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View from the East
Monday, May 12, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Muse scrutinizing realignment saga from 'crow's nest'

©2003 Bonesville.net

East Carolina chancellor William Muse anticipated the possible change in landscape in college athletics that is currently generating the avalanche of speculation about potential conference realignment. That was one reason why he retained former NCAA president and ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan to study the ECU athletics department last year.

One area Corrigan was asked to explore from the Pirates’ standpoint was positioning for a move to what is currently a power conference in terms of the football bowl championship series. That aspect of Corrigan’s study didn’t receive much attention for the obvious reason that ECU didn’t want to jeopardize its standing in Conference USA.

“It’s like looking for another wife while you’re married,” said one ECU official about appearing too interested in joining another league while committed to Conference USA.

But now athletics directors at other institutions in C-USA — Louisville and Memphis — have made published responses about possible interest in the Big East or a C-USA-Big East hybrid if an ACC raid on the Big East should net Miami and possibly Boston College and Syracuse.

Interestingly, there have been reports that Virginia Tech might be an influential factor in Virginia’s stance on expansion. According to some accounts, a segment of the Virginia state legislature might fight an ACC expansion endorsement from the Cavaliers if such a move would leave the Hokies floating in a diluted Big East.

Getting seven members in favor of expansion from the nine ACC members may be the real stumbling block as far as starting the domino process that could involve ECU.

Muse has said that the significance of college athletics in terms of exposure and revenue can’t be ignored. Don’t forget that he came from Auburn and the SEC, which maximizes that league’s accent on football with a championship game between division winners that is said to generate $12 million annually.

ECU athletics director Mike Hamrick has been following Corrigan’s directives and emphasizing broad-based competitiveness as the key that could unlock a step up in conference alignment.

C-USA athletics directors meet in Destin, Fla., this week while ACC officials confer in Amelia Island, Fla. There will be more than casual interest from the C-USA folks if their ACC brethren address the issue of expansion with any degree of substance.

One course of action that makes a lot of sense is for the non-Division I football schools in C-USA and the Big East to form a league. With programs including Marquette, Georgetown, DePaul, Saint Louis, Providence, Villanova and Charlotte, that could be an attractive grouping in basketball — one that could market a hoops identity as opposed to a sort of second-class status in leagues with D-I football.

If the ACC keeps the status quo, there is nothing preventing the Big East from going to 12 football members. Louisville and Cincinnati make sense geographically, competitively and in terms of their television markets.

ECU, too, fits geographically and competitively, but the relatively small television market is supposedly a detriment.

Broad-based competitiveness isn’t really the issue for ECU. Football and men’s basketball are the major revenue producers that drive consideration from another conference. The ACC isn’t after Miami because the Hurricanes play great baseball.

Consistency is really the issue for the Pirates in the money sports.

In football last season, ECU was the fall guy for Duke’s 23-game losing streak but even in an off-year the Pirates were good enough to beat a nationally-ranked Texas Christian team. It was a similar scenario in basketball — good enough to beat a Final Four team (Marquette) at their best, but the Pirates lost by 19 points at Coastal Carolina and missed out on their first winning season in the Bill Herrion coaching era despite a 7-0 start.

It seems to be a recurring theme for ECU. At selected times, the Pirates can more than hold their own against the elite. How about that win over Miami in football in 1999? Superb, for sure, but that was the same Pirates team that couldn’t hold a lead later that season at UAB.

ECU needs to be able to handle its role as the hunted as well as it occasionally handles the role of hunter against ranked opposition.

Still, the Pirates shouldn’t be ruled out of making a change in conference affiliation regardless of what happens with the ACC.

If Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese wanted to look smart and strengthen his league rather than fume about the ACC’s covert aggressiveness, he should be looking at adding teams to conduct the Big East’s own football championship game. ECU could be a player in that scenario if the Big East chose to make a preemptive strike on ACC expansion plans.

Such a plan might keep Miami, Syracuse and Boston College from straying while increasing the Big East’s revenue and national position. It’s been reported that it would cost those institutions $1 million each to leave the Big East and $3 million each to join the ACC.

Much of the urgency of going to the Big East for ECU is based on potential affiliation with a BCS conference. But such a move appears unlikely to take effect before the 2005 football season and the current BCS agreement is supposed to be reevaluated by 2006. If an inclusive playoff system were to be established in football that would reduce the significance of leaving C-USA for the Big East.

The generally-cautious economic climate may carry the day in the ACC. A decision to expand would have to be made by university presidents who will examine the revenue implications of further dividing a sweet pie that means roughly $10 million annually per member.

Any move that might affect traditional scheduling in the ACC would have to be backed by some pretty strong math on the financial side of expansion.

It’s a situation that anyone without a crystal ball is ill-equipped to predict but there’s one thing you can count on. The man who resides at 605 East Fifth Street, the chancellor’s house in Greenville, is keeping an eye on the developments like a lookout in the crow’s nest. Muse understands the dynamics and he’ll be ready to take action in ECU’s best interests when and if the opportunity develops.

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02/23/2007 12:41:08 AM
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