Conference Realignment: Notre Dame Move Puts Big East's Future in Question

FOXBORO, MA - MAY 26: Head coach Kevin Corrigan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish walks the sidelines during the second half of the semifinal game against the Loyola Greyhounds in the 2012 NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championships at Gillette Stadium on May 26, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

I have no idea if Big East lacrosse is going to survive Notre Dame's move to the ACC. The Big East has taken so many shots over the years and survived -- bleeding out at times and on life support, no less -- that to simply assume that the league is going to eventually fold and disappear would be an exericse in looking at history, slapping it in the face for giving you a smarmy grin, and then taking its girlfriend to the prom just because you can.

What I am pretty clear on is that the Big East is in really tough shape. The Irish's exodus to the ACC officially robs the Big East of its two marquee programs -- Syracuse and Notre Dame -- and leaves the league in the position of keeping everything together with duct tape and a head filled with rainbows and sunshine in order to avoid the grim reality all around them.

I think there are three major issues facing the Big East right now. I'm not sure of the priority of the issues, but these three are definitely the most important relative to the league's lacrosse efforts:

  • More Defections Coming?: It's no secret that Rutgers is trying to get the hell out of the Big East in order to find more stability for its football and basketball ventures. With the ACC currently sitting at 15 members, it wouldn't be too surprising if the Scarlet Knights look to get themselves an invitation to the league so that the ACC can play with a more sustainable 16 institutions.1 Should Rutgers -- or Villanova or Georgetown, if those schools bat eyes at the ACC2 -- leave the Big East for the ACC, the Big East will be left with only five lacrosse-playing members (one fewer than the mandatory six for a league to hold an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament). That could be a deathblow to the Big East, forcing the league to either abandon its sponsorship of the sport or look outward to try and find lacrosse-only members (the league permitted Loyola to play as a lacrosse-only member on the women's side). Additionally, with this kind of instability, would programs that are already in the league (or will soon be in the league) have the incentive to elevate their programs to Division I status? If I'm Southern Methodist's athletic director, I don't see the value in that. When all these schools left their prior conferences to form the Big East there was a certain purpose and pursuit inherent in the decision; those purposes and pursuits are gone if the league can't stay at six relatively competitive members.
  • Scheduling Becomes a Pain in the Ass: Assuming that the Big East can keep itself together with at least six members, huge importance is going to be placed on a program's ability to schedule quality opponents out of conference. Let's face it: With the ACC about to steal an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament and little idea of whether the NCAA will expand the participation pool for May, Big East members are in a tough spot in terms of RPI-generation due to (at least) five so-so games on all of their schedules. These Big East schools are going to have to get some big name opponents on the nonconference schedule to try and steal some wins and grab valuable strength of schedule points. With the continuing emergence of big, made-for-television events dominating the landscape, how many of these big nonconference games will be available? With schools finding more depth in their leagues -- the ACC and Patriot League, notably -- will they want to even put a Big East school (or schools) on their schedule? There is little control here and it's all happening in a very murky environment.
  • Will Schools Continue to Invest in Their Programs?: Providence and Georgetown just hired new coaches and -- at differing levels -- are looking to increase their program support with updated facilities and other connected efforts. Marquette threw down the hammer and is entering Division I at the ground floor, going through all the struggles of financing and getting a varsity men's team on the field each and every week. In a depleted Big East without guaranteed visits from nationally-relevant programs like Syracuse and Notre Dame, will these remaining Big East schools continue to support their lacrosse programs as they have in the past? Will their investments in the lacrosse programs mirror what was promised before Notre Dame and Syracuse's departures? It isn't cheap to fund 12.6 scholarships, pay for flights to and from Milwaukee, put three coaches on the payroll, maintain the heath and well-being of athletes, and all the other things that are concomitant with playing at the highest level of lacrosse in the NCAA. The incentive to increase -- or even keep -- this kind of investment starts to get lost when the entire picture changes. This isn't the league that everyone signed up for; will the investment change relative to that?

________

1 I know that Rutgers is also angling, internally, for a spot in the Big Ten. With that league at 12 members, though, Rutgers probably has a more pressing opportunity with the ACC than it does with the Big Ten.

2 The scenario of the ACC taking Villanova or Georgetown as non-football participating members is equal to me potentially being named to the Presidential cabinet as "Secretary of the Beerterior." Although, should Villanova get its football situation straightened out, they become a candidate (but not a great one compared to Connecticut or Rutgers).

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