Conference Wars, Part 2: 1990-1994

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Click here to access all four parts of the Conference War series from June, 2004


In the summer and fall of 1990, the dominos were falling fast. After Penn State’s 1989 announcement that they were headed to the Big Ten, conferences scrambled to lure major football independents, who saw the handwriting on the wall and were more than willing to be wooed and to sign up for membership.

With the advent of the 1-AA classification for football, it was about to get harder for independent 1-A football schools to continue to schedule many of their traditional rivals, who were dropping down to the new 1-AA level. All-sports Division 1-A conferences were the wave of the future, because they made scheduling easy, provided security and consistency, and would be at the forefront of the next wave of TV contracts.

The basketball conferences that had dominated the last round of conference formation and expansion in the 1970’s and early 1980’s were scrambling to hold on to their schools that played 1-A football, and the Big East, the hottest conference of the 80’s, was no exception. Football-playing members Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh saw what was going on around them and grew nervous of being left out. Something had to be done.

1990: The Big East Football Conference is formed

Mike Tranghese took over for Dave Gavitt as Big East commissioner on June 2nd, 1990, and his mandate was clear. He had to hold on to Syracuse, Pitt, and BC, who were in danger of leaving the conference and joining a new eastern all-sports conference if a solution wasn’t found for their football programs.

That was the bad news. The good news for Tranghese was that eastern heavyweight Penn State was joining the Big Ten, which meant that the Nittany Lions were no longer a threat to woo football-playing schools out of the Big East. The idea of an eastern all-sports conference without Penn State didn’t have as much punch was one with PSU, and Tranghese knew it.

The solution was to form a Big East football conference, but Tranghese needed to offer his schools something with some bang, with a wow-factor. PSU would have been the perfect anchor, but they weren’t an option. Notre Dame wasn’t interested in joining a conference, because they knew scheduling would never be a problem for them, and the Irish were in the midst of negotiating a football TV contract with NBC that would pay them $7.5 million a year starting in 1991, removing the need for the Irish to join a conference for revenue-sharing purposes.

Florida State was talking to the SEC and the ACC, so that left just one eastern independent football heavyweight: Miami.

One of Tranghese’s first acts as commissioner was to call the Hurricanes up, and he found them to be receptive. The SEC had talked with Miami but didn’t get serious with them, because as SEC commissioner Roy Kramer would say years later, Miami didn’t fit the SEC’s model of large land-grant institutions with large, enthusiastic fan bases. And the ACC was more interested in Florida State than in the ‘Canes.

But in the Big East, the Hurricanes saw a good home for their basketball program, which had done fairly well under coach Bill Foster, accumulating a 78-71 record in five years that included a 19-12 record one season but had been unable to get an NIT or NCAA bid. As opposed to most conferences, the Big East was willing to make concessions, such as allowing the ‘Canes top-notch baseball program to stay independent. Lastly, in a possible BE football conference the Hurricanes saw an opportunity to dominate a football league that didn’t include FSU or any of the SEC heavyweights.

As the SEC was snapping up Arkansas and later South Carolina in the summer and fall of 1990, and FSU was doing a mating dance with the ACC that would consummate in September of 1990, things moved quickly between Miami and the Big East. On October 10th, 1990, the Hurricanes announced that they would join the Big East starting in the fall of 1991, giving Tranghese an anchor team around which he could start building a football league.

Miami’s Big East announcement applied the final death blow to the idea of an eastern all-sports conference, and Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh quickly snapped into line, along with four football independents who would join the Big East for football-only: Temple, West Virginia, Rutgers, and Virginia Tech.

On December 13th, 1990, just two months after Miami signed up with the Big East, a press conference was held and the new Big East Football Conference became reality. The actual legal formation of the league wouldn’t take place for about three months, because that’s how long it would take contracts to be drawn up, operating procedures to be agreed upon, and school presidents to give the okay, but in spirit, the deal was done. The Big East was now a football-playing conference.

Tech fans and administrators rejoiced. Tech AD Dave Braine acknowledged that an all-sports conference would have been the perfect solution for the Hokies, but he was tickled to be a part of the BEFC and to get the opportunity to lock horns on a regular basis with college football big-timers Miami, West Virginia, Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. From a football standpoint, the possibilities were endless, and the occasion was correctly marked as the biggest event in the history of Virginia Tech athletics. All the Hokies had needed for years was a toehold somewhere, and in the Big East they would be able to get some serious traction.

Big East football membership was also seen as a pathway to all-sports Big East membership, perhaps within just a few years. While that dream would eventually come true, no one knew at the time the hell that Virginia Tech’s fans, administrators, and coaches were facing for the next few years.

Being asked to join the Big East Football Conference was a joyous occasion, but for the rest of the 1990’s, most of the conference news would be bad for Virginia Tech.

1991: The Metro on life support

The football-driven conference moves of 1989 and 1990 were over, but for the basketball conferences that had been big news in the 1970’s and 80’s, the trouble was just starting.

One of those conferences was Virginia Tech’s all-sports (except football) home since 1978, the Metro Conference. In its heyday of the mid-80’s, the Metro was a great basketball league, nipping at the heels of the ACC and Big East with Louisville, Memphis State, and programs such as VT and FSU, which occasionally sniffed the top 20 and earned NCAA bids.

But in the span of just a few months in 1990, the Metro lost South Carolina and Florida State to the SEC and ACC, and Cincinnati and Memphis State to the newly formed Great Midwest basketball conference. That left the Metro Conference with just four teams — VT, Louisville, Tulane, and Southern Miss — and that created one big uh-oh: a conference had to have a base of at least six of the same members for at least five years straight in order to get an automatic NCAA bid for their tournament champion. The Metro was about to lose their auto-bid.

The Big East football announcement was great news for the Hokies, but they had little time to enjoy it, as their attention turned to whether or not the Metro was going to survive. At issue was the question of whether the league could keep its automatic NCAA bid, and in January of 1991, a special NCAA committee was formed to review the status of the Metro’s bid, as well as the bid of a couple of other conferences that had fallen below six members. (Interesting side note: among others, the committee included ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan and Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel).

While the Metro awaited word from the NCAA committee, they talked about signing up UNC Charlotte and South Florida from the Sun Belt to bring membership back up to six schools, and as an alternative, the Hokies were exploring options with the Colonial Athletic Association and the Atlantic 10. The A-10 was very interested in the Hokies as a replacement for Penn State and went so far as to fly to Blacksburg and lay out a plan for the Hokies to join the league.

Tech’s first preference was to stay in the Metro with bell cow Louisville and the Metro’s relatively hefty batch of NCAA tournament financial “units,” accumulated mostly by the Cardinals and Memphis State Tigers. The A-10 and CAA didn’t have the TV muscle or NCAA tourney money that even a watered-down Metro had. Not to mention that the Hokies felt loyalty to the Metro (no kidding — Dave Braine spoke of it often in newspaper articles from the era).

Finally, in February of 1991, after weeks of agonizing waiting the NCAA committee handed down their ruling: the good news was that in order to keep the Metro’s NCAA auto-bid, the NCAA was willing to waive the requirement that the conference have at least the same six members for five contiguous years. The NCAA only required that the Metro add at least two more teams with five years of Division 1-A membership (UNCC and South Florida fit the bill).

The bad news? The committee ruled not to give the league an auto-bid for 1991-92, regardless of the number of members the conference had. But this was not a deal-breaker, given that the conference could get its bid back for 1992-93 just by adding two teams. The league could go with as few as six members and split TV money and NCAA money just six ways.

That settled that. The Hokies told the Colonial and the A-10 “thanks, but no thanks,” pledged membership to the Metro, and worked with the league on expansion. South Florida and UNCC were ready to join, and other schools were lobbying the league for membership, including Virginia Commonwealth (VCU). A-10 member Rutgers was a possibility, but West Virginia, also in the A-10, had turned down the Metro on three other occasions.

In April of 1991, the Metro announced a three-team expansion of USF, UNCC, and surprisingly VCU. Though the league only needed two teams, they took three because Tulane was holding out hope of joining the Southwest Conference, which had lost Arkansas to the SEC. With the threat of losing Tulane, the Metro added a seventh team in VCU. All three teams were scheduled to enter the league right away, in June of 1991.

For the Hokies, the survival of the Metro put the issue of conference membership to bed for a while. The 1991-92 and 1992-93 academic years were two years of peace on the conference front, with the Metro deciding to staying at seven schools for both years.

But in 1993-94, Virginia Tech was served with a punch in the gut that was one of the darkest days in VT athletics history.

1994: The infamous Big East snub

In late 1993, the conference rumblings started happening again, and this time, they were centered around the Big East. The league started seriously discussing adding their four football-only schools to the conference for all sports, which would mushroom the Big East membership from 10 to 14 schools.

Why did the discussion come up? Two reasons: TV money and possible raiding by other conferences.

The Big Ten, having gained serious TV market share in the east with the addition of Penn State, was talking to Rutgers about the Scarlet Knights becoming the twelfth team in the league. That would help the Big Ten penetrate as far east as New York, and it would also allow the league to split into divisions and play a championship game, a possibility that was unforeseen in the 1989 PSU expansion but which had been put into play by the SEC in 1992, with their first football championship game.

Rutgers as an expansion target sounds laughable, but in 1994, the Knights had a pretty strong football team, and of course they offered that New York/New Jersey TV market, or so it was thought. In addition to Rutgers, the Big Ten as well as the SEC was also rumored to be talking to West Virginia.

On another front, the CFA football TV contracts with the networks were about to expire at the end of the 1995 season, and conferences were beginning to negotiate their own TV deals, to take effect with the 1996 season. The CFA’s contracts with ABC/ESPN had limited college football exposure for years, but with CBS now a player, the opportunity was ripe for conferences to get increased dollars and exposure for their football programs. CBS had been out of the business of broadcasting college football since 1990, but with the loss of their NFL contract to the upstart Fox network, CBS was looking for new sports properties to sign up. College football looked like a prime candidate.

What did that have to do with Big East expansion? Simple, or maybe not so simple: CBS was negotiating with the conference for a combination football/basketball TV contract, but only for the eight schools that played football.

Huh?

You read that right. CBS was ready to sign a contract with the Big East’s eight football-playing schools not just for football, but for basketball. Ponder that a minute. On the football side it was a clean proposal, but on the basketball side, it was a mess. If the football schools signed a contract with CBS for basketball, it would give CBS rights to broadcast the hoops games of four schools that weren’t even in the Big East for basketball — schools such as Tech and Temple — but it wouldn’t give CBS the rights to broadcast games for the Big East basketball-only schools — schools such as St. John’s and Georgetown.

For the Big East, there were two solutions: (1) have the eight football schools break away into a new all-sports conference, making the TV contracts clean and simple; or (2) absorb the four football-only schools, which legally would make the new CBS basketball contract the property of all 14 schools, not just the eight football schools.

Heading into 1994, that was the situation, and you can see that either outcome was good for the Hokies. They would either be in an expanded Big East or in a new eight-team all-sports conference. Hokie fans were giddy with anticipation, and the issue was expected to be resolved in January or February of 1994.

In February, with Big East expansion still unresolved, CBS forced the issue by signing the eight BE football schools to a five-year, $72 million contract, $55 million of which was for football, and $17 million of which was for basketball. (As an aside, CBS also signed the SEC up to a five-year, $85 million deal for both football and basketball).

Within a week, ABC/ESPN followed suit, signing a five-year, $22 million contract with the eight football schools, bringing the total to $94 million over five years, or nearly $19 million a year. This really applied the pressure to the Big East football schools to expand the league or break away.

A breakaway looked like the most likely outcome, because 7 of 10 votes were needed for expansion, and at least four of the six basketball-only schools were staunchly opposed to expansion. A breakaway was such a near-certainty that in mid-February, athletic directors of the football schools met and drew up operating procedures for the anticipated new league. The four-team “Syracuse group” of Syracuse, BC, Pitt, and Miami, led by Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel, pledged a breakaway if the league presidents didn’t vote for a four-team expansion.

On Wednesday, March 9, 1994, Big East presidents voted on expansion. But instead of membership in a 14-team league or an eight-team breakaway league, Virginia Tech got a knife in the back.

The news came back from the meeting: the league had voted for a two-team expansion of WVU and Rutgers, and Tech and Temple were left out in the cold.

When push came to shove, the Syracuse group didn’t have the guts to break away from the league that Crouthamel had helped found. In addition to the loyalty issue, which Crouthamel felt especially strong about, it would have cost the Syracuse group millions of dollars by requiring them to each pay $1-$2 million in exit fees, plus give up the NCAA basketball tournament revenue-sharing units the league had built up, worth about $400,000 a year.

So they protected their flanks by pulling in expansion properties Rutgers and WVU, while leaving out Virginia Tech and Temple, whom no one else wanted.

The shocked Hokies rightfully felt betrayed, but as often happens in expansion, what the athletic directors wanted and what the school presidents agreed to turned out to be two different things. The question remains, who came up with the idea of the two-team expansion? In a retrospective written in 2000 and posted on the Syracuse web site, Crouthamel wrote:

After meeting with CBS the directors of B.C., Pitt, Miami and I met. I suggested that the only shot we had at keeping everything together and at the same time benefiting from the CBS largesse was to get a majority vote by “packing the court.” To do that we needed to get two football schools accepted [emphasis added] as new members of The BIG EAST Conference.

In so saying, Crouthamel takes credit for the idea, singling himself out as the backstabber. But in a March 30, 1994 article in Husky Blue and White, then-UConn president Harry Hartley took credit for the compromise idea.

The decision stung, but there was little the Hokies could do about it, other than fume. The Big East poured salt on the wound by declaring a five-year moratorium on expansion … then within a year, inviting Notre Dame in for all sports but football, making the league an unwieldy 13-team conglomeration.

The Hokies had been put in their place. They were not wanted.

Up Next: The Hokies get stabbed in the back yet again, and the Big East finally caves and invites Tech in.
References for Part 2:

The large, large majority of the information in this part of the series came from Hokie Huddlers of the era, which also included reprints of newspaper articles from around the Big East and around the nation. There were also a couple of links used for Miami’s entry date into the ACC and the value of Notre Dame’s original contract with NBC from 1991-95.

Click here to access all four parts of the Conference War series from June, 2004

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