You know the saying about hindsight. I have the foresight to know I don't need to write it here.
So, yes, it is easy to look back on the last decade and tell you what the Big East Conference should have done to prevent the current situation it finds itself in.
It's still worth doing, though. Because whatever happens to the Big East over the next few weeks, it will never be what it once was. And it will never be what it could have been.
The Big East is on the verge of inviting upwards of six new schools to join its conference. There's a good chance this Frankenstein's monster of a conference could ensure a future for the schools involved. At least a while.
Among the possible candidates are schools that make sense from a geographic and forward-looking perspective (Central Florida, Temple, East Carolina). There are also schools that don't make any sense from a geographic perspective but provide the conference with an instant jolt of present-day football supremacy (Boise State). Then there are schools that fall somewhere in the middle of both criteria (Houston, SMU).
And then there are the service academics (Air Force, Army, Navy), which bring with them oodles of prestige and history without any realistic value in terms of future success.
In a way, acquiring the Army-Navy game would be the perfect metaphor for what the Big East seems to be striving to become. By adding both of those football teams and turning their annual display of pageantry into a conference game, the Big East will have a showcase that is traditional, stoic, full of photo ops and, ultimately, absolutely meaningless.
Army vs. Navy is an honorable, noble tradition but it's never going to have any real effect on the BCS standings.
Not unlike the Big East, sadly.
For those who think this fate was inevitable for the Big East, I politely disagree. I think it only feels that way after watching the conference and its leadership squander opportunity after opportunity to do otherwise.
When they could have been proactive, the Big East has always been reactive. As the Big Ten and SEC struck first (and second and third), the Big East was always content to sit back, see how things play out, and then act accordingly.
That is, so long as the folks at Providence, Seton Hall and St. John's were okay with it.
A lot of people have blamed Syracuse and Pitt for "making the first move" and leaving the Big East to die. Anyone who says that is, quite frankly, naive and has a short memory (and apparently works at ESPN). By the time the Orange and Panthers made their move to the ACC, it was the culmination of a decade in which the Big East failed to prove to them, and all the football schools, that their best interests were being handled.
So knowing what we know now, what should the Big East have done to prevent it's impending fate?
1. Invited Villanova Football...In 2003
Saying that the Big East should invest in Villanova football has become akin to saying Dave Gavitt was a sweater-fondler. And yes, I'll be the first to admit that the Wildcats' future stadium plans are less than impressive.
For a second, though, forget that we're talking about Villanova. Imagine them as a generic school. Imagine the entire Big East as a nameless Northeastern conference full of 16 schools.
Imagine this nameless Northeastern conference has 8 football members to go with its 16 basketball members. Everyone who plays football also plays basketball. Now, adding more football schools seems imperative but the idea of adding football schools that don't also play basketball is a bit off-putting. You don't really want to add anymore basketball schools. But most of the basketball schools that don't play football for you are in no position to do so in the near future.
However, that one in Philadelphia can. Sure, it's going to take some time and they're going to need a lot of help, but they can get there. Furthermore, they bring a major Northeastern TV market with them and a fanbase that has rivalries with all the other conference football teams built-in.
If all else was equal, you would want that Philadelphia school to play football for you. It would increase your numbers to 9 and would do so without adding another basketball school or adding a football-only partner. It would be the best of both worlds.
Now, back in the real world of 2011, it doesn't make sense for the Big East to invest the time and effort into Villanova football that would be required. The team wouldn't be able to play in the Big East until at least 2015 and probably wouldn't be relevant for another 4-5 years.
But what if the Big East had added them in 2003? What if, while restocking the shelves with the Louisville Cardinals, South Florida Bulls and Cincinnati Bearcats, the Big East threw in Villanova as a homegrown replacement for Temple?
By the time 2010/2011 rolled around, who knows, maybe Villanova would have been relevant. Maybe they would have even won the Big East Title?
Sound crazy? It shouldn't. UConn went from being an FCS squad to Big East champion in 10 years (and yes, I know that UConn is a massive public school and Villanova is a tiny private school so it's not apples-to-apples, but, the point still stands).
2. Expanded To Double-Digits Around The Same Time
After the First Great ACC Purge that saw Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolt for The Conference That Must Not Be Named, the Big East refilled its coffers by adding a whole bunch of Conference USA teams and UConn. While those squads might not have been an even trade, they've almost all paid dividends on their inclusion since.
Louisville, Cincy and UConn have all won the conference title and South Florida has become a perennial bowl team.
It was by all accounts a great recovery for Big East football (adding DePaul for basketball is another story). However, if the Big East had seen the writing on the wall, they would have kept going.
The conference has always had it rough enough due to sub-par efforts on the field (sometimes warranted, sometimes not). That the conference always remained the smallest of the BCS conference only made things worse. Perception is reality and the perception has always been that the Big East is less-than when it comes to football. And that includes in size.
Having 8 teams while everyone else had 10 or even 12 always made the Big East look less-worthy. Especially as the 10-team Mountain West began to creep up the charts. The Big East was always that little runt that, somehow, kept clinging to BCS life.
Would adding two more teams have solved all of the conference's woes? No, of course not. But it could have gone a long way in the fine art of perception.
They say it's about quality over quantity. However, where FBS football is concern, in the absence of quality, quantity is a good alternative.
I'm not even saying the Big East should have added two more football schools back in '03. How about in 2008 or 2009, when grumblings about super-conferences and realignment first started to gain traction? Why couldn't the Big East have sat down, pondered the future of the sport and the need to be solid in all-things-football, and then gone after someone, anyone, to fill out their ranks?
The Big East actually did pretty well at choosing football programs on the rise the first time. Had they added Central Florida or East Carolina or whoever a few years ago, there's reason to believe that those schools would be well on their way to being productive members of the BCS world by now. Maybe not Big East champions, but perhaps bowl-attendees with a series of quality seasons under their belts.
And what would moving to 12 football teams would have meant for the conference? A championship game. A Big East Conference Championship game might not sound sexy and it might not have been much better-attended than the ACC version, but it would have lent credence to the winner. Not to mention moved the conference up a notch.
3. Cut The Chord On Basketball Tradition
Of all the things the Big East should have done, this is by far the most unlikely. I mean, have you heard former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese in the wake of conference realignment? His thoughts on his own conference's football teams were only slightly more subdued than Hank Williams' Jr. thoughts on Barack Obama.
The Big East was founded by basketball schools for basketball schools with the intention of being a basketball school conference. It was led by a Providence guy (Dave Gavitt) who handed it over to another Providence guy (Tranghese) who in turn handed it over to another Providence guy (John Marinatto).
The chances the Big East would ever shuffle loose the mortal coils of Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and other basketball-only members is ridiculous.
But they still should have thought about it.
Or at least realized that they were a basketball-first conference living in a football-first world. That the rules they had basically dictated when they created the league in 1979 no longer applied.
In 1981, a basketball-first conference could thrive on the premiere level.
In 2011, a basketball-first conference survives but not at the premiere level.
Because let's face it, if the Big East never existed until 2011 and you decided to hold a draft for new members, many of the current basketball schools in the Big East would never make it.
Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, Georgetown and DePaul would all be settling in to their new homes in the Atlantic-10.
It's usually around this point that someone says the Big East should have gone after Penn State or Notre Dame to join for football. And it's about this point when those people need to be reminded that the Big East turned JoePa and the Nittany down (for valid reasons) long ago and Notre Dame would be insane to give up their football independence for the Big East, especially since the conference was always willing to ask "how high?" anytime the Irish wanted it to jump.
What was the solution here? Break off into divisions of sort? Trim the fat like DePaul and Marquette? Make the tough decision to cut loose longtime members like Providence and Seton Hall? I don't know. All seem unlikely to have ever been possible.
But some kind of tough decision should have been considered.
Now, it's too late for tough decisions. All that's left are table scraps and puzzle pieces that don't quite fit. The Big East will do what it can with all of them, but it just won't ever be anywhere near as good as it could have been.