By any reasonable standard, Memphis ranks among the worst major college football programs in the nation over the last three years, a span defined by a 5-31 record, two head coaching changes and plummeting attendance at the Liberty Bowl. Good thing for the Tigers, then, that a) They're still widely respected in men's basketball, and b) At this point, the Big East is more desperate for quantity than quality in its effort to remain relevant in football. Put them together, according to CBS Sports, and you get the latest addition to the Big East:
Memphis and the Big East Conference are in the final stages of negotiations to make the Tigers an all-sports member of the Big East beginning in 2013, college football industry sources told CBSSports.com.
When contacted by CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish about the move to the Big East, Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson declined comment. An official announcement of the Tigers' move to the Big East could be made as early as this week, sources said.
While the addition of Memphis is for all sports, the Tigers' men's basketball program would help offset the future losses of men's basketball powers Syracuse, West Virginia and Pittsburgh.
Assuming the deal goes through, the Tigers will be one of four current Conference USA outfits — along with Central Florida, Houston and SMU — making the leap to the Big East next year, reuniting them with former C-USA mates Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida, which were called up in 2005 to fill the void left by the defections of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC. (On the hoops side, they may also recognize C-USA refugees Marquette and DePaul.) In all likelihood, Memphis will join fellow newcomers Boise State, Houston, San Diego State and SMU in the deliciously anachronistic West Division, along with Louisville; on the other side, Central Florida and Navy will probably fall in with holdovers Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers and South Florida in the East.
Which begs the question: Which is the more Orwellian division name, the "Big East West" or the "Big East East" ? Or are we grading these things on a curve now?
Assuming Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia will have flown the coop by 2013 (all three exit dates remain suspended in a state of ongoing litigation), the expansion to an even dozen teams will achieve the league's first priority: Stability. The Big East will continue to exist as an FBS football conference after this year, which was not at all certain after Pitt and Syracuse announced their departures last September. Despite some heavy attrition, the union has survived.
Whether it will still qualify as a major conference, on the other hand, is another question entirely. In the first place, there's a better-than-even chance the BCS will be doing away with "automatic qualifier" status altogether in its next contract, which takes effect in 2014 and will probably be approved with no provision for compelling one of the four big-money games to take the Big East champion — thereby costing the conference millions if it can't produce a BCS team purely on its own merit. And the barrier will be higher than ever.
Of the dozen schools now committed to playing football in the Big East beyond 2013, nine of them are less than a decade removed from a mid-major, "Have Not" conference. One of the others, UConn, is barely a decade removed from its transition out of I-AA, as is South Florida. Navy hasn't been relevant since Roger Staubach was the quarterback 50 years ago. Of the eight charter members for Big East football in 1991, the only one left is Rutgers, which is still in the process of building a relevant football program after 100 years of wishing it was in the Ivy League.
The hope for Cincinnati, UConn, Louisville and South Florida when they were "promoted" to the Big East to replace Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech was that the newcomers would rise to the level of the new surroundings as emerging, "big time" programs. For brief stretches (Louisville under Bobby Petrino, Cincinnati under Brian Kelly) they managed to look the part. But the reality is the opposite: The addition of mid-major schools has brought the Big East that much closer to becoming a mid-major conference. Since 2004, six different head coaches have won the Big East championship at five different schools — Walt Harris at Pitt, Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, Petrino at Louisville, Kelly at Cincinnati, Randy Edsall at UConn and Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia — and all but Holgorsen have accepted more attractive offers from outside of the league immediately after winning the title. (Holgorsen's team, of course, has accepted a more lucrative offer from the Big 12.) The architect of Rutgers' rise, Greg Schiano, just bolted for the NFL.
None of the new additions — certainly not Memphis — changes the broader reality for football: Automatic BCS bid or no BCS bid, this was already a stepping-stone conference, a poaching ground for the real heavyweights that existed in a kind of limbo between the Haves and Have-Nots. As the realignment dominoes settle into a sustainable status quo, that line is beginning to look much sharper. Now that there's nothing left worth poaching, the Big East is about to be left to its fate with the other Have-Not leagues that have never pretended they're anything but.