On Oct. 9, in the early-morning gray of north Miami, rain was falling in sheets, and the wind had the palm trees reeling. It never seems right in South Florida when a day is not bright and sunny. But the weather provided an appropriate backdrop for Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich as he sat inside a bagel shop talking about something else that didn't seem quite right: the impending announcement some 30 hours hence that the Hurricanes would join the Big East Conference.
Has the nation's premier basketball conference gone daffy by taking in Miami, which had no hoops at all from 1971 to '85 and now has, at best, a mediocre program, with an average home attendance last season of only 2,094? Has Miami, which boasted the best football program of the '80s, lost its marbles by joining a conference in which two of the nine members play Division I-AA football, two compete in Division III, and two don't play the sport at all? A conference whose nearest school to Miami, Georgetown, is 922 miles away?
However, when the agreement is examined more closely, it doesn't seem strange at all. In fact, it looks like a terrific idea. In the bagel shop and everywhere else, Jankovich couldn't stop smiling. "I'm so pleased," he said. He should have been. But how did Miami and the Big East get together? And why did it make sense for them to do so?
The union between Miami, an independent in all sports, and the Big East, an all-sports-but-football league, began to take shape last summer, when Mike Tranghese became the conference's commissioner, replacing Dave Gavitt, who left to become a top executive with the Boston Celtics. "I knew that someday soon we were going to have to address football," says Tranghese. "If we didn't, we'd be out of business in 10 years."
With Penn State agreeing to join the Big Ten, Arkansas the SEC and Florida State the ACQ all within the last 10 months, the landscape of major college football has changed significantly (SI, July 9). Conference expansion has become the rage, which means that, with the notable exception of Notre Dame, before long independents could start having a hard time scheduling games. The three schools in the Big East that play football at the I-A level—Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse—are all independents in the sport, and all three had begun flirting with both the Big Ten and the ACC. The defection of those schools would very likely be fatal to the Big East.
So Tranghese addressed the subject immediately. There were two universities that he felt would make excellent additions to his conference, and both of them had enough marquee value to refocus the wandering eyes of Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College. His choices were Notre Dame, which is still being pursued by the Big Ten but, with its new five-year TV contract with NBC, almost certainly will remain independent, and Miami.
Meanwhile, Jankovich was growing uneasy because, he says, "Our football has way too much financial pressure on it. We have been relying far too much on [revenues that come with] a January 1 bowl bid." In each of the last four seasons, the Hurricanes, who have an annual football budget of $7.5 million, have taken in $1.8 to $1.9 million in TV revenues, plus postseason-game hauls of $3.3 million for the 1990 Sugar Bowl, $2.4 million for the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and a total of $5.7 million for Orange Bowl appearances in '88 and '89.
The chairman of Miami's board of trustees, Ray Goode, says such dependence "makes us extremely vulnerable in down years, and logic tells us our success can't continue forever." The Hurricanes won three national championships in the 1980s ('83, '87 and '89), were very close in '86 and '88 and have a record of 55-5 over the last five years. This season they are 4-1 and rated No. 2 in the current AP poll. When Tranghese called in June, Jankovich, who had already had discussions with the SEC and the ACC, was ready to deal, and he did rather well for his school. Although the exact details have yet to be worked out, the Hurricanes will not immediately have to share any of their football revenues, and in future years Miami, Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College may still get to keep 90% of what each makes from TV appearances and bowl games, dividing the remaining 10% among only the other three. The six other Big East members will not get any football bucks, at least not at first.
A further enticement to Miami is that, like Syracuse, Pitt and BC, it only has to play the three other I-A teams in the Big East each year, which means the Hurricanes will still be free to play attractive TV games with the likes of UCLA, Colorado and Arizona State, all of which appear on future schedules. Says Tranghese, "Miami will be to our football what Georgetown was to our basketball. [Hoya coach] John Thompson set the standards in our league, for intensity, for defense, for everything. The others had to learn how to play with Georgetown, and now they will have to learn how to play with Miami."
Nonetheless, a four-team football conference, no matter who is in it—unless it includes Notre Dame—will not be able to land a contract with a major bowl, most of which have tie-ins with at least one conference. So now that Miami has joined the fold, the Big East is likely to admit a fifth football school—West Virginia is the leading candidate—and work out an arrangement with the nine-member ACC, whose football prowess has been greatly enhanced by the addition of Florida State. The I-A Big East teams would face three or four ACC teams a year. Such a deal might well prompt the Orange Bowl to offer the combined league an automatic bid. Right now, Orange Bowl berths go to the Big Eight winner and a team chosen by the bowl committee.
If the Big East/ACC plan fails, alternatives include a similar scheduling arrangement with the SWC or the development of a full-fledged Big East football conference. In the latter scenario, West Virginia, Temple, Rutgers and Virginia Tech would join the league. These schools, though, would not be basketball members, as Miami is.
Either way, Miami football is in a far better position to weather the down years. But where the Hurricanes really scored a slam dunk is in basketball. In the 11-year history of the Big East, eight of its nine schools have reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, and two have won NCAA titles. Three additional national crowns have been lost by one point in the finals. Last season, even the worst teams in the Big East received $700,000 apiece in revenues, while the two best, Syracuse and Georgetown, each took home $1.5 million.
Miami basketball, on the other hand, lost $285,000 in 1989-90. On Jan. 10, Kansas, which was 16-0 at the time and ranked No. 1 in the polls, played the Hurricanes at Miami Arena (Miami does not have an on-campus arena). The game drew 3,460 fans. Since reviving the sport in 1985-86, the Hurricanes have a record of 78-71. Jankovich says that within two years the program will be $500,000 in the black and shortly thereafter will make a profit of $1 million. Miami, which will begin Big East play in 1991-92, will share gradually in basketball revenues.
The Big East further showed how much it wanted Miami by agreeing that the Hurricanes' powerful baseball team need not participate in conference play. Nor does the team have to share any of its revenues, which last year came to $800,000. Thirteen other Miami sports will join the Big East.
While Jankovich had to wait for a vote by the Miami board of trustees last week to make the agreement official, he and Tranghese had come to terms on Sept. 25, when they met all afternoon in Boston. The catalyst for the agreement was, not surprisingly, television. The Big East, with 32.1 % of the nation's TV households, will afford Miami enormous exposure, and in return, Miami will provide the league with the 14th-biggest TV market in the country (chart).
One confidential study prepared by Miami estimates that if the Hurricanes have a good year in football, total revenues from a Big East affiliation will produce $12.3 million for the Miami athletic department, while membership in the ACC, with its far smaller share of the nation's TV sets, would have generated a maximum of $9.9 million.
In marked contrast to the rocky courtship of the Big Ten and Penn State (SI, May 7), the joining of Miami and the Big East encountered no opposition. That was largely attributable to the thorough work of Jankovich, who received the all-out support of Miami president Tad Foote.
"This will provide great physical stability to a wonderful but expensive program," says Foote. "I like football. It's rough, it's brutal—and it's thrilling. I have no philosophical problems with big-time intercollegiate athletics. However, what we are here for is not to play football and basketball. They're fun, but incidental."
Foote made sure that Miami's search for a suitable home would proceed smoothly by leaving the matter largely in Jankovich's hands. A plaque in Foote's office reads, GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE DIDN'T SEND A COMMITTEE, and while various committees were formed to explore an affiliation with the Big East, their primary function was to nod yes and shout hallelujah. The trustees' vote was unanimous.
The Big East likes its new member as well. St. John's basketball coach Lou Carnesecca says that he has heard no opposition to Miami's joining the league, and he scoffs at concerns about the distances between Miami and the rest of the Big East schools. "It's still on the East Coast, although I guess you could say so is Buenos Aires," he remarked. "But if the NBA can go to Europe, surely we can go to Florida. What is it? Three hours away? It's not that bad, and it opens up a whole new market for us."
Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim had been worried that administrators at his school would decide to leave the Big East for the sake of the football program. "Now," he says, "that's not a concern."
Geography aside, Miami is a comfortable fit for the Big East, which includes some topflight academic institutions. Under Foote, Miami has worked hard to shed its reputation as Suntan U. "People find it difficult to understand that anything serious can occur at beaches in the sunshine," says Foote. "They're wrong." The average SAT score of an incoming Miami freshman is 1,119; the national average is 900. The student-to-faculty ratio is an impressive 7 to 1. A decade ago the university raised $17.8 million; last year it raised $57.3 million.
Says Jankovich, "We are an urban university, and we are not the South. We are New York." In fact, Miami gets most of its out-of-state students from the Northeast. Currently, 806 of its 13,500 students are from New York State, 453 are from New Jersey, 327 are from Pennsylvania and 290 are from Massachusetts. Only 437 come from the nine southern states, excluding Florida.
Back at the bagel shop, the horrid weather got worse, but Jankovich was oblivious to it. "What a great day this is," he said, smiling, of course.
Miami and Pitt will surrender their football independence to a conference that, led by Georgetown, is synonymous with the best in basketball.