Two of the oldest members of the Big East Conference appear poised to depart the league for the Atlantic Coast Conference in a move that was surprising, but somewhat inevitable given current athletic and academic realities.
Syracuse, a founding member of the Big East in 1979, and Pittsburgh, a member since 1982, received invitations to join the ACC, the ACC announced Sunday. The move was an expected formality after reports that the schools had submitted letters of application to the ACC.
"The ACC is a strong united conference that is only going to get better with the addition of the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University," said Duke University President Richard Broadhead, chair of the ACC board of presidents, which unanimously voted to accept the new members. "Both schools are committed to competing at the highest level of academics and athletics. We welcome them as full partners in the ACC."
This being football season, the latest move in widespread conference realignment might not seem to move the needle much. Both are maddeningly inconsistent on the gridiron. But in a few months (or whenever the schools actually change conferences), the impact of this move will hit home with basketball fans.
The ACC now becomes the premier college basketball conference in the nation with Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pitt and Florida State. All finished ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the 2010-11 season.
The Big East has been the top men's basketball conference for years. The loss of the Orange and the Panthers still leaves the league with four teams from last year's Top 25, but their departure guts the Big East of two elite programs; aside from national champion UConn, only Notre Dame was ranked higher than 15th among the remaining Big East programs.
The most important effects of the move may be the ones fans don't notice, however.
The ACC adds two strong TV markets in New York (yes, 'Cuse gets credit as being part of the Big Apple media market) and Pittsburgh, while the schools rid themselves of a problematic conference structure given the existence of non-football schools such as Providence and DePaul in the Big East. With Villanova — a non-football member — hedging on a decision to move its championship-caliber FCS football program up to the FBS level, full members like Syracuse and Pitt — with their sizeable football income — had to start wondering about their futures in the conference. No matter the Orange's and Panthers' loyalties, financial considerations made this move a no-brainer.
Also, although this may not have been a major factor in Syracuse or Pitt's decisions, the unfortunate reality is that the Big East's academic reputation has suffered since the massive realignment of 2004-05. Schools with elite academic reputations such as Boston College (No. 31 in the 2012 U.S. News and World Report rankings), Miami (38th) and Virginia Tech (71st overall, with the 24th-ranked graduate engineering program) left and were replaced by average academic universities such as Cincinnati (143rd), Louisville (164th) and South Florida (181st). It's traditionally a point of pride, even among non-athletes, to say they attended a "Big Ten" university, for instance, and the Pac-12 and ACC have bolstered their academic reputations is recent years by adding new, highly-ranked academic members.
The folks at Rutgers, West Virginia and UConn may not like to admit it, but the Big East no longer carries the same reputation, on or off the field.