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updated: 12/14/2012 6:22 PM

Big East exit plan has positives, negatives

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  • Georgetown head coach John Thompson III says there is more homework to be done before seven basketball-only schools in the Big East can determine the best course of action to take regarding their future.

    Georgetown head coach John Thompson III says there is more homework to be done before seven basketball-only schools in the Big East can determine the best course of action to take regarding their future.
    Associated Press file

By Liz Clarke
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- On a day when Georgetown University and six other basketball-centric schools appeared poised to part ways with the Big East Conference they helped found, Hoyas head coach John Thompson III acknowledged the uncertainty and far-reaching ramifications of making such a move.

Thompson was a teenager when Georgetown helped found the Big East in 1979 -- a boutique athletic conference rooted in urban basketball, stitched together by the Catholic faith and scripted for the programming needs of a nascent cable network known as ESPN.

In his 20s, Thompson cheered the Big East's dominance of basketball, with his father leading Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA championship and returning a year later as one of three Big East schools to reach the Final Four.

Thursday, the younger Thompson confirmed that Georgetown was in the process of studying whether it made sound business sense to leave and insisted that neither the university's leadership, nor the seven Catholic schools -- including DePaul in Chicago -- that don't compete in big-time football, would act rashly.

"I don't think I'm out of line in speaking for President (Jack) DeGioia or (Athletic Director) Mr. (Lee) Reed: It's not going to be an emotional decision," Thompson said. "It's going to be a decision based on research and projections of what's best for this institution as much as we can control."

Within hours, veteran Big East journalist Mark Blaudschun reported in USA Today that the seven presidents had informed Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco of their intent to leave during a conference call Thursday morning, intending to keep their plan quiet until the myriad legal and financial ramifications could be sorted out.

Georgetown has traditionally advocated for the Big East to stay together in times when its football-playing members have feuded with its traditional basketball powers. To break off now would make a dramatic departure.

But unless Aresco can convince them otherwise, that means Georgetown, DePaul University, Marquette University, Providence University, St. John's University, Seton Hall University and Villanova University -- more or less, the founding members that gave the Big East its identity and cache for most of its 33 years -- will part ways with a conference that has been eroding under their feet anyway. (Note: DePaul and Marquette joined the Big East in 2005.)

Neither DeGioia nor Reed was available to comment.

Just last month, the University of Louisville became the seventh Big East member in the past year to announce it was leaving, following football-playing members West Virginia University, Texas Christian University (which reneged before suiting up), the University of Pittsburgh, Syracuse University, the University of Notre Dame and Rutgers University out the door for conferences that promise heftier guarantees.

It's unclear when or under what terms the basketball schools will depart -- whether, for example, they will vote to leave the Big East and form their own conference; or whether they will vote to dissolve the conference outright.

There are pros and cons to both scenarios in terms of branding (which group of schools would lay claim to the moniker "Big East," for example), prestige (which group could hold its conference tournament at New York's Madison Square Garden, as the Big East traditionally does) and finances (if the basketball schools leave en masse, they wouldn't have to pay an "exit fee," under a clause written into Big East contracts following the exodus of the University of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech).

"That's all a part of what's being considered right now," Thompson said, asked specifically about the value of the Big East name and Madison Square Garden as its tournament venue. "That's possibly part of the litany of things that are being kicked around and talked about and discussed.

"It's all-encompassing. You have to do your homework and see how all of this could possibly affect you. If you make a move, how does this affect you? If you don't make a move, how does that affect you? There are so many factors that go into this."

The Big East's tensions began not long after it started admitting schools that compete in the top ranks of Division I football. And with broadcasting rights fees for football escalating wildly in the past decade, the league's hybrid composition showed the strain.

It wasn't clear it would hold together after Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech left for the ACC. That's when Big East officials crafted language in their bylaws allowing either group -- the football-playing schools or the non-football playing schools -- to leave as a group if they felt their concerns were no longer well-represented, without having to pay an exit fee (now roughly $10 million).

But the biggest blow to the Big East's prestige came in 2011, when charter member Syracuse announced it was leaving for the ACC, along with Pitt.

"It's gone; it's not even close," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "The Big East took a huge hit with the loss of Syracuse. And then Pitt, Louisville and Notre Dame -- those are all body blows."

To date, neither the Big East's football- or basketball-dominated schools have exercised their option to leave en masse without penalty. It may come into play now.

But there are downsides to that approach. If the basketball schools leave as a group, they'll forfeit any claim to the Big East name and won't be able to collect their share of exit fees due them when Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville depart.

The basketball schools also have the power to dissolve the league outright, holding seven of the 10 votes in Big East decision-making. (Outgoing schools no longer vote, and incoming schools haven't yet received a vote).

Asked if he felt a basketball-only conference could succeed amid a football-crazed landscape, Thompson said: "That's part of the due diligence that's going on right now. That's one of the aspects people are looking into right now."

Then he asked a reporter his opinion.

"I'm not sure," was the reply.

Said Thompson: "Neither am I."

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