of not having Notre Dame football ... .'

"If Villanova makes the decision to go to Division-I football -- and it's my gut feeling it will -- you've got 10 pretty tight contiguous football institutions," Cross said, "and I think the other group will go, 'What do we do next? How do we think of ourselves?' Because [the basketball-only schools] will have a lesser voice, and some will definitely have a budget disparity within the conference."

Should the non-football Big East schools be thinking of packing their bags?

"I've heard talk for 25 years: 'Let's put all really good traditional Catholic basketball schools in one league,'" St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch said. "But it's certainly not coming from all those fortunate enough to be inside the Big East. Nobody would risk that."

St. John's is going nowhere, he said. Nor is it about to create a football team, despite the fact that football is the unstoppable force (and immovable object) of college athletics. "That always has been the case," Monasch said. "That hasn't changed over time.

"The last five, seven years, there are people who think the Big East will split," he said. "But there is a balance to it. The markets are actually bigger on the basketball-only side, and the rivalries cross over. I've never thought there would be a split. Both parties would be lessened by not being affiliated with those other people."

Hybrid or not, the Big East's prominence is such that basketball superpower Kansas gladly would have accepted admittance, according to Kansas coach Bill Self on his recent radio show, had the Big Ten's and Pac-10's poaching of football schools last year dismantled the Big 12. Geographic and other such logical ties of the past -- such as private school/public school separation, similar enrollment size -- hardly apply.

So: No throwback alignment to the old basketball Big East model?

"It's certainly possible that everything old is new again," Cross said. "Either by grand plan or luck or side discussion, we could get together and say, 'Why wouldn't we do this?' People are always nervous about change, and change is absolutely here and will continue very aggressively and dramatically."

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