College athletic directors don't like to be quoted saying their business is a mess, so this AD I was talking to the other day prefers to remain incognito when saying, "You almost need someone with best-interests-of-the-game authority."
He wasn't referring to the current better-than-fiction college football scandals, only the realignment wheels that never stop spinning in big-time college sports. The news that Texas A&M has one foot out the door of the Big Twelve headed toward the greener and Longhorn-free pastures of the Southeastern Conference has the attention not just of athletic directors but every university president who wants a seat at the biggest-money tables.
That news absolutely is being watched around here since the filter-down reaches to the Main Line and North Broad Street, home to the two schools opening up the local college football season Thursday at the Linc. The fallout branches out past Villanova and Temple to other local Division I campuses.
There are two intertwined reasons the Big East hasn't made any expansion announcements since taking in Texas Christian last year. The league has roughly one year to get its membership straight before it must finalize a potentially lucrative television contract. Seeing the fallout from Texas A&M's imminent move makes good business sense for the Big East. Why take Central Florida when Kansas could become available?
The Big East has to be nimble since the A&M fallout could be minor or seismic. The SEC, which says it doesn't want to add members from states where it already has teams, could decide to go after Virginia Tech from the Atlantic Coast Conference, pushing the ACC into looking north toward maybe Syracuse and/or Connecticut. One well-sourced report has the Big Twelve talking replacements such as "Notre Dame, Arkansas, Pitt and BYU." That pretty much sums up the landscape. Targets from Pennsylvania to Utah, realistic to no shot. The Big Ten, which hasn't made a wrong move yet on membership, could watch all this and decide the time is right for its next play.
Just as big, Notre Dame could decide it is finally time to join a football league since the current TV dollars being thrown around make even the Irish NBC deal not-so-special.
A bigger question: In a few years, will the Big East even exist as a football league? That has to be on the table since Rutgers, Louisville and even not-yet-arrived TCU could be targets from other leagues, too. There's a reason the Big East commissioner is reaching out to the heads of the ACC and Big Twelve. Survival is on everybody's mind.
The bottom line for Villanova: The school doesn't have an invite to play Big East football right now, and given the ramp-up costs, 'Nova shouldn't want an invite until it knows what it is getting itself into. I understand all the ramifications for 'Nova basketball, the need to stay at the grown-up table. But making a move without knowing your partners would be lunacy.
I'm hearing that talks between the Big East and Villanova aren't dead at all, more like "a restart," as one source put it. "Instead of being reactive, like . . . last summer." Don't expect any big announcements before Big East presidents meet for the next time in November, and it could go well into 2012.
The bottom line for Temple: The Owls should root for as much shifting as possible. The more moves, the greater the odds there will be a place for Temple football in some sort of Eastern league, a natural home for the Owls. (My own preferred scenario of seeing future Villanova-Temple football games become league games looks like a nonstarter.)
One long-rumored end game is that we'll have four 16-team super conferences, with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 being three of them and the others scrambling for a place. College administrators I've talked to buy the theory and even could see some sort of ACC-Big East merger but question the logistics of it coming together so cleanly. For argument's sake, let's say it does. And let's do the basic math.
The six conferences that send teams to Bowl Championship Series games currently have 66 schools, with TCU making 67. Add Notre Dame and maybe BYU to that mix and you see that not everybody would get a place in the 4x16 structure.
More likely, the future will be less clean and potentially more promising for the Big East. According to various reports, the Big East decided not to pull the trigger just yet on re-upping a deal with ESPN this spring worth $110 to $130 million (those numbers were reported by the Sports Business Journal) because the Pac-12 made a deal worth $250 million a year, with ESPN and local networks contributing.
This slowdown isn't perfect for Villanova obviously. The school was ready to move up in football when the Big East called off the vote this spring - and still is ready, we're told. Villanova doesn't have the leverage to force a quicker timetable, but we'll argue again that is a big break, that 'Nova shouldn't want to commit millions without knowing who is staying around. The Big East needs to be bold, and 'Nova needs to incorporate those moves into its own plan, to be able to at least guess the reward before it takes the risk, since even Villanova's most optimistic move-up game plan involves losing money on football.
The real bottom line: Everyone is still trying to hit a moving target.