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Will the Big East Save Itself?

(Best read with The Clash's epic opus, Should I Stay or Should I Go)

If you're a fan of the Big East, or at least a fan of a school under its auspices, this hasn't been a good off-season. Ever since December, when Big ten Commissioner Jim Delany announced that the Big Ten was exploring expansion, any non-basketball related talk about the Big East has revolved around who or how many Big East teams would be included in that expansion. Not a week goes by without some paper or website announcing that UConn, Syracuse, Rutgers or Pitt is a "done deal" for the Big Ten (immediately followed by a retraction of some sort). No matter whether these premature announcements are correct or not, it's not a comfortable position to be in.

You have to believe this was on Randy Edsall's mind when he told the assembled media that it was long overdue for the conference to send "you're in or you're out" message to Notre Dame. On the surface, it's a tired refrain that Big East coaches have been singing for years. Like it or not, Notre Dame has been good for Big East Football (to an extent) and the Big East in general. The Domers give the conference a MidWest/Chicago-ish presence that DePaul can't provide despite being in the heart of the city. They give a name that Midwestern viewers will follow and they seem to enjoy losing to Big East schools in all manner of sports. It's been a good arrangement for the most part.

However, when the issue becomes one of survival, Edsall is right to call for their ouster. Edsall knows as well as anyone else that Notre Dame will not join the Big East. The money, the rivalries, the ties simply aren't there. Notre Dame became a member of the Big East strictly because it thought too highly of itself to allow its non-revenue sports to play in Conference USA and the Big East was the only BCS conference willing to allow the Domers to join their ranks without requiring the football program to do so as well. Had the Big East said go piss up a flag pole at that requirement, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion. But they didn't, and as a result the Big East is on the brink of joining the Southwest Conference as a once famous afterthought of college athletics.

Sadly, and perhaps by design, every expansion discussion comes down to Notre Dame. Partly because they are a desirable asset to any conference, but mostly because of their geographic location and historical Midwest ties. Everyone outside of South Bend will acknowledge that Notre Dame would best serve college football by joining the Big Ten, but there is no motivation for the Irish to do so.

Notre Dame is one of the few institutions in the country that can pay its own way on just about anything. An endowment rivaling a Saudi Prince's bank account, a historic athletic department, a moniker that makes them the favorite of an entire race of people regardless of whether they've ever seen them play a game (as an Irishman, trust me on this), and an academic reputation that is actually equal to its considerable accomplishments. To an extent, Notre Dame can and does stand alone on its own merit.

However, when it comes to non-football athletics, the story is very different. With the modern college athletic landscape every NCAA member seemingly must belong to a conference to compete. Men's and Women's basketball, volleyball, swimming, tennis, etc... all require competition that is not easily scheduled as an independent. The sheer number of men's and women's non-revenue sports supported by Notre Dame (23) would require an army of staffers just to schedule their seasons if they did not belong to a conference. 

But those programs are part of the Big East, so they don't have that problem.

And that is where the Big East will have to strike if they are to remain a viable BCS conference. Notre Dame's stance has put the expansion hungry Big Ten in the position of being forced to compromise the Big East and possibly the Big XII to expand. Let's face it. If Notre Dame agreed to join the Big Ten tomorrow, all the expansion talk would likely go away as the hungry beast had been fed. But they won't, so we're back to conference armageddon.

If the Big East wishes to survive, they must issue the "in or out" ultimatum to Notre Dame. It's not a question of doing the Big Ten's bidding or their dirty work, it's a fact. If the Big Ten were to offer Pitt and Syracuse membership, they would likely take it. Down to six viable football teams the conference would immediately lose its BCS status and look more like CUSA as it usurps lower tier universities in an effort to save itself. Or, just as likely, the conference dissolves with its high asset schools moving to the Big Ten, ACC or SEC. Either way, Notre Dame is without a conference and likely to end up in the Big Ten, ACC or SEC shortly thereafter.

However, if Notre Dame does leave or is forced to leave the Big East, the Irish must join another viable conference to support their non-revenue programs. The easy answer, they join the Big Ten. Geographically, financially, tradition... it all fits. More importantly for the Big East, it means no more expansion discussions. No more trying to justify yourself as a Conference because of hangers on. The papers will no longer be able write your obituary as you'll still be alive. The Big Ten's expansion appetite will have been satiated and the Big East can breathe easy.

But in order to do so, the conference is going to have to make a call to South Bend. Inevitably, Notre Dame is going to end up in a conference. It's just the way modern college athletics are, including football. But they're not going to join the Big East. They know it and so does the Big East. So, with the very survival of the Big East hinging on the Irish's decision, it's time for Commissioner John Marinatto to make that call.

The question is, will he?

(Please also read the outstanding TNIAAM piece The Big East Will Not Exist In 2013.)