Big East Commissioner John Marinatto resigned on Monday after just two years on the job. According to media reports, Big East school presidents demanded the “resignation.” It’s not hard to see why. The Big East lost three key members—Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia—during the most recent round of realignment, and Marinatto’s response was to grab any and every school willing to join, including San Diego State, Boise State and SMU. Even this “nationalization” strategy wasn’t very original, as the Big 12 (by grabbing West Virginia) and the proposed Mountain West-Conference USA merger proved.
The Big East named Joseph Bailey III, a managing director of the Connecticut-based executive search firm RSR Partners, as acting commissioner. The conference also retained the Boston Consulting Group to review the Big East’s “organizational structure and design.”
Bailey’s selection as acting commissioner is interesting given his background with the NFL. Before becoming a sports management consultant, Bailey served as CEO of the Miami Dolphins, a vice president with the Dallas Cowboys, and chief operating officer of the World League, the NFL’s aborted attempt at a minor league. At RSR Partners, Bailey “has conducted more than 200 executive searches globally for leading sports organizations,” according to the firm’s website.
It’s unclear what a new CEO can do for the Big East as the conference falls further behind in the college football arms race. With the SEC, Big 10 and Pac-12 clearly the “major” conferences, the Big East is now faced with relegation from the second tier of the ACC, Big 12 and Conference USA/Mountain West. The Big East can’t simply expand its way into relevance. That was Marianatto’s plan when he added eight teams with no geographic ties to the Big East’s traditional northeastern core.
More ominously, the Big East faces renegotiation of its television contract—a pittance compared to the SEC and Big 10—and loss of its “automatic qualified” status if and when the BCS moves to a more open playoff format in 2014. The Big East, long subsidized by its guaranteed BCS berth, faces a post-2014 world as the country’s seventh-best college football conference—one with no strong identity or iconic program.
Having painted a bleak picture, let me now offer a radical suggestion. Since the Big East will never be able to compete with the major conferences, perhaps the next commissioner needs to quit the fight altogether. No, I don’t mean dropping down to the Football Championship Subdivision. Instead, the Big East could reinvent itself as a “rogue” conference with a powerful new ally—the National Football League.
The Big East could leave the NCAA and BCS and reorganize itself as an outright minor league of the NFL. This wouldn’t mean abandoning amateurism per se. Schools could still treat the players as students and compensate them with scholarships. But they could also be signed to affiliation contracts with the NFL so that, for example, players could work out with pro clubs during their training camps. Juniors and seniors could even be “called up” to the NFL during the season as injury replacements. Instead of the present eligibility system, the Big East could award scholarships as credits that could be redeemed any time, even after a player has gone to the NFL full-time.
Such a scheme could work for the Big East given its presence in major cities where college football isn’t already dominant. The post-realignment national Big East includes schools in the media markets Philadelphia (Temple), Orlando (Central Florida), New York/Boston (UConn & Rutgers), Tampa (South Florida), Houston, Dallas (SMU), San Diego, Memphis and Cincinnati. That’s a pretty good lineup for a professional minor league. It’s certainly better then what the NFL put together with the World League.
The main drawback to this idea is that this new Big East would only be able to play in-conference games. The NCAA would never permit games between “amateur” and semi-pro teams. But since the post-realignment Big East is presently slated to have 13 members, that’s enough to do a round-robin regular season (12 games) with a championship game or four-team playoff. If anything, that would make the Big East a more attractive television product than the college leagues now struggling to schedule more than 12 members (including the SEC).
And obviously, it always comes back to television. As the seventh-best college football conference, the Big East is begging for cable scraps. But as the NFL’s official minor league, the conference would instantly enjoy a higher, and likely more profitable, profile. The NFL could use the Big East as a programming lever to obtain greater carriage of the NFL Network—a top priority for Roger Goodell and company. Freed of college football’s traditional Saturday scheduling, the Big East could become a prime time package on Thursday or Friday nights.
Of course, the Big East would remain a NCAA-affiliated “amateur” conference in all other sports, including basketball. And that’s key. The NCAA needs the Big East to sustain its annual basketball tournament, which drives over 90% of NCAA revenue. That gives the Big East leverage to withdraw its football members. As long as they keep bringing in the basketball money, the NCAA won’t object to them going rogue in football, especially since it subtracts little from the overall college football product.
Indeed, segregating the Big East from the rest of college football would only further enhance the SEC and the remaining major conferences. Nobody would bemoan the loss of UConn or Temple—or God help us, Boise State—from the list of non-conference opponents. That only opens up more opportunities for stronger cross-conference games. More importantly, having a dedicated minor league that is willing and able to accept players who have zero interest in being college athletes helps ensure those players who go to SEC schools are committed to college football. And it’s not as if the NFL would refuse to accept college players just because it has the Big East as its minor league. While the NFL is often chided for using college football as a “free” minor league, in reality the NFL would benefit from competition to supply its talent.