Previous Decisions of the Past Forecast Grim Outlook to Regionality Today
Recently with news of Southern Cal and UCLA shifting to the Big Ten and the floating rumors of an ACC raid by the SEC and a potential collaboration of the Big XII and Pac-12 remaining schools, and recently Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban saying that mega conferences are here to stay, one must wonder where regionality has gone. I feel like this article can be an idea for a ESPN 30 for 30 or at minimum at off shoot of the 30 for 30 “Requiem For The Big East.”
What if I told you there was a collection of teams that over a 12-year period (1976-1988) played in 6 National Championships, won 3, played in what would be classified today in 16 New Year’s 6 Bowls winning 10 of games (with 1 tie).
What if I told you that none of these teams since deciding to go separate ways have been a fraction of themselves?
What if I told you that none of them were in a conference?
In the 1930’s two brother’s Henry and Benjamin Lambert wanted a tribute to their father and were prominent football boosters. They were in New York City and figured to create a championship of their own to recognize who was the best team in the East.
The teams that could qualify had to be in New York, New Jersey, New England states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware.
Later other teams could qualify if over half of their schedule consisted of teams from this region, this is how Miami won 4 of these championships in the early 2000’s and why Florida State another independent of the time has not won the award.
The schools that primarily won the award were Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, Boston College, WVU, and the military academies.
The Golden Era for Eastern Independents occurred in the late 1970’s to the late 1980’s. The collective had 6 teams that went unbeaten and had 6 compete for National Championships during that span, winning 3 championships.
Unbeaten/Won National Championship (Georgia)
Unbeaten Regular Season/Lost National Championship (Alabama)
Won National Championship (Georgia)
Unbeaten Regular Season/Lost National Championship (Oklahoma)
Unbeaten/Won National Championship (Miami)
Unbeaten Regular Season/Tied Sugar Bowl (Auburn)
Unbeaten Regular Season/Lost National Championship (Notre Dame)
They collective also played in the major bowl games, in what consists of the New Year’s 6, Eastern Independents went 10-5-1 in these games.
To Form a Conference or Not Form a Conference?
As Penn State was in the process of winning its first football national championship under Joe Paterno, the Hall of Fame coach sought to get the Eastern Powers together.
Paterno first attempted to get into the Big East Conference.
According to former WVU Athletic Director Ed Pastilong, “We went to the Big East Conference because they already had an organization. They had people in place; they had an office located in the Northeast. We asked them to come up with a management plan where they could manage it rather than go out and form a whole new conference.”
With Penn State looking to stabilize its other athletic programs, especially basketball which was competing in the Eastern 8 (Atlantic 10), it was wanting to create an all sports partnership.
To solve this problem, they applied to join the Big East. However, the founding 8 members feared what football becoming a dangerous influence especially with schools that did not have football like St. John’s, Villanova, and Georgetown.
When the vote results came in, Penn State was rejected to join the Big East by a 5-3 vote.
Paterno, still not rattled, decided to spearhead a campaign for an All Sports Conference for Eastern Independents. He looked to Penn State, Pitt, BC, Syracuse, Rutgers, WVU, Temple, and Maryland to form one conference.
At the time, you would have key demographics working in its favor, you have 6 Top 30 markets, including 4 in the Top 15 (NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC), as well as CBS, who was ready to give them TV money.
When the Big East saw it could lose 2 of its founding members in Syracuse and Boston College it decided to look for another strong basketball partner. They targeted the University of Pittsburgh who under new coach Roy Chipman, looking for a basketball conference that was more competitive than the Eastern 8.
The Big East secured Pitt in November 1981, the school weighed an all sports conference which at the time wasn’t thought of as important versus a strong basketball league and the Big East Conference landed at the time a $1 million contract to hold games conference tournament games at Madison Square Garden and with CBS looking to expand its sports content portfolio signed the Big East along with a new fledgling network ESPN.
For Paterno it was a defeat to his idea, he said in the New York Times in 1981, ''I've tried hard to do something that I thought would be good for the East. If there isn't enthusiasm for it, though, we haven't lost anything.''
Events That Changed Eastern Football
In February 1987 in Dallas, Texas, the NCAA administered the “death penalty” to SMU for severe infractions, that punishment kicked off an initial carousel of expansion and it brought doubt to the stability of the Southwestern Conference.
Penn State was still looking for a home for all its sports, and at the same time began a long courtship to get into a conference.
Former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan said he wanted Penn State into the ACC, he told former Penn State AD Jim Tarman it would have been a no brainer and before the 1989 announcement, he told ACC athletic directors, “Gentlemen, Penn State is an ACC school, they should have been in our league.”
Penn State’s ultimate entrance into the league was spearheaded by former Penn State provost and then University of Illinois President Stan Ikenberry. When then new Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney told the athletic directors of Penn State’s admission, then Michigan AD Bo Schembechler famously quipped “You gotta be s—tting me!”
For the other schools, when the fierce conference realignments were happening, the Big East opened to football and created a football conference.
Filling in for Penn State would be the University of Miami.
That fit was not natural, according to Ed Pastilong, “When Penn State went to the Big Ten it changed the playing field for the whole East. That’s when we put together the Big East, but we were one school short…Penn State. If we had the Big East with Penn State and Boston College and Syracuse and Pitt and Virginia Tech and Rutgers, it would have been quite a conference."
That missing piece would never truly be filled and lead to the carousel in realignment in the early 2000’s as Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College would leave the Big East for the ACC.
A decade later saw Syracuse and Pitt leave the Big East for the ACC, Rutgers leaving for the Big Ten, and saw WVU scramble eventually finding a home in the Big XII.
How does it apply today?
With Southern Cal and UCLA leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, you are in the infancy stages of what Eastern Football has seen the last 4 decades.
Pacific Northwest (PNW) brand of football has begun to enter death phase of its brand if it doesn’t stick together. This will be a tall task for current Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Rumors that the Big Ten only want Oregon and Washington cast doubt on Oregon State and Washington State fans. When you look at the former Eastern Schools today, and the only schools that are safe are Big Ten schools Penn State and Rutgers.
Pitt is in a position recently where the Big Ten rejected expanding to them is in an ACC, along with Boston College and Syracuse that no one is seeking these schools. They are hanging on by the legal definitions written in with the “grant of rights” while high end brand schools are looking to be poached.
WVU is in the Big XII and they question now with the departures of Texas and Oklahoma, wonder if it is still in a Power 5 conference or a conference of leftover middle powers?
The cruel reality of what we are witnessing is we truly don’t know or won’t know the collateral damage or impact it will have on schools for 30 or 40 years.
We have the benefit today of knowing this with the benefit of time with the Eastern independents, this is something as a sport the have’s really having to assess how much damage they want to do to everyone else because the have not’s are hanging by a thread and for fans in these regions the sport has been lost to them because it doesn’t mean what it used to.
That isn't good for Eastern Powers, PNW Powers, or any other region in the country.