Don’t count East Carolina out of Big East expansion just yet

With the Big East presidents having voted unanimously to expand football membership by at least two schools, initial speculation on new members has centered on TCU, Central Florida and Villanova.

Don’t count East Carolina University out too quickly.

Dwelling in the long shadows of Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest outside the Research Triangle, East Carolina has been in and out of the expansion picture, primarily one suspects because it suffers from an image problem.

ECU, however, is the second largest university in the state with almost 30,000 students. The school has a fanatical following in football and has just completed a stadium expansion this season, pushing capacity to more than 50,000 seats.

ECU Athletic Director Terry Holland is not bashful in presenting his case for conference membership.

“If there are conference realignments, ECU has controlled the things that are under our control and has positioned itself well with expanded and new facilities,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

As for television sets, Holland said ECU delivers measurable “eyeballs” in an area that would be the third largest television market in the country — within a 3.5 hour drive from Greenville — from Charlotte in the west to the east coast of NC and into the Tidwater region in Virginia.

“That area is also the home of over 80% of ECU’s 130,000 living alumni and well over 90% of the 50,000 fans who pack Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for football games,” he noted.

Maybe, just maybe, a diamond in the rough.

Related: The case for TCU in the Big East

TCU may be using Big East as leverage for real aspirations

Keep looking.

Texas Christian University (TCU) is among the leaders among 12 schools being considered by the Big East Conference as the league attempts to protect its flanks, according to the New York Post.

Fascinating.

Nice institution  in a football crazy state. Football program ranked No. 5 this week in both the Associated Press and USAToday/ESPN Coaches polls. Academically ranked among the top level universities by U.S. News & World Report.

  • TCU would immediately improve the conference scheduling dilemma while generating greater respect for the calibre of  Big East football. As far as TV markets, the Dallas/Fort Worth area is the fith largest in the country with over 2.5 million TV  households, according to Market Track.

However, there are some major negatives to be considered, not the least of which is its location in the southwest.  Increases in travel costs would be significant, especially for non-revenue sports.

While TCU might be a worthy opponent, the school has no natural rivalries with any Big East teams. TCU and Louisville were both in C-USA for a time. But the appearance of teams on the schedule had minimal impact in either Louisville or Fort Worth.

  • Even among the TCU faithful, there is a surprising concern about attendance. While going undefeated during the regular season in 2009, TCU averaged only 38,187 fans at five home games.
  • TCU recently announced a stadium renovation, which will actually reduce capacity from 44,358  to 40,000 seats — the placement of luxury seating cutting into other sections. Although the stadium could easily be expanded to 50,000 seats, one has to wonder why the supporters didn’t go ahead.

TCU’s long-term commitment to the Big East would be questionable from the get-go. TCU wanted to join the Big 12 during the most recent alignment discussions. There have been indications that the Texas legislature might want to get involved on behalf of some schools. Why not TCU?

Then there looms the possibility of the Pac 10, which despite its initial reluctance to add a private religious school, would suddenly see the light when tempted by buckets of Texas TV dollars.

If TCU officials are indeed having discussions with the Big East, the gut feeling here is that the primary motivation lies in improving its leverage elsewhere.

Probably true for both parties.

End Of Big East Inertia Is Near

The Big Ten Conference seems hellbent on creating chaos among college football conferences whether it’s good for the game or not. Not that the macho mentalities care anything about what happens to anyone else in this “Me First” generation of collegiate athletics.

The buzz is that the Big Ten has its eyes on Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers as expansion candidates, none of which mesh with the image of existing members. But it seems more fashionable and easier to go after Big East schools rather than challenge older, more stable conferences, television or not.

University of Louisville fans, reenergized with a new coach and an expanded stadium, keep waiting on Big East officials to come up with some ideas on the future. So far, however, conference officials have kept their visions to themselves.

Football must be first and foremost among the priorities for U of L in future conference considerations, whether be in the Big East or whatever is left over if a split occurs. It is football, after all, that is drives college athletics, forcing the realignments.

Definitely go after these programs:

East Carolina football stadium (Click to enlarge)
  • East Carolina — Great football tradition in a beautiful stadium that seats 43,000 and is currently being expanded to 50,000.  ECU fans are fanatical about the football program, last season averaging close to 42,000 per game. Their fans travel well, too, and Louisville is within a reasonable driving distance.
  • Central Florida — Lots of football talent to draw from in a football-crazy state. UCF averaged 38,078 per game last season in a 45,000-seat stadium. The stadium was designed to expand to 65,000 seats. The school is already thinking about adding 10,000 seats within the next decade. Membership in the Big East would hasten the expansion. A natural rivalry with South Florida.
  • Memphis — A decades-old rivalry for U of L, and always will be. Memphis loves its university. All they need is a decent conference to begin investing in improvements in its football facilities. Memphis was competitive with Louisville, even during the Bobby Petrino years, and deserves an opportunity to join the BCS club.

The new alignment would still need at least one more school to remedy the conference football scheduling program, and that’s where it gets tough. Assuming geographical proximity and travel are not problematic, the choice would come from one these schools:

  • TCU — Texas Christian is a solid football school, attracting 38,100 fans per game last season in a 46,000-seat stadium. They have exceeded 50,000 on a couple of occasions.
  • Southern Mississippi — Another good football school and a good rivalry for the University of Louisville. Southern Miss averaged 30,100 per game last season. Put them in a BCS setting, and the program averages at least 10,000 to 15,000 per game.

None of these candidates fit the traditional power house profiles but they are respectable programs deserving of opportunities to improve their stature in the world of college football.