PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Here's hoping the Big East Conference dramatically and successfully reinvents itself, and the sooner the better.I know. You couldn't care less, right? After watching the league melt down like the Red Sox in September - much of it largely due to its own head-in-the-sand procrastination - you're just happy to have finally located the emergency exit row and figured out how to open the window.West Virginia's move to the Big 12 allows you to exhale after more than eight years of holding your breath, beginning with Miami and Virginia Tech jumping ship in the spring of 2003 and continuing through the gasps of reconstruction and then more defections.So why should you care what happens now to those left on the inside looking out?
Well, a couple of reasons. For starters, the Big East has been good for West Virginia. No, not recently. Not since the football side became a punch line. But say what you will about WVU having to hold up the football side after the initial defections of Miami and Virginia Tech, the fact is those very defections created the opportunity for the Mountaineers' football program to soar.The Big East could have crumbled after those defections, but somehow Mike Tranghese rebuilt it enough to keep its BCS status, and at the same time turned it into a basketball behemoth. West Virginia was able to take advantage of that reconstruction and become more relevant than at almost any time in its history.Let's face it, something happened to throw West Virginia into prominence in the last decade - five straight appearances in the final AP Top 25, three in the Top 10 - and if you are loath now to credit Rich Rodriguez for that, then it probably has something to do with being given the opportunity to play in the conference that Tranghese managed to save. (And let's not forget basketball, where the Big East was the best thing that happened to the program since Jerry West).In other words, while WVU certainly took advantage, the Big East provided the platform.
That's not, however, the best reason to root for the Big East right now. The best reason is because the sooner the Big East moves on, the sooner West Virginia might do the same.It has to do with the 27-month period in which the Big East swears it will hold West Virginia before allowing it to compete in the Big 12. That would mean staying in the Big East in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years before finally being freed for 2014-15.It's hard to fault the Big East for drawing a line in the sand. West Virginia and every other school in the league agreed to it. They can't just capitulate. What kind of message does that send?The reason for the rule, though, is pretty simple. The Big East wanted to be in a position to rebuild after losing schools. A league can't be given notice of a departure in late October of one year and expect to deal with recruiting new members (usually from leagues with their own waiting period), adjusting television contracts, making schedules and everything else by the start of the next school year.
In this case, however, those wheels are already in motion. The Big East has schools lined up. It could all happen in a matter of days. Even with the departures of West Virginia, Syracuse, Pitt and TCU, the Big East could grow from an eight-team football conference to a 12-team league as soon as this week.If it does, and if those schools are ready to begin play next year, the Big East not only won't need WVU and the others, they shouldn't want them. If the Big East wants and needs to move forward, how can it possibly do so by forcing Rutgers to play West Virginia instead of opening that spot for Central Florida?The trouble is, though, this is actually a double-edged sword. West Virginia needs to move on as quickly as possible. Apparently in doing so the school will argue in whatever legal proceedings come out of it - and you know there will be legal proceedings if both sides maintain a hard line - that it shouldn't be held to the 27-month rule because the Big East as presently constituted is not the league with which they signed that deal.
In that context, perhaps you root against the Big East. "Look,'' you tell the judge, "we signed up with Pitt and Syracuse and we thought TCU was coming. They're gone. And now you're going to make us stay in this Pop Warner league? This isn't what we signed up for.''It appears more likely, though, that the Big East will find a way to reconstruct, despite its own best efforts to dawdle. If that's the case, West Virginia's argument that the league is now a pit of despair might not hold as much water.It still could work, of course, but it's all just so, well, messy, isn't it? Conference realignment is just that way. It all has an odor of desperation and back-handedness.West Virginia's move to the Big 12 is no different. You have to look out for No. 1, no matter where the resultant dominoes fall.Ultimately, money will likely talk. If WVU wants out bad enough and can't do it to the liking of the Big East, the school will simply breach the contract and leave. Maybe it will be via negotiation and WVU agrees to pay a lump sum, or perhaps the school just walks away and lets the courts handle it. It doesn't really matter. If WVU wants to leave, it can leave. It does and it will.There will likely be money there to pay for it. Eventually. It's not quite clear what WVU's split of Big 12 revenues will be at the outset, but it's expected to be a partial share in perhaps the first years - increasing each year - before the school begins sharing in Big 12 revenue as an equal partner. Still, the money will be better than it is now even in partial shares, so it is to be had for buyouts or whatever.
But wouldn't it be nice if this time everyone came out feeling OK about it? If that takes West Virginia actually rooting for the Big East, then so be it.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org