So the Atlantic 10 should start making its Final Four hotel reservations for the next decade, right? Not necessarily. Ironically, the medium it has so sagely exploited, television, still remains the greatest barrier to its continued success. The league has four games scheduled on ABC this February, more than ever before, and ESPN will feature Atlantic 10 teams on 20 broadcasts. But a major TV deal on par with the Big East's seems unlikely for now. The Big East will take in an estimated $12 million this season from its deals with CBS, ESPN and various local syndicators; the Atlantic 10, by contrast, will gross about $1 million.
Ask Coach Griffin what the conference needs most and he says, "An ESPN game of the week." But press him and his colleagues further and they'll acknowledge that the league needs to raise its national profile considerably and pump up some compelling intraconference rivalries before the networks will open their coffers.
There are other hurdles as well. The largest among them is the current trend toward SEC-style conference super-mergers. Duquesne and St. Bonaventure, two of the Atlantic 10's weaker links, are worried by rumors that the Big East might enter into a devastating corporate merger of sorts with some A-10 schools. Temple, West Virginia and Rutgers are all members of the Big East football conference, and rumor has it that those three schools recently requested full membership. (Of course the question remains why Big East schools with no significant stake in football—Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall—would want to share the basketball pie with even more schools.)
More certain is the fact that the rival Big East isn't just going to roll over and die. Television revenue, huge arenas, stronger traditions—all of these strengths give it a decided edge in the long term. And, says commissioner Bertovich, "They know we're out here, it seems." Recruiting experts say the reenergized Big East has already landed several key recruits for next season. Boston College recently shored up one of the top-five incoming classes in the country when it netted local All-America guard Chris Herren, whom a disappointed Calipari had tried to recruit. And unlike the Big East, the Atlantic 10 has a way to go before its second-tier teams become attractive to high school prospects. Trotting out Norm Nixon's name only gets Duquesne so far these days.
But that's the future. For now, Atlantic 10 teams simply have to worry about getting through their murderous schedules, not to mention satisfying all those brilliantly clad fans who suddenly expect them to routinely attract Parade All-Americas as if they were, say, North Carolina. "Yeah, some of our fans may have unreasonable expectations," says Jarvis, laughing. "That's how it is for anybody who starts to win. But we know we'll never have it like Duke, Michigan or North Carolina." Those chumps.