NEW YORK - The Big East’s plan to save the conference involves heading West.
The embattled league’s leaders have agreed on a plan to invite Boise State, Air Force and Navy as football-only members, and Central Florida to compete in all sports, after they double the exit fee for current members to $10 million.
Houston and SMU are likely next in line as full members as the Big East tries to get to 12 schools. The Dallas Morning News late Friday reported SMU has received an invitation, according to an unnamed source.
An official in the Big East, speaking on condition of anonymity because the conference had not authorized anyone to speak publicly about its plans, told The Associated Press invitations could go out as soon as next week.
The official also said Big East Commissioner John Marinatto was in Cincinnati on Friday meeting with UCF’s president and athletic director.
Conferences do not publicly invite new members unless they are confident those invitations will be accepted. But until the invites go out, nothing is a done deal.
With 12 football schools, the Big East would split into two divisions and could play a championship game.
Boise State and Air Force, which is located in Colorado Springs, along with UCF’s Conference USA rivals SMU and Houston, would give the Big East - a league that started as a northeastern basketball conference - four football schools West of the Mississippi River.
Temple, which plays football in the Mid-American Conference and is located in Philadelphia, also has been under consideration.
Big East officials made protecting the league’s automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series their expansion priority. That pushed Boise State, which is in its first season in the Mountain West Conference after a decade in the Western Athletic Conference, to the top of the Big East’s most wanted list, along with the service academies.
The Broncos are 71-5 since 2006, finished 10th in the final BCS standings last season and at 5-0 seem on their way to a top-10 finish. Big East officials believe putting Boise State’s record on the Big East’s ledger when the BCS reviews which leagues should have automatic bids beyond 2013 should allow the conference to make the cut.
The Mountain West Conference does not have an automatic bid to the BCS. Nor does Conference USA.
Friday, those two leagues announced they would “consolidate” their football programs by 2013. Right now their are 22 teams in those leagues, 10 in the MWC and 12 in CUSA, but maybe not for long.
MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson said during a conference call Friday he has been notified by the leaders of Boise State and Air Force that they had been in contact with the Big East, but the presidents of those schools also participated in the league’s unanimous vote to approve the merger with CUSA.
He said the merged conference creates stability and is a “viable option” for Boise State and Air Force, but he would not speculate on what those schools would do.
Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said the president of UCF took part in his conference’s vote and that he and Marinatto have been in contact about Central Florida.
“I hope UCF will stay,” he said. “But if a school feels like it’s in a better situation somewhere else, that’s OK.”
Both commissioners said they are having internal discussions with their members about possibly adding other schools.
Right now, the Big East has only six schools committed to play football in the league beyond this season.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse have announced they will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference, though Big East rules require them to stay in the league for the next two seasons and Marinatto has said he will hold the Panthers and Orange to that. However, that’s unlikely if the league can grow to 12 teams for next season without them.
TCU was slated to join the Big East in 2012, but the Horned Frogs reneged on that commitment and accepted an invite to the Big 12 last week.
Trying to recruit new members has been tricky for the Big East, because its remaining members might also be looking for new conference homes.
Louisville and West Virginia are possible targets for the Big 12 if it needs to replace Missouri, which is pondering a move to the Southeastern Conference, or decides to expand back to 12 teams.
Connecticut has interest in joining the ACC if it expands again, and there has been speculation about Rutgers moving, too.
By raising the exit fee, the Big East is trying to show the schools it has been recruiting that the conference will be stable in the long run. Boise State, Air Force, and Navy, an independent in football, all had reservations about the Big East’s long-term health.
SMU and Houston would replace the Texas presence the Big East thought it was going to have with TCU, and help make the move to the Big East more palatable to Boise State.
Boise, Idaho, is nearly 1,900 miles from the closest current Big East member, Louisville. Though the trip to Houston is about as far, having a presence in Texas is alluring to Boise State.
Boise State and Air Force would have to find conferences to house their other sports. A return to the WAC is possible for both, though WAC Commissioner Karl Benson said Friday that he has only had hypothetical conversations with Boise State and Air Force officials about those schools joining as non-football members.
The Big East also has eight members that do not compete in football within its league: Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette, DePaul and Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s goal is to remain a football independent, but if the Big East crumbles, the Fighting Irish could end up with no place for their basketball, baseball and Olympic sports to compete. That could force Notre Dame to finally give up football independence and put its storied program in a conference, because it’s unlikely another league will give the Irish the same deal they have in the Big East.