Bigger East will dwarf ACC when it comes to basketball


November 06, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WE COULD SIT here and lament the diminished stature of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. That's certainly an option on this day in sports. Let's call it a sad day for basketball traditionalists, especially in our ACC neck of the woods.

Duke-Maryland suddenly doesn't mean the same thing. Not when the ACC is now a second-class conference to the Big East for Division I basketball. As if the sight of Baltimore's Carmelo Anthony winning a national title for Syracuse wasn't enough to spark serious jealousy for the Big East. Now this.

"Certainly there's going to be a lot of interest in the Big East to see what those 16 teams are going to do," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "The ACC has had the best basketball in the last 50 years; there's no question about that. Things have changed dramatically in college sports the last four months."

Have you heard Jim Boeheim and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun get giddy over the Big East's new configuration? Rick Pitino is back. Bob Huggins is in. It's like a who's-who in college basketball coaching. Soon, the Big East tournament will dwarf the happenings down on Tobacco Road.

In fact, strike that phrase from the college sports lexicon. Tobacco Road is as dead as chest passes and the four corners offense. Someone call Chapel Hill and tell that to Carolina's new coach, Roy Williams. Now, the pressure isn't so great for Williams to duplicate what Dean Smith did. It's all about Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and Southern Florida defecting from Conference USA to make the Big East the Bigger East.

Conference envy is legit for ACC basketball fans. The Big East's 16 member institutions are top to bottom more formidable than the ACC, which won't have nearly the same depth with 12 schools.

The ACC will sign a huge TV package in 2006 for football, further diminishing the status of basketball. No wonder Gary Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski were none too thrilled when the ACC made its survival-of-the-fittest move to become the next big football super conference.

You think Maryland is bummed out about losing local blue-chip recruit Rudy Gay to UConn now? Wait until the Bigger East is where all the Maryland kids want to play.

That's why we could blame football and the Bowl Championship Series for the current state of college athletics. In fact, that's exactly what we will do - even if it would make us appear naive and silly in the face of overwhelming evidence that says you can't stop progress.

If this is progress, we can't wait to see where it ends. Neither can Congress, which has twice in the past two months had the BCS people in for grilling. Congress and the rest of us are suspicious of a system that puts all the prestige and power and all the TV money in the hands of a few football super conferences.

In fact, if the Big East loses its automatic bid to the BCS trough after 2005, non-BCS Division I-A football schools will outnumber BCS schools. Does the phrase "the powerful few" ring a frightening bell?

Maybe the day is near when athletic directors are the acknowledged rulers at universities, instead of merely the implied rulers, as they are now.

The evidence is there to suggest it, no matter how vigorously Miami president Donna Shalala attempts to salvage the Hurricanes' good name in counter-suits against Big East schools.

This is about power and the unwillingness of most college presidents to take a stand against the intense public pressure of promoting high-visibility athletics.

For all of the so-called college athletics reformers attempting to beat back the powerful BCS and super conference commissioners, there's a grave and amazing timidity among college presidents who've decided they are powerless against big-time sports' insatiable market.

Now, the heavy dominoes are falling harder and faster than Sir Isaac Newton could have ever imagined. The ACC waxed the Big East. The Big East Pac-Manned Conference USA. Conference USA will do unto other conferences as it has been done unto it.

Too bad there aren't more sane voices trying to warn why college athletics don't have to get this big, this dirty, this money-hungry, this fiscally imprudent, this cutthroat, this divorced from the main mission of an educational community.

Take the words of Duke president Nannerl O. Keohane. As she laments the death of Tobacco Road, she attempts to tell the emperor that it wears no clothes. Duke and North Carolina were the two ACC schools that voted against expansion, only to be forced into it in the name of "progress." She knew what was coming.

"Expansion proponents argued that intercollegiate athletics has changed, and the ACC needs to be part of these changes. I felt strongly that the decision to expand the conference would, in fact, exacerbate the very forces about which university presidents ought to be concerned and work against our efforts at reform," Keohane wrote in the new issue of Duke's magazine.

Keohane said rising costs of athletics programs are putting pressure on institutions to make trade-offs between "supporting academic priorities and athletic priorities."

Innocence was lost a long time ago in college sports, but that doesn't mean we can't lament the mounting losses. At some point, they'll outweigh the so-called gains. Maybe they already have.

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