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Defections to ACC set stage for sea change

The latest dominos have fallen in the ever-changing world of college conference realignment. Now schools from coast to coast are left to figure out how they will be affected.

The jump by Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference from the Big East, formally announced Sunday by the ACC, could create another catalyst that hurls intercollegiate athletics toward the era of 16-team superconferences.

Or it could give the power players in college sports a chance to catch their breath while they sort out their next moves.

Will Texas and Oklahoma stay in the Big 12 or join another league – possibly the Pac-12? Will the ACC stop at 14 members or keep growing to 16 – and if so, who might the next two additions be?

Will the Southeastern Conference be forced to keep up by adding a 14th school if and when Texas A&M joins? And what happens to the Big East after once again losing multiple cornerstone programs to the ACC?

“I can say that in all my years of collegiate athletics administration, I’ve never seen this level of uncertainty and potential fluidity in schools and conferences,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said on a conference call. “Schools, they’re looking for stability, and when that stability doesn’t exist, for whatever reason, as long as that’s going on, I think the conferences that appear to be stable moving forward are going to receive inquiries from schools that are desirous of having that kind of stability.”

Until now, the focus of this most recent round of realignment had centered on the Big 12.

Texas A&M already announced its intention to join the SEC, leaving the future of the Big 12 in doubt. The boards of regents at Oklahoma and Texas are meeting today to discuss the possibility of the universities leaving that conference.

Oklahoma could leave for the Pac-12 and take Oklahoma State with it. Texas has stated its desire to keep the Big 12 together, but the Pac-12 could be an option. So could the ACC, or even independence in football – if they can find an arrangement somewhere like Notre Dame and the Big East have for the Irish’s non-football teams. Over the weekend, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick reaffirmed his desire to keep the Irish independent in football.

If Texas and the two Oklahoma schools go, that could mean the end of the Big 12 – and that might create the best-case scenario for the Big East.

The Big 12 schools left behind – Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State – might make serviceable fits for a reconstituted Big East.

“We’re not going to talk about any specific scenarios and hypothetical speculation, but you’ve heard me before, we are in the business of being prepared, and looking at different scenarios,” Kansas State athletic director John Currie said. “And we know that we will have K-State in a position – preferably the Big 12 Conference – that is (a BCS) conference competing at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics.”

There already has been speculation that West Virginia would be a target for the SEC to balance that conference geographically and grow to 14 members if Texas A&M joins.

“We will continue working to do what’s best for our university and its athletic teams,” West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said.

“No matter how the college athletic landscape changes, there is no doubt WVU is and will remain a national player.”

Missouri could wind up in the SEC or even the Big Ten, though commissioner Jim Delany has said his league is set with 12 but could reconsider if other conferences make additions.

A number of schools – from Connecticut and Rutgers, to Texas and Texas Tech – have been linked to another possible round of ACC expansion.

Swofford declined to discuss specifics about Texas except to say that “it’s an outstanding institution with a tremendous athletic program.”

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said his school “would encourage a future expansion” for the ACC. Swofford said “double-digit numbers of schools” recently expressed interest in possibly joining his league but declined to identify them, and when asked if any other Big East members could be targets for further expansion, Swofford said “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to go there.”

Connecticut president Susan Herbst said in a statement that realignment speculation “is not close to being over, so we need to have some patience.

“UConn is a proud charter member of the Big East, and we have taken a lead role in the league’s success over the years,” she said. “However, it is my responsibility as President that we stay in constant communication and be actively involved in discussions with our counterparts from around the country to ensure the successful long-term future of our university’s athletic program.”

The ACC’s announcement that its council of presidents unanimously voted to accept Pitt and Syracuse sends the Big East scrambling once again to replace two key programs while giving the ACC what Swofford says is “staying power.”

“First of all, we are very comfortable with this 14,” he said.

“The only thing I would add to that is that we are not philosophically opposed to 16. But for now we are very pleased with this 14. We think it is just an excellent group.”

The ACC said its invitations were issued after Pittsburgh and Syracuse submitted letters of application to join the league, and Swofford declined to say when they reached out to his league out of respect for their confidentiality.

It is unclear when Pitt and Syracuse will begin competing in the league, with Swofford saying “we will fully respect the bylaws of the Big East Conference.”

The Big East’s exit fee is $5 million, and schools wanting to leave must provide 27 months’ notice.

“The Big East has been Pitt’s conference home for nearly 30 years. It has been a good home that we will leave with many fond memories and many strong friendships,” Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg said on the call. “All of us are committed to working with (Big East commissioner John Marinatto) to make this a smooth transition.”

Adding multiple schools allows the ACC to renegotiate its 12-year, $1.86 billion television contract with ESPN and ABC that began this season, Swofford said.

The moves also raise the possibility that the ACC basketball tournament could add to its rotation Madison Square Garden, the longtime site of the Big East’s tournament. Atlanta plays host to the tournament this season before it is scheduled to return to Greensboro, N.C., from 2013-15.

Swofford confirmed the ACC unanimously approved raising the exit fee to approximately $20 million – up from $12 million to $14 million – for any member leaving the conference, a maneuver seemingly designed to keep the remaining ACC schools in the fold.

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