Geno Auriemma Is Right About Notre Dame

It’s time for them to play fair with the Big East

From afar, Geno Auriemma is not easy to like. The UConn women’s basketball coach can be brusque and arrogant. He isn’t always so friendly to the press. And it doesn’t help that his teams win a lot, so we see plenty of Auriemma, perhaps too much.

This week, at Big East media day Auriemma, who spent most of his formative years in Norristown, said something that really angered folks. This time, though, instead of being controversial and overbearing, he was absolutely right.

The target of Auriemma’s remarks was Notre Dame, which has lived a dual life for the past 16 years, housing its so-called “Olympic sports” in the Big East Conference, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of football independence. Auriemma said that the Big East’s current membership problems could have been cured had the Irish become a full-fledged part of the conference, rather than engaging in a marriage of convenience–for ND.

“If Notre Dame had come in as a football and basketball school when they came in, we wouldn’t have a problem,” Auriemma said. “Miami wouldn’t have left. Virginia Tech wouldn’t have left. Boston College wouldn’t have left. We probably wouldn’t have any of these issues, would we?”

He’s damn right about that, and it is mystifying the Big East allowed the Irish to find safe harbor for its other sports, while its football team has been allowed to do its own thing. It’s like a marriage in which one spouse is allowed to have a little something on the side. Notre Dame brings little to the Big East in men’s basketball, and frankly, few care about the other sports. Only football matters when it comes to ND, and the Big East has allowed the Irish to keep its valuable gridiron franchise separate. Worse, whenever Notre Dame has flirted with conference affiliation, it has looked to the Big Ten. It’s a wonder no one from the Big East has filed a police report, because the Irish are abusing the hell out of the league.

If the Big East had any guts, it would have issued an ultimatum to Notre Dame years ago: Join for football, or you’re out for everything else. Even if that pushed the school to the Big Ten, at least the Big East would have maintained some of its dignity. As it stands now, the conference looks silly allowing the arrangement and harboring (microscopic) hopes the Irish will join it for football.

As the conference realignment carousel spins wildly out of control, each new week bringing more news of uncertainty and rumors of oddball affiliations. There is no league more vulnerable than the Big East, which could well disintegrate in the next few months. If Missouri leaves the Big 12, it’s entirely likely the conference could target Big East members Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia as new members to get the gang up to 12 and assure the conference of a lucrative football playoff. Should those three bolt, Connecticut and Rutgers will do everything possible to get out, even if the conference raises the exit fee to $100 million.

The Big East is trying to “strengthen” itself with the likes of Houston, SMU, Boise State, Navy, Air Force and the College of Cardinals, none of which can be found in a conference that has a BCS automatic bid. Should the league recruit those strays into the fold, it should change its name to the Ellis Island Conference. “Give me your tired, your poor … ”

And this is what Temple and Villanova are fighting to join? Do they really want to join forces with schools like Houston and Memphis, who don’t exactly have long, storied histories of playing by the rules, particularly on the basketball court? Is it worth splintering the Big Five in order to get membership in a conference that will have no chance of matching the SEC, Big Ten and the other big boys in terms of heft and national prominence? Fighting to join a dying conglomeration makes no sense, especially since the Big East’s personality could change completely within a year.

Furthermore, deciding to invest $30 million or so in its football program, in order to join a league that has a shaky future, is hardly a good idea for Villanova. It would be better to focus on building the best basketball program it can and pumping some of that money into Jay Wright’s salary, the better to keep him on board if the school must join Georgetown, St. John’s, Marquette and the other Big East schools that don’t play I-A football in a new conference.

As for Temple, the Owls might be better suited staying put in the MAC for football and playing in the Atlantic 10 for everything else, even if Xavier and Dayton bolt the conference for the new Catholic Confederation. Hanging with C-USA rejects, Mountain West expats and stray WAC members is not a recipe for national prominence or institutional sanity. Temple would be far better served by taking a leadership role in helping the A-10 get stronger through reasonable expansion – if the aforementioned schools depart.

More importantly, Temple and Villanova must recognize what their true essences are. They are not huge powerhouses with gigantic fan bases capable of filling large football stadiums each week. As the college athletics landscape morphs into a collection of money-grabbing programs trying to feed the bottom line, neither school fits the profile, and it’s silly for them to think they do. Better to maximize what they have than try–and fail–to be something else. Yes, that strategy could be dangerous, particularly if the 64 or so biggest programs break away and govern themselves. But let’s be honest about this; Villanova and Temple don’t belong with Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio State. And they don’t belong in Big East Lite.

Given the way Notre Dame has been playing football lately, maybe that’s a good spot for the Irish.

 

SUCKER PUNCHES

  • What is it with Temple and prosperity? The Owls looked great posting two straight shutout wins and then stumble at Bowling Green Saturday. Temple still leads the MAC East Division, but the margin for error has been officially eliminated. Focus, people, focus.
  • Hats off to Delaware Valley College, which improved to 8-0 with a rout of King’s College. The Aggies get a week off before finishing the season with tough games against Lycoming and Widener.
  • Last week’s going-to-the-mattresses negotiating stances by the NBA and its players will lead to more cancelled games. If the league keeps it up, it won’t be hard at all for fans to find other outlets for their interest, and more importantly, their money. If the NFL could figure out a way to save its season, the NBA should follow suit. First step: disingenuous owners move off their 50-50 split stance. Results will follow.

 

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