Big Ten vows to spend next 12 to 18 months wooing Notre Dame
By Matt Hinton
As not so subtly suggested last week by Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, the Big Ten officially announced its interest in expanding to 12 teams this afternoon, facilitating the two-division split and championship game that's paid such big dividends for the SEC, Big 12 and (to a slightly lesser extent) ACC. The timetable to "explore" expansion options is expected to fall in the neighborhood of 12 to 18 months, at which point "a recommendation may or may not be made," according to ESPN's Big Ten hand, Adam Rittenberg. They're really going out on a limb here. By "explore," of course, we can assume the conference means "bombard Notre Dame from every possible angle." The Irish make perfect sense in the Big Ten to everyone except the Irish, whose very special contracts with the BCS for postseason spoils and NBC for television spoils render conference affiliation redundant, just as they did when the Big Ten came calling in South Bend a decade ago. Notre Dame identifies with and enjoys its outsider status too much to sully itself in some "league," at least until market forces leave it with no choice, which is certainly not the case right now.
If the target isn't Notre Dame, it's surely one of six other ubiquitous options, all of them coming with obvious, fatal flaws. Missouri has no good reason to leave the Big 12. Rutgers is well outside of the league's geographic footprint and offers no consistent track record of success in football or basketball. Syracuse is awkward geographically and may be hard to lure from the Big East for non-football reasons. Louisville and Cincinnati are new money on the gridiron, basketball schools with no track record of consistent success in football or much in the way of academic reputation. West Virginia doesn't quite fit geographically, traditionally, academically or as a potential market.
The one non-Notre Dame option that seems to meet every criteria -- old football tradition, solid basketball program, geographic fit, academic fit, viable market, potential incentive to leave its current situation -- is Pittsburgh, which would finally get its longstanding wish to renew the natural in-state rivalry with Penn State, to boot. Pitt is the one candidate that could seemingly slide into the Big Ten tomorrow, as-is, and basically fit in right away. In my unsolicited, un-researched opinion, the Panthers are the obvious target. The conference may or may not consider exploring that recommendation at some undefined point in the not-very-near future.
Pitt's Dixon opposes move to Big Ten
PITTSBURGH - Leaving the Big East for the Big Ten would be a big mistake for Pittsburgh, according to men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon.
Dixon calls the Big East ''the best conference in college basketball history'' and said it wouldn't benefit Pitt or any other conference member to switch leagues.
Big Ten officials plan to spend the next year to 18 months exploring whether to add a 12th member. Pitt has been mentioned as a likely candidate because it offers a large TV market, excellent academics and a prime location. The Panthers could renew their lapsed rivalry with Penn State and form a new one with nearby Ohio State.
Dixon needs to hear a lot more reasons than those.
''I can't see how any team would improve where they're at by movement,'' Dixon said Thursday. ''Every situation, you have to look at why you're doing it to improve yourselves. And I can't see how moving from the best conference in college basketball history would be a good thing for anybody.''
While Pitt football might have more to gain than the basketball team by joining the Big Ten, Dixon doesn't believe the move would significantly benefit coach Dave Wannstedt's program, either.
''We've got (football) bowl tie-ins greater than any other conference, as far as percentages, so what would we have to change for?'' Dixon said. ''This thing just keeps getting better.''
Dixon mentioned no schools by name. However, abandoning longtime Big East rivalries with Syracuse, Georgetown and Connecticut and replacing them with Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin - distant schools with no ties or significant attraction to Pitt - could erode interest in Panthers basketball.
Pitt built a new, on-campus basketball arena seven years ago largely because of the demand for Big East tickets. About 3,000 are on a waiting list for season tickets at the 12,508-seat Petersen Events Center.
To Dixon, the Big East became the envy of other basketball conferences when Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida joined in 2005. Fifteen of the Big East's 16 basketball-playing schools have made at least one Final Four appearance.
''We don't have to change, because things are heading in the right direction,'' Dixon said. ''Other conferences might have to change to gain momentum, but our momentum has been consistent since the expansion itself. So, it's exciting to hear about it and talk about it, but at the end of the day who's really going to improve their position from our conference? Nobody.''
Dixon's comments Thursday were the first by any Pitt coach or administrator since the Big Ten signaled its plans on Tuesday. Pitt chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg has been a strong Big East proponent, leading the expansion drive that kept the conference together after Boston College and Miami left for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005.
Notre Dame, a Big East member in most sports except football, turned down the Big Ten in 1999.
Dixon also doesn't believe the NCAA basketball tournament will expand from 65 to 96 teams, a move that would create an extra weekend of play and allow far more mid-major schools to participate.
''I just don't see it changing,'' Dixon said. ''I think it probably needs to be changed, but I don't think it can be.''
Pitt has played in the last eight NCAA tournaments, the longest current streak of any Big East team.
''I think our numbers indicate how tough it is to make the NCAA tournament when we have by far the longest streak in the best conference in the country,'' Dixon said. ''It just goes to show how tough it's become, especially in our conference, but I just don't know how they're going to change those things around.''