Big East raids C-USA again
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Big East plucked two more schools from Conference USA on Tuesday, landing the football program with the league's top fan base and the athletic program with one of the most sluggish.
Tulane University announced that it will join the ever-changing Big East in all sports on July 1, 2014. A few hours later, East Carolina University announced its football program, which nearly fills a 50,000-seat stadium on a regular basis, will migrate at the same time.
Tulane, which is strongest in baseball, provides the most curious case in the current wave of conference realignment. The Green Wave football program has the worst record in C-USA's current lineup, 22-73 overall and 13-51 in league play, the latter mark nine games worse than the next lowest.
Its listed home attendance at the Superdome, 18,085, is probably exaggerated. When Marshall played at Tulane in 2009, the listed gate of 28,312 was at least quadruple the number of live bodies in the building.
In men's basketball, the Green Wave has had one winning season in league play since 2000, and its listed attendance last season was 2,253 per home date - visitors to the ancient Fogelman Arena say said those figures also are inflated.
But Tulane president Scott Cowen gave an update Tuesday on the school's $125 million in facility improvements, including a new football stadium and the ongoing renovations to the arena, now renamed Devlin Fieldhouse. He defended his school's athletic record, noting successful seasons prior to the 2005 devastation from Hurricane Katrina.
Cowen said his athletic department won more C-USA championships before Katrina than any other school, most notably the undefeated football season of 1998.
"Once we recovered financially and academically, we invested heavily in athletics,'' he said.
East Carolina is much more competitive in football, on the field and in the stands. Conference champions in 2008 and 2009, ECU has led C-USA in attendance every year since 2008, exceeding its 50,000-seat capacity in 2011. After beating Marshall 65-59 in overtime last weekend to improve to 8-4, the Pirates are heading to their sixth bowl game in the last seven years.
Under C-USA bylaws, the Pirates must exit the conference entirely, leaving ECU to find a place for its other 18 sports. Members of the Colonial Athletic Conference before entering C-USA in two phases, the Pirates could well be ticketed for the Southern Conference, which wouldn't be a bad fit for their solid baseball program.
Tulane and ECU become the fifth and sixth schools from C-USA's current lineup to leave for the Big East. The others, who will make the jump after this season, are Memphis, Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida. Tulane's departure would leave Southern Mississippi as the league's lone charter member from 1996-97.
The Big East has raided C-USA previously, taking Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida, plus non-football schools DePaul and Marquette in the 2005-06 realignment earthquake. When the dust settled and C-USA reinvented itself, Marshall and five other schools joined six holdovers.
Now Marshall finds itself as one of six holdovers, along with Southern Miss, Alabama-Birmingham, Tulsa, Rice and Texas-El Paso. C-USA's regeneration begins next year with the addition of Texas-San Antonio, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Florida International, North Carolina-Charlotte and Old Dominion. The latter two schools will not be football-ready until 2015.
C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky and Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick both wished the two schools the best, but showed confidence in the league's future.
"We have recently made some great regional additions [Charlotte, Old Dominion] in Conference USA for future matchups that Herd fans will enjoy, and I feel this trend of expanding with the right institutions will continue," Hamrick said.
Banowsky said, "To be clear, we have several options but no new member agreements have been made at this time. We appreciate the support of our members and will immediately begin a presidentially led process to evaluate our future options."
In realignment-speak, that may mean those presidents have already started the process. From the Sun Belt, Middle Tennessee had support in C-USA's last expansion, and Western Kentucky would give Marshall fans another close rival. Florida Atlantic could revive its rivalry with FIU, and Arkansas State has emerged in recent years.
As for the Big East, it gained in Tulane the 53rd-largest TV market, as well as a replacement for the departing Rutgers.
Rutgers would like to join the Big Ten by 2014, along with Maryland, but the Scarlet Knights have left their departure date from the Big East ambiguous. Conference bylaws require members to give the league notification of two years and three months before departing, but the Big East has negotiated early exits for Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia in the past year.
West Virginia joined the Big 12 this year. Syracuse and Pitt will begin play in the Atlantic Coast Conference in September.
With Maryland leaving the ACC, there has been strong speculation that Connecticut or Louisville will be the next to leave the Big East as the Terps' replacement.
If either does, the conference is still on target to have 12 football members in 2014, just not the same ones it will have in 2013 when the new Big East debuts.
"We're not finished,'' Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco said. "We obviously have some other plans for expansion.''
Boise State and San Diego State, currently in the Mountain West, are set to join for football only starting in 2013, anchoring the Big East's new West Division.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.