The Big East as we know it is about to change drastically. Again.
The conference presidents voted Tuesday to go forward with an expansion plan that would increase the football playing membership from eight to 10 teams. The cheers you heard were from athletic directors and coaches at the football schools, who long had wanted to add teams to help with scheduling. The Big East has survived as an eight-team league since 2005, but as the Big Ten and Pac-10 have expanded and more possible conference re-alignment in the future looms, the conference knew it had to get bigger or face extinction.
Tuesday's announcement was hardly out of the blue. While many fans criticized commissioner John Marinatto for not doing anything during the summer conference madness, the Big East has been quietly mapping out its future strategy. It hired former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a consultant to help look into, among other things, the formation of a possible TV network. There have been preliminary discussions already about Villanova moving up and with TCU. This was merely a formal approval of that process and an acceleration (and getting a majority on board in a 16-team league where half the membership doesn't play football could not have been easy).
This is the right move by the Big East, and as I wrote in my mailbag earlier Tuesday, going to 10 teams now is smarter than expanding to 12 and adding a championship game. For one, I'm not sure there are four viable candidates for new members out there. You also have to consider the non-football side of things; if Villanova moves up that means only one more program will actually be added to the basketball and Olympic sports alignment.
What the league needs to do now is make sure it's not expanding just to expand. It needs to find new schools that actually add to the league and make it more competitive nationally.
That's why TCU should be the No. 1 choice. The Horned Frogs have established themselves as a bona fide Top 10 team the last few years and would give instant credibility to the Big East. Forget the geography; it's not like TCU is enjoying a border war with Wyoming or San Diego State, and the Mountain West is going to be much weaker with the loss of Utah and BYU. The Fort Worth/Dallas market will also help in future media negotiations.
Villanova is the easiest team to integrate because it is already a member in other sports. The Wildcats won the FCS national championship last year and could be competitive right away. But there are still serious doubts about whether the school could support big-time football or find a place to play, and it would be several years before it is ready to step into the Big East and compete for a league title. Villanova helps with the Philadelphia market, but the league shouldn't be obsessed just with big cities. The conference thought adding DePaul would bring Chicago, but that hasn't worked out so well.
If not Villanova or TCU, the next best choices are Central Florida and Houston. Both, again, are in major markets and both have potential for serious growth as programs.
If the Big East doesn't end up with TCU, though, its expansion won't make much of a splash nationally. Even with the Horned Frogs, there's little the league can do to stop a raid by the Big Ten if that league decides it wants Rutgers, Pittsburgh and/or Syracuse. But at least league officials are thinking proactively and moving to improve the overall football product.
One thing we know for sure: The Big East will soon look a lot different. Again.