Rubie sez: I've been sitting on this post for a while -- ever since 'Cuse and Pitt jumped ship for the ACC. The recent rumblings that West Virginia's headed to the SEC made me decide to run it now. With apologies to John/Joan Cusack, here we go:
My desert-island, all-time, top four most memorable conference break-ups, in chronological order are as follows:
My relationship with the Midwestern Collegiate Conference lasted six hours*: the two hours for a game against Evansville some random Saturday, three seasons in a row.
* OK, it was actually two years.
Then, on the fourth Saturday: DePaul came callin', with the Great Midwest Conference by its side.
It would be nice to think that in the twenty years that have passed since I first joined a conference, rivalries have become more sophisticated, the bottom line less cruel, but there still seems to be an element of that first amalgamation of hastily-slapped-together teams in every conference I've joined since. All my other conference affiliations seem to be a scrambled version of that first one.
Number two: The Great Midwest Conference. The Great Midwest was nice enough, and its top five teams were Memphis State, Cincinnati, DePaul, St. Louis, and Dayton.
Everybody liked it. It was nice. Nice teams. Nice coaches. Nice rivalries. Nice history and tradition.
It was so nice, in fact, that everybody agreed not to introduce an ugly, brutish sport like football into the mix. Nobody played, and nobody was interested.
The Great Midwest was nice, but, after a few years, I wasn't interested in nice. Just money. And the money was in college football, and therefore the Great Midwest was no good to me. And so I was finished with it.
Dayton cried, and I hated them for it, because they made me feel bad. But the Great Midwest wasn't right for us: it was supposed to be a conference that could make some noise in basketball, and it didn't. (So imagine my surprise when the leftovers of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and Great Midwest slapped together a conference that features a team that's gone to back-to-back Final Fours. What the hell? How did the Great Midwest and MCC go from the conferences that couldn't do anything to the conference that had the National Runner-Up two years in a row?)
Me and Conference USA, number three on the conference break-up list, matched. The other CUSA teams were more or less on our level, had an acceptable working knowledge of basketball, and they also saw the benefit of latching the plow to the college football cash cow.
Some of us - myself included - had sworn off football. Some of the others didn't give two craps about basketball. It made sense to pool our collective strengths and share in the massive revenue generated by Southern Miss football.
We were frightened of being left in the wake of the Big XIIs and Pac-10s and SECs of the college sports world. Only colleges of a certain disposition are arrogant and short-sighted enough to think they can hack it alone in the Super Conference Era. Notre Dame is of that disposition. We weren't of that disposition.
Which brings us to number four on the conference break-up list: the Big East. Some people never got over Al McGuire, or the night that Todd Townsend sank four threes against DePaul. I guess I never really got over the Big East.
When I heard that the ACC had raided the Big East for three of its best college football programs - Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College - it made no sense. Those teams jumping ship for marginally-better football at the cost of long-established rivalries seemed contrary to the whole spirit of college athletics. All they really had in common was that they played football - not especially well, in the case of Boston College, but they fielded a team, I suppose. So how come they were leaving?
And, more importantly: how come the Big East wanted some of us from Conference USA to take their places?
The Big East looked different. It was dramatic. Exotic. Canadian. They played basketball a lot, in remarkably interesting places like Madison Square Garden and the Pavilion in Philly ... so we didn't have those shitty roadtrips where we'd fly four hours to play in a shoebox in front of 2000 people in Fort Worth. And they wanted us to be a member. They wanted us. They wanted us.
We were in the conference for five years, and every single minute I felt as though I was standing on a dangerously narrow ledge. I couldn't get comfortable, couldn't ever stretch out and relax. Why would a conference - no, a basketball SUPER conference - like the Big East want a team that only a few years ago was losing games at places like East Forking Carolina and Tulane? I didn't feel worthy. And I was depressed by the lack of flamboyance in what had previously been a very hip wardrobe ...
I worried about our ability to recruit. I was intimated by the bald, bespectacled man prowling the sidelines in the Carrier Dome and the dude with the shitty combover who bitched after every single call in every single game. I became convinced that one (or both) of them was going to leave me for another conference that was better at football. And then they left me for one of them: the dreaded ACC.
What I really learned from the Big East is that you gotta punch your weight. The Big East, as it formerly existed, was out of my class: too pretty, too tall, too sleazy, too much. What am I? A small, Midwestern Jesuit university with a good basketball program. Not the best program in the history of history, but certainly not a Horizon League team.
I'm okay looking, most of my players are average height. You might say there are dozens of programs like Marquette, but there aren't, really: a lot of teams have decent results recently but no tradition, a lot of colleges have pretty good basketball programs but care more about their perpetually-mediocre football team, a lot of coaches are pretty good at Xs and Os but appear to be vampires. Some coaches drink too much, some drive like assholes, some get into fights. I don't do any of these things, really. We're just pretty good at basketball.
So. The Big East and I weren't a match. Maybe we don't realize that now. All we see is that we're probably moving down a division, and that things might not work out, and this seems cause for a great deal of misery and self-pity.
And that's when the fellas in uniform came along.