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On Oct. 9, in the early-morning gray of north Miami, rain was falling in sheets, and the wind had the palm trees reeling. It never seems right in South Florida when a day is not bright and sunny. But the weather provided an appropriate backdrop for Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich as he sat inside a bagel shop talking about something else that didn't seem quite right: the impending announcement some 30 hours hence that the Hurricanes would join the Big East Conference.
Has the nation's premier basketball conference gone daffy by taking in Miami, which had no hoops at all from 1971 to '85 and now has, at best, a mediocre program, with an average home attendance last season of only 2,094? Has Miami, which boasted the best football program of the '80s, lost its marbles by joining a conference in which two of the nine members play Division I-AA football, two compete in Division III, and two don't play the sport at all? A conference whose nearest school to Miami, Georgetown, is 922 miles away?
However, when the agreement is examined more closely, it doesn't seem strange at all. In fact, it looks like a terrific idea. In the bagel shop and everywhere else, Jankovich couldn't stop smiling. "I'm so pleased," he said. He should have been. But how did Miami and the Big East get together? And why did it make sense for them to do so?
The union between Miami, an independent in all sports, and the Big East, an all-sports-but-football league, began to take shape last summer, when Mike Tranghese became the conference's commissioner, replacing Dave Gavitt, who left to become a top executive with the Boston Celtics. "I knew that someday soon we were going to have to address football," says Tranghese. "If we didn't, we'd be out of business in 10 years."
With Penn State agreeing to join the Big Ten, Arkansas the SEC and Florida State the ACQ all within the last 10 months, the landscape of major college football has changed significantly (SI, July 9). Conference expansion has become the rage, which means that, with the notable exception of Notre Dame, before long independents could start having a hard time scheduling games. The three schools in the Big East that play football at the I-A level—Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse—are all independents in the sport, and all three had begun flirting with both the Big Ten and the ACC. The defection of those schools would very likely be fatal to the Big East.
So Tranghese addressed the subject immediately. There were two universities that he felt would make excellent additions to his conference, and both of them had enough marquee value to refocus the wandering eyes of Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College. His choices were Notre Dame, which is still being pursued by the Big Ten but, with its new five-year TV contract with NBC, almost certainly will remain independent, and Miami.
Meanwhile, Jankovich was growing uneasy because, he says, "Our football has way too much financial pressure on it. We have been relying far too much on [revenues that come with] a January 1 bowl bid." In each of the last four seasons, the Hurricanes, who have an annual football budget of $7.5 million, have taken in $1.8 to $1.9 million in TV revenues, plus postseason-game hauls of $3.3 million for the 1990 Sugar Bowl, $2.4 million for the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and a total of $5.7 million for Orange Bowl appearances in '88 and '89.
The chairman of Miami's board of trustees, Ray Goode, says such dependence "makes us extremely vulnerable in down years, and logic tells us our success can't continue forever." The Hurricanes won three national championships in the 1980s ('83, '87 and '89), were very close in '86 and '88 and have a record of 55-5 over the last five years. This season they are 4-1 and rated No. 2 in the current AP poll. When Tranghese called in June, Jankovich, who had already had discussions with the SEC and the ACC, was ready to deal, and he did rather well for his school. Although the exact details have yet to be worked out, the Hurricanes will not immediately have to share any of their football revenues, and in future years Miami, Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College may still get to keep 90% of what each makes from TV appearances and bowl games, dividing the remaining 10% among only the other three. The six other Big East members will not get any football bucks, at least not at first.
A further enticement to Miami is that, like Syracuse, Pitt and BC, it only has to play the three other I-A teams in the Big East each year, which means the Hurricanes will still be free to play attractive TV games with the likes of UCLA, Colorado and Arizona State, all of which appear on future schedules. Says Tranghese, "Miami will be to our football what Georgetown was to our basketball. [Hoya coach] John Thompson set the standards in our league, for intensity, for defense, for everything. The others had to learn how to play with Georgetown, and now they will have to learn how to play with Miami."
Nonetheless, a four-team football conference, no matter who is in it—unless it includes Notre Dame—will not be able to land a contract with a major bowl, most of which have tie-ins with at least one conference. So now that Miami has joined the fold, the Big East is likely to admit a fifth football school—West Virginia is the leading candidate—and work out an arrangement with the nine-member ACC, whose football prowess has been greatly enhanced by the addition of Florida State. The I-A Big East teams would face three or four ACC teams a year. Such a deal might well prompt the Orange Bowl to offer the combined league an automatic bid. Right now, Orange Bowl berths go to the Big Eight winner and a team chosen by the bowl committee.