- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
As we, the college football fans of America, laid our heads down on Saturday night, we were exhausted. Not from the games, mind you. No, our brains were spent after having woken up in a world where Syracuse and Pittsburgh were still in the Big East, but by lunch they had migrated to the Atlantic Coast. As I tried to drift off to sleep, I started running future conference scenarios through my mind. West Virginia to the SEC ... Texas to the ACC ... Oklahoma to the Pac-10, er, 12, er, 16 ... a Big 12 implosion ... a Big Ten expansion ... raiding parties rumbling toward every conference in between.
But no matter where my mind took me, one thought dominated all others. And it's been there for a while.
What if, going back nearly 30 years, Penn State had gotten what it had originally wanted? What if, in 1982, the Nittany Lions had been allowed to join the Big East? Would that one move have been enough to alter or even avoid altogether the gigantic conference realignment dominoes that started falling a few years later and are still crashing to this day?
Think about it for a second. A Big East with Penn State, inarguably one of the most prestigious football programs of all time, would mean a Big Ten without them. It would mean that the Penn State-Pitt rivalry was still alive. And it's not a long walk to think that other classic eastern schools such as Boston College and even Maryland might be in the Big East with them.
In the early 1980s, Joe Paterno wasn't just the head football coach in Happy Valley. He was also the athletic director. When he sat down with PSU's athletic department ledger, he realized that the school's continuing athletic independence simply wasn't financially sustainable. Football was fine, but without a conference affiliation, Penn State's other sports were suffering. It was then when he envisioned an all-eastern football conference, a way for once-independent schools -- and at that time there were a lot of them -- to create a better business model. At first, Paterno investigated starting his own league. But ultimately, naturally, he approached the Big East. The year was 1982 and the conference was only three years old, formed as a basketball-driven, non-football league by the venerable, widely beloved hoops visionary Dave Gavitt.
What happened next depends on who you ask. Paterno has long maintained that Syracuse administrators torpedoed his effort. Big East officials have always denied that, citing issues over revenue sharing. No matter the reasoning, a basketball conference at the height of its powers publicly questioned Penn State's worthiness to be a part of their Patrick Ewing-led world. They said that PSU's hoops program was lagging and it needed new facilities.
Penn State's Big East membership was voted down 5-3.
A quarter-century later I had a conversation with outgoing Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, in Charlotte, N.C., to attend the 2008 Meineke Car Care (now Belk) Bowl between West Virginia and North Carolina. Foreshadowing comments he would make to The New York Times three months later, the normally confident commissioner squirmed as he talked about Penn State.
"That was no doubt a major mistake. I think had we taken Penn State -- and I wanted to but was in no position to make that decision at the time, I wasn't commissioner yet -- one of two things may have happened. One, we might still have football independents. People forget now that so many of the great programs were independent back then. Two, if we had still gone on to become a football conference then the lineup of the conference might be radically different."
Who was commissioner? It was Gavitt. In the most bizarre twist of all, he passed away Friday night after a long illness, spared from seeing the conference he founded lose two of its charter members. "If Dave were alive," Tranghese told the Times' Pete Thamel on Saturday, "he would not be happy today."
In a cruel twist of fate, it was Penn State's move to the Big Ten that ultimately pushed the Big East into becoming a football league. After a 5-6 campaign in 1988, PSU's first losing season in nearly five decades, the school decided it could no longer hold off the benefits of protecting its nonrevenue sports beneath the umbrella of a conference. So, amid more than a little resistance and controversy, it joined the Big Ten (said Bobby Knight: "I've been to Penn State and Penn State is a camping trip. There's nothing for about 100 miles."). The announcement came in 1990, but they wouldn't actually start playing games until 1993.
What happened in between was the first round of conference chaos. Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC. Florida State abandoned independence for the ACC. The Southwestern Conference collapsed. The Big East finally gave in to football, adding independents Virginia Tech and Miami. And all of the schools that Paterno had once envisioned as part of his eastern football conference -- Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh -- started playing Big East football.
The second move that the Big East likely regrets is the 1991 addition of Miami. In the short term, it was huge. The Hurricanes continued to roll off their 1980s success and won two national titles for the conference, in 1991 and 2001. But from the outside their inclusion always felt like a reach, with Coral Gables located 900 miles from the nearest Big East rival (Virginia Tech) and 1,500 miles from the conference offices in Rhode Island. In 2004, Miami bolted for the more geographically friendly ACC, taking Boston College and Virginia Tech with it.
Now the Big East barely hangs on to the bottom rung of the BCS ladder. By Sunday morning, that grip was two fingers looser. Syracuse and Pitt are gone. The conference's best football team, West Virginia, is mentioned as a possibility to join Texas A&M in the SEC (if the Aggies' path is finally cleared to leave the Big 12). The addition of conference nomad TCU already felt like an even more desperate move than the addition of Miami 20 years earlier. Now, after Saturday's ACC news, the folks down in Fort Worth are acting jittery. And in 2009, shortly after succeeding Tranghese as commissioner, John Marinatto even dared bring up the attractiveness of Penn State in an interview with SI.com's Stewart Mandel.
So, imagine with me if you will a Big East with Penn State. First as a non-football member, but then added in when the conference hit the gridiron in 1991. Now we have a league kicking off a decade with Joe Paterno at Penn State, Johnny Majors and Curtis Martin rebuilding the Pitt Panthers, Don Nehlen at West Virginia, Donovan McNabb at Syracuse, and Michael Vick at Virginia Tech. And if the Big East still invites Miami (which it likely wouldn't have with Penn State in the mix), it becomes just that much stronger.
Perhaps even Notre Dame, which already competes in the Big East in every sport but football and even used to employ Big East football referees, could have been swayed to take the football plunge. Imagine the difference in perception if instead of sending (no offense) Louisville and UConn to fill its BCS berths, the conference had been represented on the big stage by JoePa or the Fighting Irish.
In a world where the Big Ten can't add Penn State, do they expand at all?
In a world where the Big Ten doesn't expand (which would have pleased the likes of Knight, Bo Schembechler and their friends), does the Big 12 stand pat? Or does it even exist at all?
In the world that Tranghese envisioned, where independents are still viable, then Texas might have walked away from the post-SMU implosion of the Southwest Conference to stand alone. Or perhaps Arkansas is never invited to the SEC and the SWC replaces SMU with UTEP and gets on with its life. Then does Florida State join the SEC instead of the Razorbacks? Does the Big 8 still exist? Perhaps expanding to add in members of the WAC as the Pac-8 had done not so much earlier, in 1978?
And even if the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 still went on to expand as they have, a Big East with Penn State and its eastern cohorts would have been in a much better position to defend itself, perhaps even going on the offensive and do a little raiding of its own. Maryland, which was always on Paterno's radar for his eastern football league and perpetually frustrated with the ACC office's perceived Tobacco Road bias, might have defected north instead of Big East schools fleeing south.
At the very least, the conferences of today would likely better resemble the actual geography of their names. As we inevitably march toward superconferences, as so many coaches now openly allude to during media Q&As, then the Big East could have dug in on its corner of the map and been one of those mega-leagues doing the picking instead being picked on.
"It is a lot to think about," Tranghese said. "And it all goes back to a few days when we went one way instead of another."
He said that on Dec. 27, 2008. He had no idea what was coming. None of us did.