VILLANOVA, Pa. — Villanova’s Big East banner that hangs in the rafters already has a white patch stitched over West Virginia.
The Wildcats can now start putting X’s over most of the rest of the conference schools, as well.
The Big East — a proud league built on basketball moments such as the Wildcats’ stunning conference rival Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game — soon will become extinct, even if the name lives on in some unrecognizable form.
On Saturday, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence all decided to officially separate from the conference many of them helped to build, so they can construct a league focused on basketball in this ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
The breakaway from the Big East was only the first step. It will be weeks and months of uncertainty, and possibly lawsuits, before the final structure over this transition period falls into place.
The seven schools must decide who will join them in the new hoops-heavy conference, when they want to depart, where they’ll play a conference tournament, and whether they will attempt to keep the Big East name. Plus, the league will need a commissioner.
There is no true timetable for any of those decisions. Like so many of these reshaped conferences that stretch from coast to coast, this new league won’t be confined to Eastern teams. Xavier, Butler, Dayton, Creighton, and Gonzaga, way out in Spokane, Wash., also don’t play major college football and would be natural fits to align with these Catholic schools. The league also will consider non-denominational schools, as well.
“They don’t necessarily have to be Catholic, but it could happen,” Patrick Lyons, Seton Hall’s athletic director, said. “We’re not restricting it. We also have to consider our football-playing Big East partners and what they plan to do. But we’re extremely excited about being able to shape our future.”
The seven departing schools have won three men’s basketball national championships with 18 Final Four appearances. Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence helped form the Big East, which started playing basketball in 1979. Villanova joined in 1980, and Marquette and DePaul in 2005. The Big East began playing football in 1991.
For most of the schools, leaving is bittersweet, but a move necessitated by earlier defections like Syracuse (ACC), Pittsburgh (ACC) and West Virginia (Big12), and the heavy emphasis on the cash-cow football programs.
“I think the tipping point in the mind of all seven of us was the most recent departure of Louisville and Rutgers,” said Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue. “There was a concern on all of our parts about where the conference was heading and where basketball was playing a part in the conference.”
Big East bylaws require departing members give the conference 27 months’ notice, but the league has negotiated early departures with Orange, Panthers and Mountaineers over the past year. Those schools all had to pay exit fees. Big East rules do allow schools to leave as a group without being obligated to pay exit fees.
The seven schools could play one more year in the Big East or figure out a way to get started on their league a season early. No one wants to deal with the uncertainty and nastiness that can lead from a split for any more time than necessary.
The breakup, however, is almost guaranteed to get messy. The Big East name, after all, will be up for grabs in negotiations.
“The association has served us well, for sure,” Villanova Athletic Director Vince Nicastro said. “It’s been part of the fabric of our programs. But we’re looking forward.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright, a native of the area, and raised on the Big East, said the time was right for a change.
“All of us basketball schools (are now) able to get together and say, ‘OK, where are we going to go? How are we going to do this?'” he said. “Not sit back and say, ‘Let’s wait and see what the football schools decide, then let’s see where we’re going to go.'”
The latest hit to the Big East leaves Connecticut, also a founding member, Cincinnati, Temple and South Florida — the four current members with FBS football programs — as the only schools currently in the Big East that are scheduled to be there beyond the 2013-14 school year.
The Big East is still lined up to have a 12-team football conference next season with six new members, including Boise State and San Diego State for football only. Rutgers and Louisville, which both announced intentions to leave the Big East last month for the Big Ten and the ACC, respectively, are scheduled to compete in the conference next year.
Notre Dame, which is moving to the ACC, also is expected to continue competing in the Big East next season in all sports but football and hockey. Those two sports also won’t compete in the ACC when the Fighting Irish land there.
Also joining the Big East next season are Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU for all sports.
Villanova had toyed for years with moving its football program up from the FCS level. Obviously, those plans are finished.
“I’m pleased we didn’t make that decision,” Donohue said.
School officials haven’t said much publicly because there are still so many pieces that need to come together. Will it be a 10 or 12-team league? What will the television deal look like? Will a conference tournament live on at Madison Square Garden?
“The commercial enterprise around this is going to be really important to us,” Nicastro said. “Make no mistake about that, we’re in that game. We’re going to be in the television business in a big way.”
Nicastro said the seven schools have only worked together in making the move but are starting to look outside for new leadership. The next step is simply getting organized in the transition plan.
About the only part of the defection the seven schools know for sure is that they’re all unified as they journey onward.
“Right now, we’re focused on moving forward together,” Lyons said. “All other decisions still have to be made, but we’re going to stick together.”