There is little question that Miami and Virginia Tech collectively fired the shot heard 'round the world of college athletics when they officially jumped from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference earlier this week.
What remains to be seen is just how many victims that bullet will claim before it is done ricocheting its way through the rest of the Division I-A ranks.
The predation is not expected to end any time soon. The ACC is still one member shy of the 12 it needs to break into divisional play for football and hold a lucrative championship game. If it can not get a waiver from the NCAA, the ACC will need to seduce an additional entry from elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Big East will pursue a lawsuit against its renegade lame-duck members and the ACC, but it is expected to ultimately be only punitive in nature and not prevent the two from starting play in the ACC as scheduled in the fall of 2004. The Big East has already been on the hunt for new members to replace Miami and Tech and shore up its football ranks, which dropped to six with the defections.
As the Big East shops down the food chain, the ripple effect is likely to recoil through Conference USA and, possibly, the Mid-American Conference. The Big East reportedly has C-USA members Louisville, Cincinnati and East Carolina in its sights, and if any or all of them exit, the MAC is one place C-USA would look when the cannibalization continues.
MAC commissioner Rick Chryst said a complex picture is unfolding, and that the aspect of ongoing litigation could slow down the process of tumbling dominoes.
“There are so many layers to all of this, and typically you've got to stay very disciplined and focus your energies on the things you can control,” Chryst said. “But this has been a dominant issue in many circles - you can't not talk about it.”
Chryst said that as far as he knows there have been no official overtures directed towards any MAC members, but eventually such moves could take place.
“I think the general feeling among people in the profession is that there will be more changes - and I put myself in that group,” Chryst said. “I think we're as well-positioned to be acting and reacting to all of this as we've ever been, and that's a testament to the growth of our league.”
Chryst said that while the names of several MAC schools have surfaced in the whirlwind of speculation, he cautioned that the eventual resolution in the ACC was not anywhere close to what the initial plan had looked like. Virginia Tech originally joined the Big East in a lawsuit to prevent Miami, Boston College and Syracuse from leaving for the ACC, but Tech pulled the ultimate Benedict Arnold and then skipped out of the Big East while BC and Syracuse were left at the altar.
“What became official the other day turned out to be nowhere near the original scenario we were looking at - and there is a lesson in that,” Chryst said. “I don't know that this has been a shining moment for us all.”
University of Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien said he sensed a major sigh of relief once the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech became official, because the situation lingered for quite some time before that aspect was resolved.
“The next step is for the Big East to decide what its plans are, and what specific schools they intend to contact as potential new members,” O'Brien said. “All of us have done a lot of speculation as to what might happen, and I think it is fair to say that speculation continues. The Big East has a number of options.”
O'Brien acknowledged that the league reshuffle could eventually reach the MAC.
“It's a little too early to say what the impact on the MAC might be,” O'Brien said. “Everybody is watching, but none of us really know where this is headed and where it might end.”
Somewhere in that hornets nest of speculation is the buzz about MAC members Marshall, and possibly football-only member Central Florida, being potential targets if and when C-USA has to restock its ranks. C-USA has had discussions with Marshall in the past, attracted by the Thundering Herd's national-caliber football program.
Marshall has even been mentioned as a candidate to join the Big East, but Big East member West Virginia has balked at playing Marshall in football and has long been against considering the Herd for membership in the conference.
“We certainly have not heard the last word on all of this,” Chryst said. “The complexity of this subject, and its impact on the conferences, revenues and future schedules is tough to get a handle on at this point. This is going to continue to develop through the coming months.”