Since their sport does not drive conference realignment, women’s basketball coaches had never created a stir on the issue. But women’s basketball has never had a coach quite like Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma.
He’s edgy, opinionated and wildly successful (seven national titles), and when reporters at the Big East’s preseason media gathering Thursday asked him about the conference’s instability, Auriemma went off on Notre Dame. His beef: the Irish’s refusal to bring their independent football program to the league that’s long housed their other sports.
Auriemma believes that were Notre Dame playing Big East football, the conference wouldn’t be in dire straits.
We’ll get to the quotes shortly, but first, a couple of reactions.
* Bank on many other Big East coaches, in all sports, sharing Auriemma’s view. They just don’t have his job security and media platform.
* Auriemma’s anger illustrates how wise the ACC is to insist on all-in membership for any school. National media have theorized that Notre Dame and Texas would be interested in joining the ACC for sports other than football, but the conference refuses to alter its principles, as commisioner John Swofford articulated Wednesday (details here).
Such compromises, and unequal revenue sharing, have splintered the Big 12 and Big East. The ACC doesn’t need such hassles, and its heritage of equity is a prime reason only one school, South Carolina 40 years ago, has left the league.
* No one forced Big East schools, including UConn, to welcome Notre Dame sans football. They did so willingly, knowing darn well the Irish were wedded to football independence and their own TV deal with NBC.
* I’m not convinced Auriemma is right, that full Notre Dame membership would have prevented the Big East from losing schools, Virginia Tech especially, to the ACC.
But first, in case you haven’t seen them, the quotes.
“In this whole thing, there is only one sure thing: Notre Dame doesn't play football in our league — and that's a bone of contention with a lot of us,” Auriemma told reporters at the New York news conference. “That's the only thing you're sure of: They don't play in our league and they never want to play in our league and for a lot of us that's a huge problem.
“They've been in our league (17) years, so how long are we going to date before we just decide this ain't working? And I'm not happy about it. That's not the opinion of the University of Connecticut, the Big East Conference, my president, my AD. That's just Geno Auriemma's opinion: I'm pissed about it. …
“If Notre Dame had come in as a football and basketball school, all in, we wouldn't have a problem. Miami wouldn't have left. Virginia Tech wouldn't have left. Boston College wouldn't have left. We probably wouldn't have any of these issues, would we?
And just for kicks, Auriemma brought religion and politics into the discussion.
“It doesn't matter what we think because every decision being made is being made from a football standpoint,” he said. “But if you know, that you as a school, have the ability to put a whole bunch of schools at ease and have the Catholic mentality of, 'We're here to serve and help…'
“I went to Catholic school all my life. I love Jesus, and I'm not even a Republican.”
Piece of work, isn’t he? But is he right about Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College not leaving the Big East for the ACC in 2003 had Notre Dame been all-in?
Let’s go back to the summer of 2003. Notre Dame had endured losing seasons in 1999 and 2001, prompting coach Bob Davie’s dismissal. Georgia Tech’s George O’Leary was his replacement, but thanks to resume embellishment, he never coached a game for the Irish.
Enter Tyrone Willingham. His first Irish team, 2002, opened 8-0 only to fade to 10-3, including a Gator Bowl loss to the ACC’s North Carolina State that dropped Notre Dame to 17th in the final polls.
Sure, Notre Dame’s record might have been different playing a Big East rather than independent schedule. The point is, Irish football then, while an undeniable national brand, was not a perennial contender.
In that environment, with more lucrative TV deals thanks to Notre Dame, would Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami have left for the ACC?
The Hokies had pined for ACC membership since the conference’s 1953 founding, so I still have to think they would have jumped. Given Boston College’s natural rivalry with Notre Dame, the Eagles likely would have remained in the Big East.
Miami is the tough read. The Hurricanes reveled in the old “Catholics vs. Convicts” encounters with the Irish, but in 2003 under Larry Coker, Miami, the 2001 national champion and 2002 runner-up to Ohio State, was attempting to distance itself from that renegade image. Moreover, the Hurricanes were isolated geographically in the Big East.
So call Miami a coin flip, though I lean ACC.
What Auriemma didn’t say but implied, is that Big East staples Syracuse and Pittsburgh would not have accepted ACC membership last month were Notre Dame all-in.
On that most folks probably would agree. But in all, Auriemma's rant was probably more amusing than accurate.
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