Friday, April 23, 2010

With Tranghese in the fold, are Big things on the horizon for Hofstra?

All is forgiven Mike! Get us into the Big East!

Talk about a non-starter. During the week-long search for the next Flying Dutchmen basketball coach (UNC Wilmington athletic director Kelly Mehrtens takes a week to decide what kind of pad she will use, legal or steno, to list the people she’ll ask to turn down her offers), I decided to try and generate discussion amongst the CAA Hoops inner circle—your friend and mine Mike Litos as well as two gentlemen who are as smart as they are mysterious, we shall dub them “Mr. X” and “Mr. Y,” think of us as The Stonecutters without any sort of power—by wondering how Hofstra could spin a return to the America East.

It didn’t get anywhere—mostly because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t envision a world in which Hofstra willingly went back to the America East. No offense at all to the America East, but the best spin I could come up with was it would save the athletic department a chunk of money in travel expenses while also giving the school a good shot at dominating the non-revenue sports.

Good thing I didn’t waste a lot of effort on this topic, because the wafer-thin possibility that Hofstra could ever return to the America East was blown apart in spectacular, summer blockbuster-type fashion at the Tim Welsh press conference April 1. In his opening comments, Jack Hayes said Hofstra had discussed “a number of athletic initiatives over the last two months,” including the hunt for a new coach, with former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.

This wasn’t quite burying the lede, but in terms of impact, it wasn’t far behind the hiring of Welsh. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the relationship with Tranghese will have a far bigger effect on the future of Hofstra sports than Welsh. That’s no knock on Welsh, but rather a reflection of how far Hofstra has come in the last 16 years and how much is at stake with the impending massive realignment of Division I.

Hofstra cozying up with the former commissioner of a BCS conference is incomprehensible for those of us who came of age during the waning days of the East Coast Conference. In the spring of 1994, I thought it’d be fun to call the NCAA and find out why St. John’s was the host school when the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament were held at Nassau Coliseum, which is of course located literally across the street from Hofstra. The spokesman got on the phone and yelled something about how they never considered Hofstra and hung up.

(Parenthetical tangent: Hofstra’s relationship with Tranghese also fills me with some conflicting emotions. Tranghese was the chairman of the Selection Committee in 2001, when the Flying Dutchmen entered the NCAA Tournament on an 18-game winning streak—the longest in the country—yet still only got a 13 seed and drew UCLA in the first round. I blamed Tranghese for screwing us, but in his defense, I now understand an America East team could go 33-0 and still be among the bottom 16 teams in the tournament. And as far as incompetent Selection Committee chairs go, he’s not even close to this guy. So I, for one, welcome our new athletic overlord Mike Tranghese! Lunch at Bits and Bytes is on me!)

Where was I? Oh yes. Anyway, Tranghese’s relationship with Hofstra and his reputation as both a mover and shaker will only grow more important in the coming days and weeks as the Big 10 prepares to poach multiple Big East schools to set off a chain of events that will very likely create four superconferences—the Big 10, the ACC, the SEC and the Pac-10—and forever change the Division I landscape.

Nothing happened at the BCS meetings Wednesday, but don’t kid yourself, massive realignment centered around the BCS is as inevitable as the eventual expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams. (My advice: Don’t get too used to the seemingly perfect 68-team alignment)

The Big East proved last decade it should not be underestimated when its future is endangered. The conference appeared doomed, or at least unlikely to maintain its usual level of prominence, when Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for the ACC after the 2004-05 season, but the Big East grabbed Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida to remain in the BCS in football and become the biggest superconference in basketball.

But I don’t see it surviving a second assault by a rival conference. With only eight football schools, the Big East as we know it is done if two or more teams head to the Big 10. The remaining football schools would have no choice but to head to the ACC or SEC or slip into very expensive irrelevance.

The dismantling of the Big East would be bad news for traditionalists, and as a Connecticut native who remembers when the outbracket game of the Big East Tournament pitted the eighth seed against the ninth seed, I’d be bummed.

But I’d get over it a minute or so later, because the breakup of the Big East would be the first domino to fall in a sequence of events that would eventually get Hofstra where it wants to be—out of the CAA and into a bigger and more established conference.

That could be the Atlantic 10, if the Big East schools that don’t play Division I-A football—St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette and DePaul—form the core of a new Big East that would also include fellow Catholic schools Dayton, Xavier and Saint Louis. Such an alignment would keep the Big East among the nation’s elite in basketball and would, more importantly, create at least three openings in the Atlantic 10, spots that Hofstra, Northeastern and Drexel would certainly be positioned to fill.

I also think Temple, which made a bowl game last fall for the first time in 30 years, bolts the A-10 for one of the new Big Four conferences, which creates another spot for a school such as Boston University. The addition of Boston U. would give all four new A-10 schools a natural local rival.

But what if the non-football Big East schools that have continued to thrive in basketball—Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette, all of which have made the Final Four since 2003—as well as DePaul decide to cut bait with the lollygagging likes of St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence and form an entirely new conference with the afore-mentioned Atlantic 10 schools? This would be a real viable option if Notre Dame decides to retain its independence in football and joins the new basketball league.

If this is the case, is it all that incomprehensible to envision Tranghese nudging his successor, John Marinatto, to keep the Big East name alive and forming a new, travel-friendly Big East by adding the CAA Three, Boston University and a school such as LaSalle to the left behind trio of St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence?

Plan B isn’t without holes or consistency issues. For instance, if the elite non-football schools in the Big East want nothing to do with St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence, then why would they want DePaul, which has won one regular season conference game in the last two years? But the Blue Demons would be a natural rival for Notre Dame and give this new conference a foothold in the valuable Chicago television market.

And sure, the new Big East would be a glorified mid-major. But if the four superconferences form, then EVERY OTHER conference is a mid-major, as well. And the Big East would still have plenty of name value. The words still make people’s ears perk up. Imagine the—wait for it!!!—pride Hofstra fans would take in declaring their alma mater’s new conference.

Hofstra has assured it is well-positioned for whatever happens next by aligning itself with Tranghese. As Litos pointed out in part three of his excellent series on the future of the CAA, the CAA knows what it doesn’t want to do when it has to adapt to the new landscape.

So, too, does Hofstra, which will not allow itself to be a geographic or philosophical outsider in its new conference. The identity remains a mystery, but with Tranghese in the fold, we at least know where Hofstra isn’t going.

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