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VOL. 127 | NO. 27 | Thursday, February 9, 2012

U of M Lands Big East Invitation

By Don Wade

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It got done. Not on the timetable originally envisioned and not without much angst along the way. But that’s old news overtaken by better news:

The University of Memphis athletic department — especially its struggling football program — gets a huge upgrade when it joins the highly competitive Big East in 2013.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

As of July 1, 2013, the University of Memphis will officially be a competitor in the Big East.

“I always believed it,” said Alan Graf, chief financial officer at FedEx, a loyal supporter of U of M athletics, and a good friend of Tiger athletics director R.C. Johnson. “R.C. never gave up. Whether we were lucky or good or whatever doesn’t matter. We’re in.”

Shirley Raines, U of M president, called the move “historic.” It’s a good word for a change that brings a brighter future. No one can know how all this will play out, of course, and leaving Conference USA for the Big East does not fix every problem or guarantee future bowl games for the football program or Final Fours for the men’s basketball team.

In fact, a compelling argument can be made that in the short term such goals might be more difficult to achieve. But “historic” change is about the long-term. No risk, no reward.

“The thing about it is, we were so tired of being disappointed,” said George Powell, a member of the Highland Hundred board of directors, the U of M’s football booster club. “I put it like this: We’re getting a conference with better competition, getting more exposure and you throw away that old idea that we don’t play anybody.”

And for now, at least, the Tigers are in a conference with a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) tie-in. Obviously, it would have been preferable for outgoing athletics director R.C. Johnson to have been standing up and talking about joining the Big East years ago. But far better that he do it on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, than not at all.

When Johnson and Raines arrived for the on-campus press conference, they were met with applause. When Johnson mentioned the Big East’s next TV contract could mean schools such as Memphis would receive something north of $10 million in revenue, there was an audible gasp. And when Johnson told about receiving the call at home Tuesday at 3:02 p.m., confirming the Big East had accepted Memphis, there was a softer moment amid the big business that is college athletics.

“We both cried,” Johnson said, mentioning his wife, Melba. “It’s what we did. Pretty professional, huh? It’s been a long haul.”

Because it’s been a long haul, this is not the Big East that Memphis might have joined when Cincinnati and Louisville bolted C-USA.

“We all thought we were going to go and we didn’t,” Johnson recalled.

Yes, everyone remembers. And just about everyone doubted that this day would come. But first-year football coach Justin Fuente seemed to have a sense the time was near, based on what he said Wednesday.

“I’m not saying I knew we were going to end up in the Big East,” Fuente said, “but I also knew it was a pretty volatile market in terms of conference realignment.”

Fuente had a tough task in front of him had Memphis remained in C-USA. It’s a little tougher now, but with far more upside. Any progress should have quicker, and deeper, effects on recruiting. Memphis is joining the Big East as a full member and in 2013 that means the football team will be competing with Boise State, Cincinnati, Louisville, Houston, Central Florida, South Florida, SMU, San Diego State, UConn and Rutgers (Navy joins as football-only in 2015).

Other schools had been able to use C-USA’s non-BCS status against Memphis in recruiting.

“That card has been taken out of play,” Fuente said. “And that’s a good thing.”

In basketball, the Tigers now face not only better competition but a much more difficult road to the NCAA Tournament.

“Every night is an unbelievable game,” Graf said, imagining a winter in which the likes of Georgetown, UConn, Louisville, Marquette and Notre Dame come to FedExForum. “We’ll be all over ESPN again.”

True enough. And no longer will Tigers coach Josh Pastner have to waste breath trying to convince local media that his team plays in a good league. The Big East’s basketball reputation is not only well-known, it’s larger than Memphis’ national profile in basketball. That’s a new, and not insignificant, development.

“Memphis fits right in with a conference that prides itself on being the best college basketball conference in the country,” was how Big East Commissioner John Marinatto phrased it, and the key words are “fits right in.”

Memphis basketball will not be the big bully on the block. The Big East is simply too tough a neighborhood for that. But better to step up and have to raise your game to meet a higher standard than to continue to deceive yourself by dominating inferior competition.

It’s a new, exciting, challenging era in Tiger athletics. And no, it won’t hurt if the Tigers can somehow find a way to be both lucky and good.

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