HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 03: Houston Cugar students and fans cheer on their team as they make their way onto the field to play UCLA at Robertson Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Houston's fan base has been thrilled with the prospect of leaving Conference USA behind to join a "real" conference. But the Big East's membership is crumbling, leaving the conference's (and UH's) future in doubt.
When Big East commissioner John Marinatto announced his resignation recently, Houston athletics director Mack Rhoades quickly denied that the move changed anything about UH's commitment to joining the conference in all sports starting in 2013.
But Rhoades would be wise to make sure that a conference still exists for UH to join when 2013 rolls around.
As it currently stands, the Big East has a current/future membership of 13 football-playing schools. Five of those schools are currently in the Big East, five more join for all sports in the future, plus three more football-only members. But the conference's invite-everybody, strength-in-numbers, geography-be-damned approach might not work out, after all.
After all, depending on who you believe...
- Louisville and Connecticut desperately want out, to the Big XII and/or ACC. Truth is that the Big East, as it stands today (or at least as it stood before WVU left) is at least as good a football conference as the ACC. But the Big East has lost out badly in the TV deal shuffle, and the better money is in the ACC. If both UL and UConn get their wish, the Big East would be down to just three original (pre-NCAA going nuclear) football-playing members. Cincinnati has been the subject of on-again, off-again Big XII rumors for some time, but since UC president Greg Williams is chairing the search for a new Big East commish and saying the right things, we'll optimistically assume that the Bearcats stay put.
- Boise State and San Diego State are reconsidering their move to the Big East, given the conference's uncertain future, and the fact that Automatic Qualifying Conferences will soon no longer be a thing. Now, if the conference can more-or-less stay as it currently sits, then the appeal of joining the Big East is still there - an undefeated season in the Big East gets you a much better shot at making college football's Final Four than an undefeated season in the Mountain West. But if UL and/or UConn leave, the Broncos may decide to go back to being the big fish in the small pond of the Mountain West, and the Aztecs might go with them.
- This is pure spitballing, but given that Navy has never been super-enthusiastic about joining the Big East in the first place, and that "we could sneak away with a conference title and get a BCS bowl invite" was probably a more reasonable rationale for joining than "we could go undefeated and sneak away with a Final Four invite" will be, the Midshipmen might reconsider their move, as well.
But before you go jumping off any high ledges (or even worse, start wondering if Houston can retroactively re-join C-USA), consider...
If every move I just described goes down, the future Big East (for football) will be Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida, Temple, UCF, SMU, Memphis and Houston. It's not a stellar conference, but it's better than what Houston was a member of before, it's still a viable 8-team conference, and more importantly, it's better than any alternative, given that all the conference raids have reduced all the minor conferences to rubble. There is no such thing as a seventh-best conference in this scenario. If Boise and SDSU realize this and stay committed to the conference, you're looking at a potentially pretty respectable conference, despite losing seemingly half of Division 1.
The fact that the basketball-playing schools would be financially insane to split off from the football-playing half of the conference means that Houston will still also be joining a conference that includes the likes of Notre Dame, Georgetown and Villanova for hoops. That's nothing to sneeze at.
In summary, Houston's move to the Big East may not end up being as exciting as it looked at first. But it's still progress. Look no further than TCU to see what improving your conference, one stepping stone at a time, can do.