Pitt can't afford to be left behind

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You think Pitt shouldn't at least look into the possibility of joining the Big Ten Conference?

You think it automatically will be better off staying in the Big East?

Think again.

You might change your mind after you read what former Big East commissioner Michael Tranghese said Monday.

"The whole expansion thing with the Big Ten is very, very unnerving. ... If the Big Ten comes and takes multiple teams from the Big East, I think the Big East is in trouble. It's a tough situation because I don't think there's anything the Big East can do to prevent it. I think everyone is sort of sitting on pins and needles."

That includes the powers that be at Pitt.

"I think they will be OK," Tranghese said. "I am not as worried about Pitt as I am some of the others. But that's easy for me to say because I'm not sitting in [chancellor] Mark Nordenberg's chair or [athletic director] Steve Pederson's chair. If the Big Ten does expand and you get left behind, it can have a significant impact on the football program."

Tranghese, who stepped down in June after 19 years as the Big East commissioner and 30 years with the conference, made his comments on the "Vinnie and Cook" show on 93.7 The Fan. They came just a few days after West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart talked openly of the Big East disbanding during an interview with a Parkersburg, W.Va., television station. And they came only a week after Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick mentioned for the first time the possibility of the Irish giving up their independent status and joining a football conference.

"I believe we're at a point right now where the changes [in college athletics] could be relatively small or they could be seismic," Swarbrick said. "The landscape could look completely different. This is as unstable as I've ever seen it."

The primary reason is that the Big Ten and Southeastern Conferences have distanced themselves from the four other major conferences because of their rich television contracts. Now, the Big Ten is talking of expanding to 12, 14 or even 16 teams so it can split into two divisions and make even more money by having a conference championship game in football. Although the Big East does better financially than any conference in men's basketball, Tranghese acknowledged, "The real money in college athletics is in football."

That's why Pitt can't afford to be, using Tranghese's words, "left behind" in a watered-down Big East.

That won't be a problem if the Big Ten decides to add just one team, say a Notre Dame or a Missouri from the Big 12 Conference. That would leave the Big East intact and in a position to survive. Tranghese said the league has made enough of a resurgence since bringing in Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida as football schools in 2004 to replace Atlantic Coast Conference defectors Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech that it should get a big increase in its next television contract.

But what if the Big Ten decides to expand by three or five teams and raids the Big East? The answer is easy from Pitt's standpoint: It had better be one of the schools that the Big Ten takes. There is no rebuilding the Big East again. There are no schools out there that would make sense to bring in. Don't even think about Notre Dame. "That's never going to happen," Tranghese said. "Notre Dame is never going to play football in the Big East."

Leaving the Big East wouldn't be as punitive for Pitt or any other of the conference's universities as some have speculated. Tranghese said there is a $5 million penalty. "Would a school pay it if they were invited [by the Big Ten]? Yes," he said. "Over time, they're going to make up that money many times over. I don't think it's a deterrent."

What would be more of an issue, Tranghese said, is that any departing school would have to give the Big East 27 months notice. That would lead to what he called an "awkward" situation, but it hardly seems enough to be a deal-breaker.

All of this must be extremely difficult for Nordenberg, who wasn't available for comment Monday. If you cut him, he bleeds Big East. "The league would not have survived [in '04] without his involvement," Tranghese said.

It's fair to think Nordenberg's preference is for Pitt to remain in the Big East. That might not be possible, though. He's smart enough to know he has to do what's right for his university.

Pederson refused to comment specifically about the Big East vs. the Big Ten when reached at his office Monday, saying, "Speculation by us right now is counterproductive." But he did talk about the tremendous strides Pitt has made as an academic institution under Nordenberg -- "It's like having an Ivy League record" -- and as an athletic department. "I feel very strongly that this university is well-positioned on all fronts."

To be attractive to the Big Ten? Sure.

To survive in a depleted Big East, should it come to that? Not nearly so much.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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