The Big East officially introduced Memphis as a new member slated to join the league in all sports in 2013, while Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference are reportedly inching closer to a formal merger.
The Big East has poached four current Conference USA members -- UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU -- following the defections of TCU and West Virginia to the Big 12 and Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East also added Mountain West members Boise State and San Diego State in football only. The six schools are slated to officially join the Big East on July 1, 2013.
Independent Navy also is slated to join the Big East in football only at the start of the 2015 football season.
Big East Commissioner John Marinatto introduced Memphis as a new member during a teleconference Wednesday, noting the Tigers' strength as a powerhouse basketball program. He said he was satisfied after extensive meetings with Memphis administrators that the school's struggling football program is heading in a positive direction.
"It became clear to me that they are truly dedicated to rebuilding Memphis football," Marinatto said.
USF President Judy Genshaft, who represented Big East presidents and chancellors on the teleconference, said she was pleased to see Memphis join the conference.
"We have every confidence in Memphis' ability to build a solid football program in the Big East Conference," Genshaft said.
Memphis Athletic Director R.C. Johnson, who is slated to retire this summer and was criticized late in his tenure for failing to lead the Tigers to an automatic qualifying Bowl Championship Series conference, said he it was a great day for the Tigers.
"With this move, the future of Tiger athletics is brighter than ever," Johnson said.
Memphis is the latest school to defect from Conference USA.
ESPN.com's Andy Katz reported Conference USA's board of directors will meet later this week to discuss the possibility of a full-scale merger with the Mountain West Conference. Katz attributed the news to a source with knowledge of the situation.
The Mountain West Conference will add Nevada and Fresno State in all sports and Hawaii in football next year. Once it loses Boise State and San Diego State, its members will include Air Force, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, UNLV and Wyoming.
The two conferences signed an agreement for a football-only merger, but they have negotiating for months to completely disband both leagues and form a new conference. If they disband, the conference members could be released from their television contracts and free to negotiate new agreements in a more competitive television negotiating environment that has driven up prices paid by networks.
It also would end a difficult television agreement the Mountain West Conference signed with CBS Sports to create The Mtn. network. While the Mountain West's TV network provided extensive coverage of all of its schools in a variety of sports, limited carriage agreements with cable and satellite companies made it difficult for fans to follow their teams and a major point of contention that helped accelerate BYU's decision to leave the league and compete as an independent program.
It is unclear how quickly Conference USA and Mountain West could execute the merger and what impact the merger could have on teams slated to depart to the Big East in 2013. UCF and all other departing members are currently slated to play a typical C-USA football schedule in 2012.
The Big East is still working out the exit and entrance of its members, which has had a major impact on C-USA and the Mountain West.
Marinatto said during the teleconference the Big East had achieved its goal of reaching 12 football-playing members, but he stopped short of saying the league was done with expansion. He said he learned you can "never say never" when it comes to college conference expansion.
Louisville's status could alter the game plan. The Big 12 came close to plucking the Cardinals from the Big East when it officially added West Virginia.
Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said in a statement to ESPN.com it would help if the latest round of conference realignment finally ended. The swift membership changes and uncertain exit dates have caused unprecedented headaches for athletic directors, conference administrators and television networks trying to set 2012 football schedules.
"Based upon my conversations with commissioner Marinatto, the Big East has now completed its future membership plan," Banowsky told ESPN. "If this is true, it is very helpful as we can now move forward with our plans in a more stable national environment. We hope that the other conferences appreciate the value of stability in intercollegiate athletics and higher education."
After the departure of West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and TCU, the Big East will retain five current members -- Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and USF. If the new members include Memphis, the Big East will have 12 football-playing members in 2015.
In addition to the football members, the Big East is slated to retain 13 schools that compete in all sports except football. Men's basketball is their marquee sport. In 2013, the Big East basketball playing members would include Cincinnati, Connecticut, DePaul, Georgetown, Houston, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence, Rutgers, St. John's, Seton Hall, SMU, UCF, USF and Villanova.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino was among the basketball leaders who lobbied for a basketball power to be among the final expansion candidates to help offset the loss of strong programs Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia. Memphis would help fill that void. The Tigers' run to the Final Four under former Coach John Calipari was vacated, but Memphis remains one of the strongest teams in Conference USA and continues to be successful battling powerful Big East basketball programs on the recruiting trail and on the court during nonconference play.
Marinatto said Pitino's support of Memphis didn't prompt the Big East to add the Tigers.
"Rick's comments, as much as I love him, didn't really influence our membership decision," Marinatto said.
It remains unclear when exactly West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse will be leaving the Big East. West Virginia and the Big 12 continue to insist the Mountaineers will be joining the Big 12 for the 2012 season. West Virginia and the Big East have filed competing lawsuits, with the Big East asking courts to enforce the league's bylaws and bar the Mountaineers from competing in another conference until 2014. West Virginia, on the other hand, is fighting to leave immediately and has the Big 12's support because Missouri has already leave to the Southeastern Conference, leaving the Big 12 short a team it needs to fulfill its television contract obligations. If West Virginia manages to leave early, Pitt and Syracuse will likely pursue the right to join the Atlantic Coast Conference early as well.
Marinatto declined to answer questions about accelerating the move of new members into the league to offset the potential early loss of West Virginia. He also declined to discuss whether the Big East would help any schools pay exit fees tied to accelerated moves to the Big East. Marinatto later to decline to say when the Big East may release its 2012 football schedule and opted not to give a timeline for when he thought the dispute with West Virginia over the timing of its exit might be resolved.
The Big East is expected to promote its new members, including UCF, during the upcoming Big East basketball tournament in March at Madison Square Garden.
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