The biggest story in college sports over the past three days has been, unfortunately, yet more conference realignment -- in this case the impending death of the Big East, and the very understandable desire of that league's basketball-only schools to not die along with it. So those schools met with Big East commissioner Mike Aresco and let him know they were concerned about the direction the league was heading in, and they might have taken a good hard look at the Atlantic 10 as a potential destination down the line.
Nothing is set yet, of course. But whatever happens, it's clear Marquette, DePaul, St. John's, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and Villanova aren't going to sit around and await their fate.
What prompted such strife? Many things: The departures of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville. The additions of cobbled-together replacements like Central Florida, SMU, and Houston, which have effectively made the idea of the "Big East" moot. But the straw that might have broken the camel's back was the most recent addition -- Tulane.
Marquette athletic director Larry Williams nearly said as much Tuesday in an interview with ESPN 540 in Milwaukee:
On Tulane joining the Big East:
“I was not pleased that we issued an invitation to Tulane without any diligence to what effect that would have on our basketball product, the draw on our RPI and other such things. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to participate as a member of the conference in the deliberation that went into adding that. There might be well articulated and very deep reasons why you would do it otherwise. But dog-gone-it, I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about making sure that Marquette is in a position that it can take advantage of the great investment it’s made in being successful in basketball."
It seems Williams is less unhappy about the addition of Tulane than about the process that went into that addition. Because there is an argument to be made -- I probably wouldn't make it, but it could be made, and the Big East did its best when it announced the move -- that Tulane was a really good C-USA program before Hurricane Katrina devastated it along with the city it calls home, and that it can come back.
Agree or disagree, but it's beside the point. The point is, Williams seems displeased because the Aresco-led Big East has essentially thrown its hands up and started taking any school in a reasonably sized market, regardless of what that school's athletics programs are like, and after a couple of years of sitting around hoping things didn't change too much, the Big East's basketball-only folks are finally deciding enough is enough. And tenuous though their position might be, you know what? Good for them.
Anyway, Williams also made a point that I think is vastly underutilized. In fact I think it's the best argument I've heard about basketball schools and conference realignment in a long time:
"Football [is] enjoying a current state of dominance, but that’s not to say that’s always going to be that way. Guys like me that played way too many years and got way too many concussions, that may affect the game of football down the road. These TV deals are 15 years, well you know what, what’s football going to look like in 15 years? They may not be in the power position they are in today. How do we as an elite basketball program fit into the landscape of this football dominated environment? I don’t have a complete answer for you, but that’s the question.”
We probably don't talk about this enough. Realignment is predicated on pretty simple facts: Football is king, because people sure do love to watch their Nick Saban perfect his death stare for three hours. And maybe it will always be so. But, you know, maybe not! In the past year alone, football has come under more scrutiny for the head trauma endemic to the game at all levels than it ever has before, to the point where it is not unfathomable to imagine a world in which the sport is deemed too dangerous. What if a player dies on the field? Wouldn't that make just about everyone second-guess the sport's place in our lives?
There are probably plenty of people who will say no, football is dangerous, deal with it, I'll always watch, and they might have a point. But it is not a totally irrational thing to think that in 15 or 20 years, the sports landscape could look much different than it does now.
So kudos to Williams and his fellow ADs. They're in a horrible position, but at least they're thinking long-term. At least they're trying to preserve a sport that doesn't require brain trauma every 30 seconds, even while the rest of the world clamors over one that does.