What about Cincinnati? Realignment leaves behind maybe Big East's best program

Jonathan Ernst

The successful, committed football program has churned out winning seasons, has a storied stadium and continues to make great coaching hires, but was left behind in the Big East by Rutgers and Louisville.

In September, I began work on a story about the uncertain, hopeful future of Big East football. That moment was between the start of the season, during which negotiations were ongoing between commissioner Mike Aresco and TV networks, and the defections of Rutgers to the Big Ten and Louisville to the ACC.

The narrative was to center around the Oct. 26th Keg of Nails game between one-loss Cincinnati and undefeated Louisville. The two perennial conference powers, plus Rutgers, would shape the outcome of the 2012 Big East championship. The winner would receive an automatic berth in the BCS, the second-to-last time the conference would be awarded an instant spot in a major bowl game.

This Thursday night Louisville and Rutgers will likely determine the Big East champion during another weeknight ESPN broadcast. Both teams have announced their exits in the last two weeks, and neither would agree to speak on the record about the state of the Big East or their own programs during the last two months.

My story changed. The following is told mostly by those willing to speak on the record: Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, interviewed before the announced defections, and coach Butch Jones and athletic director Whit Babcock of Cincinnati, the program left as the remaining Big East power.

***

Mike Aresco is the warm-hearted mentor you always wanted. He's the antithesis of the modern conference commissioner. Some would say that's by virtue of the fact his brand is considered to be on the losing end of realignment and because he's a sympathetic character in this mess, but it's his natural character.

A longtime programming executive with CBS, Aresco is well-respected among college media's elite. Talking to him a few days after Hurricane Sandy, he's open and genuine and ruthlessly positive. The most newsworthy item facing Aresco is the potential division structures between the east and west of the new Big East, with Boise State, San Diego State, Houston and SMU coming over. At the time, he addressed my question about a lack of natural history - the Keg of Nails being the last rivalry of the old "new" Big East still standing - with a solution based in pairs.

"We're going to develop great rivalries to go along with the ones we have now, certainly with Cincinnati and Louisville being one of the best we've got. But we'll also have Memphis and Louisville, Memphis and Cincinnati, Temple and Rutgers as well as Temple and UConn. We hope to establish a really significant rivalry with UCF and USF, and that comes in recruiting-rich Florida. SMU and Houston is already a significant rivalry with remnants of the old Southwest Conference."

In retrospect, however, the rivalry he named as one of the conference's best is as strong an indication as any that the recent defections were totally unexpected.

"I think there's also a great rivalry we can showcase in Rutgers and Louisville. That's a game that, just a few years ago, garnered tremendous interest on a national level."


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Consider the Bearcats: Despite currently standing outside of the ACC or Big Ten or Big 12 expansion picture, Cincinnati screams survival. Since their arrival in the Big East from Conference USA in 2005, the Bearcats have a 59-30 overall record featuring three conference titles, four double-digit winning seasons and two BCS appearances. Their coaching lineage in that run has become well documented: Mark D'Antonio, who would leave to resurrect Michigan State, then Brian Kelly, whose 33-6 record over three seasons earned him the Notre Dame job, and now Butch Jones, who after a 4-8 2010 debut took the Bearcats to a 10-3 mark and co-championship of the league last season. There's no better back-to-back-to-back run of coaching hires.

Jones: "We're one of the winningest programs in the conference in the last few years. Everyone wants to look towards West Virginia, and our program's been slighted a little bit. That develops more of a chip on our shoulder than the national perception of our conference. But I tell our players, you earn respect by winning football games on gameday. All that other stuff will take of itself."

Naturally, as of this writing Jones' name is being mentioned with multiple open jobs at BCS conference schools, as the Bearcats are 8-3 entering the final week of the season. Losing Jones would be a blow to UC unlike D'Antonio or Kelly because of the great uncertainty surrounding the Big East. Specifically, the lack of a new television deal leaves the athletic budgets of those schools still tied to the conference in a great amount of doubt.

Schools aren't as capable of offering their incumbent coaches larger contracts and assuring them of strong program budgets because they don't have healthy TV revenue checks to do it with. A new conference doesn't guarantee that a hot coach will or won't leave town, but for reference, the week's events in Louisville have Cardinal fans feeling a lot better about retaining Charlie Strong.

***

Aresco, in October: "When you expand you’d like to add a team that adds a max value to the conference, that would benefit from being in the conference. We’d like to pick a team that would be strong in football."

On Tuesday the Big East announced that Tulane, along with ECU, would join the conference in all sports. Just as the Big Ten and Jim Delany had been derided a week prior for watering down the B1G football brand with Rutgers and Maryland for the sake of television markets, the Big East took a heavy amount of scrutiny. After all, there are much better Conference USA football teams to pluck - up until a disastrous 2012 season, Southern Miss would be a great example - but it's considered a given that the conference went with the Green Wave to bolster their television footprint. While New Orleans is considered a Top 50 TV market (No. 52, according to Neilsen), any local LSU fan will tell you Tulane (39-81 and bowl-less in its previous 10 seasons) does not guarantee New Orleans viewers. The same can be said for Rutgers, nobly thought by the Big East and B1G alike to deliver the New York City TV market, if such a concept even exists for college football in the Big Apple.

***

The fool's errand for a college football coaching staff is to create a vacuum around 90-odd teenagers and 20-somethings to try and eliminate "distraction." Good and bad alike are always shut out. Arrests and eligibility issues are on par with bowl and player awards speculation to most coaches - get it out of the conversation in order to maintain that elusive focus. Conference alignment seems to rank as the least threatening news item to distract players, though. Whether it's their knowledge that football is a fragile and fleeting experience or just the shortsightedness of youth, most players don't raise an eye to these headlines (the loss of rivalries, as Geno Smith notes, are an exception).

Me: "In all your years, have you ever had an 18-year-old recruit express concerns over television revenue and conference affiliation?"

Jones: "(laughing) No, I haven't. Nope. I think they can sometimes be concerned with the overall status [of a program], but I think when a person comes here, I always tell them to pick a school for the school and the people. I think the biggest thing that invidivuals are surprised about when they come here is our campus, our facilites and our vision, and also our success. That's what you sell."

Every head coach loves to modify his environment upon entering a program. Banners with slogans, pictures, photos, and the like. When Jones came in after Brian Kelly, he began conducting "exit interviews" with recruits that didn't choose Cincinnati. One of those complaints was that the interiors of the team facilities - where a potential recruit would spend most of his waking hours for four years - were a little drab, so he changed up the lighting and had murals, charts and posters added to the walls, along with a fresh coat of paint. He never heard word one about conference affiliation.

"Recruiting is based on relationships. Through the process, you develop a lot of those, and some with people who, even though they don't pick your school, they last a lifetime. If there's a few individuals we grow close to, whether it's the parents or the student athlete, I always like their input."

Jones said that the constant upheaval of the conference hasn't affected recruiting. At the end of the day, players want opportunities to play.

"It doesn't matter. We've suffered very few effects, if any. I think that's thanks to the relationships we develop, we form. They see the vision and where we're going."

***

Cincinnati underwent an aggressive building campaign to assemble a set of facilities worthy of a BCS conference. The heart of the upgrade is the Varsity Village and the stunning Lindner Center, a uniquely designed all-athletics facility reflecting UC's rich heritage of architecture and worthy of any major college football power. Babcock acknowledges that there is still debt to be paid off through bonds, and that it's important that UC get their athletic budget balanced as soon as possible. While the Lindner Center has been labeled as "unproductive debt," Babcock calls it "strategic debt," and with the going notion that Louisville's facilities were the centerpiece of their valuation over Cincinnati by the ACC and others, it's hard to argue. But UC will be paying for improvements that got them into the BIg East for some time, making potential projects such as upgrades to Fifth Third Bank Arena and landlocked Nippert Stadium.

Despite the fact they've dominated in football (the driving sport in television revenue and conference realignment) and doing so through a steady stream of coaching changes, the Bearcats are still on the outside of the mega conferences looking in. There's a bitter irony here - Cincinnati stands to look around at a Big East they spent an estimated $110 million through facilities enhancements to enter and realize it's Conference USA all over again. The announcement of Tulane and ECU add to a list of former C-USA members - Houston, SMU, Central Florida - slated to replace the departed and departing teams - PIttsburgh, West Virginia, Syracuse - the Bearcats assumed they'd be keeping company with in a fiscally safer neighborhood. Much like the old C-USA, this evolving Big East has no foothold in the television rights market.

Babcock: "I just felt like, and still do, that there's great potential here, that Cincinnati is on an upward trajectory. We want to be a leader in the Big East, but we also have to keep our head on a swivel with the landscape of conference realignment. Whatever conference we're in, we're going to compete and win."

Babcock's optimism during our October interview stemmed from his background as a vaunted fundraiser and his belief that not every revenue source for UC, an athletics program he said was stocked with great coaches, had been discovered yet. For instance, the debate over expanding Nippert Stadium - the fifth-oldest stadium active in college football and locked from outward expansion on all sides - could be solved not by mindless seat expansion, but the key addition of premium seating that could boost revenue without having to finance for a large building project or create the potential for empty seats.

"We realize that we cannot just continue to raise tickets prices," he said. "We have to be careful in how we generate revenue."

Nippert, despite its age and shape, is a dream for a college football fan - it's sunk into the landscape of the University's southern campus, a feature that encourages heat during September day games and noise all season long. It pales in comparison of size, accessibility and amenities to Louisville's Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, but it's easy to see how historic and revered a place it is for local fans (Babcock steered UC away from neutral-site games at nearby Paul Brown Stadium), and what a hellish environment it is for opposing teams. Regardless, it's a facility that will have to do, likely for the near future and the long term.

***

When approaching an athletic administrator working on any kind of major, undisclosed project, it's much like encountering a bear. They're more afraid of you than you are of them. After speaking with Aresco on the record and a variety of other Big East administrators on and off, I contacted Rutgers for their take through a general inquiry to athletic director Tim Pernetti. A few days later, a one-line email denied my request. I called Jason Baum, the senior associate athletic director of communications on Friday, November 9.

Me: "Is there any particular reason Pernetti is unavailable? I've already spoken with [a long list of names]."

Baum: "He just isn't."

Me: "If it's a time issue, I really don't need more than a few minutes at any point in the next week or so."

Baum: "It isn't."

Me: "Is there any way I can go about speaking with him?"

Baum: "He's got a lot on his plate right now, and this request is one of the things I'm taking off of it."

Me: "So that's an issue of time."

Baum: "Yeah, he's just not going to be available."

A rather unremarkable exchange, but the lexicon of a sports information director is usually littered with pleasantries. "Not at this time," and, "unfortunately," and, "we appreciate the interest," buttress just about every denied media request I've ever seen or heard. This was an old-fashioned, "AND STAY OUT," door- slamming.

But I had assumed throughout the exchange with Baum that the standing of "web sites" like SB Nation among the collegiate athletics establishment was what prompted the curt reply. Instead, it was the impending move out of the Big East. Lesson: it doesn't matter if you're credentialed from the Iowa Farm Report or Just Jared; an unlucky phone call can scare anyone. Eight days later, Rutgers was revealed to be moving to the Big Ten.

Shortly after, Louisville would cut off public comment as well, through a series of emails that, to their credit, at least feigned interest in talking about conference realignment.

***

Aresco, in October: "From the time I was named as commissioner, I realized right away that the Big East had had a narrative that wasn’t being accepted. We have a good story to tell but we haven’t had that chance to do so yet. I set out to remind people and repeat that we are a very good football conference. I need to tell that story."

Those coaches and officials who were willing to speak off the record all indicated that the most important task at hand for the Big East would be the completion of a television rights deal. As the latest round of schools began to defect, cynicism built.

"It's a double-edged sword, because you say publicly that you're committed to the growth of the conference," said one Big East athletic director, "and you really are, but you have to also say you're going to do what's best for your institution, because that's your primary focus. But when you state both, it inspires doubt. It makes it seem as if you're looking to leave regardless of the situation."

It would be unwise to try and fashion a villain in this current chapter of realignment, because the narrative is far from linear. However, if the timing of Rutgers' announcement was merely a circumstance of opportunity and not suspicious, it was inarguably devastating to the Big East.

In a detailed timeline assembled by the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Rutgers is portrayed as part of a backup plan launched by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany shortly after Notre Dame announced its new partnership with the ACC on Sept. 13. The piece indicates Pernetti and Delany began talks sometime in September, right about the time Aresco was in the exclusive negotiating window for a new television rights deal with ESPN. The actual announcement came after that window expired, and the loss of the New York market - however liberally defined - was a roundhouse to the jaw of Aresco's efforts.

The side effects of this were multiple. Consider the Bearcats: If Jones is courted by a strong BCS program, the promise of future TV revenue from a new contract to fund staff salaries, recruiting resources and stadium renovations isn't there. The exposure of a NBC/Comcast, ESPN or CBS for recruiting isn't there. And the potential grant of rights that could have allowed Aresco to build a exit penalty system similar to the ACC and Big 12 was dashed.

Failing to catch the last train out doesn't make Cincinnati a downy innocent. They're no different than any other program looking for a safe harbor in realignment - reports surfaced this week that UC made a presentation to the ACC geared specifically around showcasing their value as stronger than Louisville's or UConn's.

"I wouldn't say we're competing with each other in conference realignment," Babcock said in October. "I think everybody needs to be all-in on the conference they're in."

That's a quote that just six weeks later feels "gotcha" even in context, but it's presented here not to illustrate deceit. If anything, Cincinnati's willingness to address their role in the Big East this season is at this point (and compared to the no-commentry of the recently departed programs) tantamount to an admission that they really were committed to staying the Big East. But now it's about survival, and the best interests for each individual university.

If few wept over the demise of the Backyard Brawl, fewer tears will be shed if that Keg of Nails sits on a shelf in Kentucky indefinitely.

Consider the Bearcats, whose A.D. was as up front as any about what it would take to keep the Big East, as we knew it for a short window of time, intact: "It will take the television negotiations to come through. I think that gives everyone an idea of the visibility and exposure we'll have and will give everybody an idea of where our budget increases are after that."

"We're just looking for trust and stability as far as the conference goes, and I think we've made great strides in that."

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