Memphis is final piece for coast-to-coast Big East

RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer Published:

The Big East has acquired all the pieces needed to build a new coast-to-coast conference. Putting them all together, though, is going to take a while.

The conference wanted to rebuild itself into a 12-team football league that can hold a championship game, and Memphis officially became that 12th member on Wednesday when it accepted an invite it has long coveted.

But the new Big East isn't scheduled to be fully functional until the 2015 football season. As for the next three years, what the Big East will look like is anybody's guess.

Memphis is the seventh school, and fourth from Conference USA, to sign up since December for future membership in the Big East. The Tigers will compete in the Big East in all sports.

"It certainly is an historic day for us," University of Memphis President Shirley Raines said during a teleconference with Big East Commissioner John Marinatto and Memphis Athletic Director R.C. Johnson.

Memphis has been trying to upgrade its conference affiliation for years, and the Big East was always the most likely landing spot. The Tigers were snubbed during the Big East's last massive expansion in 2005 and lost a longtime rivalry with Louisville in the process.

Now with the Big East in need replacements for West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, there was finally room for Memphis.

Marinatto called Memphis a "perfect fit."

"There were a number of contributing factors for our membership in making the decision to invite Memphis, including among other reasons its geography in the heart of our future membership makeup, its Central time zone presence, its top-50 media market, as well as its outstanding corporate and community support, quality athletic facilities and the overall brand and competitiveness of its athletic programs," Marinatto said.

Marinatto has traveled across the country in recent months to recruit new members. In December, the Big East announced Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West Conference would join in 2013 for football only, and Houston, SMU and Central Florida, from C-USA, would become members in all sports.

Last month, Navy football jumped on board, though that won't happen until 2015.

The Big East pitched Air Force and BYU on joining, but couldn't work out a deal with either. Temple was also being considered, but the Philadelphia school and former Big East member was passed over for Memphis because the conference wanted to bolster its new west wing.

Memphis gives the Big East 11 football teams committed for the 2013 season, still one short of the 12 needed under NCAA rules to hold a conference championship game. The league could ask the NCAA for a waiver to play a title game with less than 12, though Marinatto said there are no plans for that and the Big East championship football game will debut after Navy joins.

There's also no guarantee some of the holdovers, such as Louisville, Rutgers and Connecticut, won't jump at the chance to join another league if the opportunity comes up. But for now, Marinatto said Memphis is the final piece of the puzzle.

"It was our goal to get to 12 football-playing members and we've done that, so we're obviously pleased that we've filled our primary objective," Marinatto said. "We're always going to be vigilant and we're going to continue to do what's in the best interest of the conference. So you never, never say never, I guess."

It is still unclear when West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse will leave. Big East bylaws require a 27-month notification period for schools that want out. West Virginia has filed a lawsuit to begin competing in the Big 12 in the fall.

The Big East has countersued and Pitt and Syracuse are watching the cases closely as it could determine when they start playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Marinatto declined to answer questions related to the legal issues or when the Big East's 2012 schedule might be released. The Big 12 has also been waiting to release a 2012 schedule, but has made it clear that it expects that schedule to include West Virginia.

Marinatto reiterated he expects all three of the departing schools to remain in the Big East for two more seasons. So it's possible the Big East could have 14 football teams and 20 basketball teams for the 2013-14 seasons.

Memphis is just happy to be part of the crowd.

Raines and Johnson were greeted with a standing ovation at a news conference on campus, packed with hundreds of people, including fans and politicians.

"By golly, we did it," Raines told the crowd.

While the Big East's previous moves were mostly about adding the strongest football programs it could find in the biggest television markets, the addition of Memphis mostly bolsters the sport on which the Big East was built: men's basketball.

"With the addition of Memphis, I think we just solidified our position as being the best conference in the country in men's basketball," Marinatto said.

Memphis has a string of 10 straight 20-win seasons, has made 23 NCAA tournament appearances and three Final Fours. The Tigers are currently unranked, but they have been a Top-25 mainstay for years. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has been lobbying for Memphis for months.

"Rick who?" Marinatto joked. "We understand how important this was to Rick, but that wasn't the driving force in us moving forward with the decision to invite the University of Memphis to the Big East Conference."

On the football side, Memphis has never found the right formula for success, despite being located in fertile recruiting territory. The Tigers had been to one bowl game before 2003. From 2003-08, the Tigers went to five minor bowls, winning twice, but the last three seasons the programs has slipped way back.

Memphis just hired Justin Fuente as its new football coach, replacing Larry Porter who went 3-21 in two seasons. The Tigers play football at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and the school has invested millions into stadium and facilities upgrades in recent years. They play basketball at the FedEx Forum and Fred Smith, the founder of the Memphis-based shipping giant, is an enthusiastic supporter of the school.

Memphis is hoping a jump to the Big East will bring with it more television revenue and exposure.

As for Conference USA and the Mountain West, the conferences announced last year that they planned a football merger starting no later than 2013, with the possibility of expanding the agreement to other sports. Now it seems even more likely that the two leagues will join together to try to maximize their TV revenue.

"Based on my conversations with Commissioner Marinatto, the Big East has now completed its future membership plan," C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said in a statement Wednesday. "If this is true, it is very helpful as we can now move forward with our plans in a more stable national environment."

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP