In the five years before Boston College left the Big East Conference in 2004, the Eagles had a respectable women's soccer program but were hardly a powerhouse. Their final years in the league included a fourth-place finish, a third-place finish and three second-place finishes.
Now, seven years after leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, Boston College is a national championship contender. Last season, the Eagles made the Women's College Cup -- the equivalent of basketball's Final Four -- one year after winning the highly competitive ACC for the first time.
It's the type of success the University of Pittsburgh's non-revenue sports are hoping to emulate when the school leaves the Big East and joins the ACC, a move Pitt announced last month. Syracuse also will leave the Big East for the ACC.
For many coaches at Pitt, the switch will raise the bar significantly for their teams.
Pitt women's soccer coach Sue-Moy Chin hopes to duplicate Boston College's ACC success, but she has a long road ahead. The Panthers women's team has never finished with a winning record in Big East play and has struggled at times to be competitive.
"We definitely have a lot of work to do, but that's exciting," said Ms. Chin, who is in her ninth season as Pitt's head coach. "That's why we're all in college athletics at this level. It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be exciting. It will test us in many ways."
The ACC presents a daunting challenge in women's soccer. Eight teams from the conference advanced to the 2010 NCAA tournament. This fall, seven ACC teams are ranked in the top 25, including six among the top 13. By comparison, the highest-ranked Big East team is Marquette at No. 14, and only two other teams are in this week's top 25.
Such quality could help elevate the newcomers to the conference.
"With a lot of the elite high school players, there is a lure with the ACC," said Alison Foley, the Boston College women's soccer coach. "When we joined the ACC, it really started to elevate our recruiting. We started to get some high-level players. The time line is hard to project, but I think Pitt and Syracuse will both find that little by little they're going to start getting better and better players into their programs. And the other thing is they're going to be playing against the best competition. I think in two or three years they're going to start seeing an impact."
Ms. Chin is already ahead of the game in one respect. The NCAA allows a maximum of 14 scholarships for women's soccer, and Pitt plays with a full complement of scholarship players. That is not the case for other non-revenue sports at Pitt, which also will be trying to make the transition to the ACC in a successful manner.
"We'll be working extremely hard to get some high-level players," Ms. Chin said. "The Big East has done a tremendous job of growing as a soccer conference. We have the defending national champion in Notre Dame. We've had teams in the Final Four. We've been doing a lot of great things, but we're just now starting to catch up to the ACC. The ACC is an established conference. It's a national draw for student athletes.
"With the ACC, right away you get national recognition. That will help us. A lot of young players aspire to play in the ACC. But there are only so many spots and now you add two teams with Pitt and Syracuse, so that's good for us."
The No. 1 reason Pitt is uprooting its athletic teams from the Big East is money. All of the moves regarding the realignments of conferences across the country are aimed at increasing revenue.
The ACC television contract with ESPN is worth $155 million annually. When Pitt and Syracuse joined, that triggered a renegotiation clause with ESPN, so the annual figure could rise with the new deal.
The Big East, which will negotiate a new television deal in 2013, earns less than $40 million annually in TV revenue.
The television revenue was the key issue in deciding to leave for the ACC. The Big East competes well with the ACC in most other revenue streams. The Big East did quite well when it came to revenue generated from the NCAA men's basketball tournament last year. The Big East earned $26.1 million, the highest of any conference. The ACC was third with $18.7 million.
There is not much difference when it comes to football bowl payouts for the Big East and ACC either. Both conferences made about $22 million from the Bowl Championship Series last year. Financial comparisons for minors bowl payouts between the two conferences is, basically, a wash.
A football conference championship games is one revenue stream the Big East does not have that the ACC does. The ACC championship game is the least successful of the BCS conference championship games, but it still earns about $5 million a year for the league.
Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson would not disclose the exact amount of money the move will mean for the university, but said it is "significant." Mr. Pederson said the university will use the increased revenue to strengthen all of its existing sports programs "in every way across the board."
Most, if not all, of the new revenue created by the move to the ACC will be spent on existing athletic programs at the university, which is why Paul Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University, said that conference realignment isn't necessarily about revenue increases for universities as much as it is protecting against revenue decreases in the future.
"A lot of this conference realignment is defensive," Mr. Haagen said. "If your revenue streams dry up because you're not in a competitive conference, then you'll be in a position where you don't have as attractive of a schedule, and you'll worry about selling tickets or not having people watch on television."
In other words, if Pitt didn't join the ACC another school in the conference could have jumped at the opportunity, leaving the Panthers vulnerable in a weakened Big East as the league attempts to negotiate a more lucrative television contract in 2013.
Furthermore, Mr. Haagen said, the universities on the whole are not reaping financial benefits from these moves. The new revenue streams likely will be invested in higher coaches salaries, new and upgraded facilities and larger recruiting budgets. There is not much money leftover to fund university programs outside of sports.
But that doesn't mean there isn't value in moving conferences. What universities value most is increased exposure. Watching football and basketball games on television is the easiest and most popular way for alumni to maintain ties to their alma mater after graduation. Maintaining strong ties with alumni is important because universities count on their financial contributions yearly.
"A lot of the accounting is difficult to do," Mr. Haagen said. "Athletics brings your institution more attention than anything else you can do. Pitt has one of the best philosophy departments in the world, but I don't think there are many stories written about the philosophy department. Those things are quite hard to measure."
More exposure most certainly comes with Pitt playing Florida State and Miami in football and Duke and North Carolina in basketball. But it also means increased exposure in other sports as well.
ESPN televises two or three ACC baseball games per week on its many networks. The Big East had just two games on national television last season.
"I have a lot of deep friendships in the Big East, but each of the coaches in the Big East would tell you the opportunity to coach in the ACC puts you on the national stage rather than the regional stage" said Pitt baseball coach Joe Jordano, who is in his 15th year with the Panthers. "I'm very excited. The ACC quite arguably is the best baseball conference in the country. It really elevates our program to another level."
Like the women's soccer program, Mr. Jordano faces some big challenges. He has built a representative program at Pitt with consecutive third-place finishes in the Big East the past two years, but the Panthers have never made the NCAA baseball tournament.
Seven ACC teams qualified for the 2011 NCAA baseball tournament, including three of the top five national seeds. Fifty-eight ACC players were selected in the 2011 Major League Baseball amateur draft. By contrast, three Big East teams made the tournament and a conference-record 41 players were selected in the MLB draft.
Mr. Jordano's recruiting has been bolstered the past couple of years because the Panthers are playing in the new 900-seat Charles L. Cost Field inside the Petersen Sports Complex, which also includes new fields for softball and soccer. Cost Field has a press box, synthetic grass and lights that allow for night games. The new facility replaces dilapidated Trees Field, which was among the worst baseball facilities in the country.
Mr. Jordano believes the facilities helped him recruit several incoming players who are ACC-caliber. Upon hearing the news of the move to the ACC, Mr. Jordano called a staff meeting and mapped out a new course for recruiting that he hopes will attract more elite players.
Mr. Jordano, who has concentrated his recruiting efforts on the Northeast in the past, will expand to the Midwest and West.
"We're adding regions of the country that we haven't pursued in the past," he said. "But this won't change how we coach. We feel really good about our staff and how we practice and play. Now it's just a matter of going out and getting the horses to run in the race."
Baseball at Pitt is one of the non-revenue sports that currently operates below its NCAA scholarship limit. The NCAA allows 11.7 scholarships for baseball programs. Pitt, one of only three programs in the Big East that is not fully funded, currently fills 9.3 scholarships per year.
Those 2.4 scholarships might not sound like much, but Mr. Jordano said it can mean the difference between fielding a competitive team and a championship-caliber team.
Non-revenue sports divide scholarships among their rosters of players, doling out one-quarter, one-third and half scholarships to athletes.
"That's four or five studs you can add to your program," Mr. Jordano said. "For us, that could be two power arms, a power-hitting third baseman, a burner in center field who can hit and maybe a closer. It would add a whole new dynamic to our team. We already feel like we have a good group of players, but then you add that, and it changes the complexion of your team."
Mr. Jordano is hopeful his team will be fully funded by the time the move to the ACC is made. When asked last week, Mr. Pederson did not make any promises about spending up to the NCAA limit in non-revenue sports. He said he is comfortable with the baseball program -- and all other non-revenue sports -- going into the ACC at the current level of funding.
"We feel like we're funding at the appropriate levels in all of our sports," he said.
Mr. Pederson also said there are no plans to add sports at this time. Pitt does not field teams in men's tennis or men's and women's golf, three sports that are highly popular in the ACC.
With the new Petersen Sports Complex completed, Mr. Pederson said the only sport that requires upgraded facilities is track and field and that is on the drawing board. Mr. Pederson said the improvements in facilities for the non-revenue sports was an important factor for the ACC in accepting Pitt.
"We spent a lot of energy preparing facilities for our sports to succeed at the highest levels," he said. "Our facilities are comparable to anyone's in the country and can compete on the national level. We were already ready for [the move to the ACC]. The ACC felt strongly we were ready for this move in all areas."
The highest-profile of the non-revenue sports is women's basketball, and the move to the ACC could be a slight step down in competition for the Panthers. The Big East and ACC each had five teams ranked in the final AP rankings last season, with the Big East claiming three top-10 teams to just one for the ACC.
Connecticut is the home of the best women's college program in the country, with six NCAA titles in the past 12 years. The ACC has produced just one NCAA champion in the same time period -- Maryland in 2006.
Pitt's women's basketball history in the Big East is not strong, although it has improved in recent years. The Panthers are 176-288 all-time in Big East competition with three NCAA tournament appearances. The team has been on the upswing in recent years under the direction of Angus Berenato, who has led the Panthers to five postseason appearances in her seven-year tenure.
"I don't think it's going to be a step down," said Carol Sprague, senior associate athletic director and senior women's administrator, who has worked in the Pitt athletic department since 1974. "It's going to be tough. The Big East is a great basketball conference, but the ACC is really good, too. I was looking at the [Ratings Percentage Index] from last year and the Big East had more teams in the top 15, but the ACC was really strong 15 through 30. There's not a whole lot of difference. It's going to be tough in the ACC just as it was tough in the Big East."
Ms. Sprague has previously witnessed Pitt in transition. When she arrived at the school, the Panthers were a football independent.
The Panthers also played basketball in the Eastern Eight before joining the Big East in 1982. The Big East football conference was formed in 1991.
One of Ms. Sprague's main responsibilities in recent years has been overseeing facilities development on campus, and she said now, more than ever, sports such as baseball, softball and soccer are ready to take off because of the new state-of-the-art facilities.
"Our future is very bright," she said. "Our soccer teams in years past had to play off-campus and it was even hard to practice real-game situations because the practice field dimensions weren't regulation. We have the infrastructure now, so the proof will be in the pudding."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.