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This train’s headed East

It’s probably not a surprise that USF will be extended an invitation today at 2 to join the Big East conference beginning in the 2005 season. USF has been repeatedly rumored to replace Boston College, which became the third Big East team to leave for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It’s probably not a surprise, either that USF will accept the invitation, helping the Big East meet the NCAA requirement of eight football teams to form a Division I-A conference. Not to mention will form the 16-team super men’s basketball conference, which will hold some of the nation’s top programs, including the defending national champions Syracuse and preseason No. 1 University of Connecticut.

After the Board of Trustees unanimously backed USF President Judy Genshaft and Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon’s quest for conference realignment, it seems improbable that USF would deny an official invitation to join the Big East.

“I think we kind of just go one step at a time,” Selmon said. “Right now we just have to wait — the ball is in the Big East’s court. So we’re waiting for an invitation, but from everything that we’ve seen and from what we shared (Friday) that it’s an opportunity that, from what we know and what we’ve researched and learned thus far, I think it would be very difficult to turn it down.”

Conference USA teams Cincinnati and Louisville are expected to join USF in the Big East as all-sports members, while Marquette and DePaul are expected to be invited as non-football members.

However, what may come as a surprise is that today may mark the first time USF’s top officials must recognize that this conference move will affect not only the football and men’s basketball teams, but all the other athletic programs at the university.

For instance, following responses from BOT members, Genshaft made a statement saying she hoped the USF football team would defeat Cincinnati later that night at Raymond James Stadium. What she didn’t mention was that two hours before the football game started, the women’s soccer team was playing a home match against UAB with the C-USA regular-season championship on the line. And less than 24 hours from the Friday meeting, the cross country teams would compete for a C-USA championship just across Fletcher Avenue at the USF golf course. Yet these two sports teams received no mention while both were competing for conference titles and both will be affected the same, if not more, by a move into the Big East.

Though football and men’s basketball obviously the most focused on programs, in part because of revenue generated and popularity of football and basketball within society, each sports team at the university will be encounter the same dilemma. Each team will face new conference foes each year. Each team must form new rivalries within the conference, like many of the teams formed in Conference USA.

When asked how the other sports programs at the university would be affected by this possible conference move, Selmon said,

“I think very positively. It spreads across the athletic departments. If it becomes a reality, I think looking at the dynamics of the institutions of the Big East and how they line up with the University of South Florida as Research I institutions and great academic programming, we’re fitting right in with those.”

Though Selmon did say he had discussed this scenario with the athletic staff and coaches, it wasn’t to get their input on a possible conference move.

“I’ve wanted our coaches to keep focused on their tasks and not to worry about this. I think you have to keep focused — that’s why we’re being considered at this point. It will work out. That’s the conversations I’ve had with our staff and our coaches. Don’t worry about all this realignment stuff, just keep doing the best job that you can and everything will take care of itself.”

That statement sounds good in theory, but it’s probably a little tough for coaches not to think about where their teams may stand in a different conference for the 2005 season.

For instance, men’s tennis. Coach Don Barr’s team is a premier team in C-USA, continually competing for a conference title. However, when the spring season begins and the Bulls must travel north to play, they may be forced indoors because of cold weather and perhaps snow, where the team typically hasn’t played well.

“What I’m hoping for is to be like Miami,” Barr said. “Miami just played the conference tournament only. They weren’t scheduled to play everyone in the Big East. (But) I don’t think we’re going to be scheduled to go up there like the basketball teams and the football team.”

But the women’s basketball team will be forced to travel and play against the Big East teams. That’s a guarantee.

Coach Jose Fernandez can comment before every season that he thinks his team is capable of competing for a C-USA championship. And rightfully so, considering the flux of talent he signs every season, which usually ranks in the top 30 of the nation’s top recruiting classes. However, Fernandez’ squad must compete with teams like Villanova, Rutgers and Notre Dame, and that’s just for second place in the conference.

Two-time defending national champion Connecticut owns the Big East in women’s basketball — and the rest of the nation for that matter. The last two teams to defeat UConn, which were sandwiched between a national-record 70-game winning streak, were Notre Dame and Villanova.

“Conference USA from top to bottom is the eighth-ranked league in the country,” Fernandez said. “But the Big East is a different monster. With teams like Connecticut, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Villanova you have five teams in the top-25 on a regular basis. In Conference USA, we have one or two. The middle of the pack and the bottom of the Big East is comparable to Conference USA.

“But I’m not really too concerned about it. Whatever league we play in, I think, with the direction we are going now, with our feet on the ground, it’s is the best time for USF basketball.”

Two other coaches who didn’t seem too concerned about a possible move were Logan Fleck and Greg Thiel, who coach women’s soccer, cross country and track and field, respectively.

“I’m more concerned about what’s going to happen in the next 30 minutes with my midfield than I am with where we’re going to play,” Fleck said. “I tell you what; You tell me where we are supposed to be, and I’ll show up and we’ll play.”

Added Thiel: “Honestly, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I’ll worry about it when it happens. Obviously, being in a bigger and more recognized conference is better, but I’ll just wait and see what happens. It sounds like we might go, but other schools thought that as well, so we’ll just see how it shakes out.”

However, when the conference move likely shifts from possibility to reality today, many of the coaches will be forced to think about what problems they may face.

But again, the primary focus is on the two major sports programs at USF. And in some instances, it probably should be.

Coach Jim Leavitt’s squad probably gets the most benefit because his team can realistically compete for a national championship, at least in 2005 before the Bowl Championship Series reexamines its current format. In C-USA, it isn’t possible for the Bulls to get a Bowl Championship Series bowl bid, which could hamper TCU this year if it remains undefeated throughout the regular season.

Also, the move could mean significant money through conference revenue sharing if the Big East maintains its current BCS bowl bid. According to The Tampa Tribune, schools that play football in BCS conferences generate an average of $13 million in revenue annually, while non-BCS schools generate $3 million.

Also, men’s basketball will be in a premier league with many of its league games ending up on national television stations like ESPN.

“Football and basketball are going to pay the bills,” USF men’s soccer coach George Kiefer said. “So it’s good for them.”

But it should also be good for each of the programs. So far, nothing has been said on how some of the programs will be affected. No coach who was asked about the conference move was against it. In fact, all the coaches had one thing in common: They all felt it would help with recruiting, and that was one of the primary positives.

However, the only two teams being talked about are the football and men’s basketball teams. Hopefully, at today’s news conference, Genshaft, Selmon and any other USF official who speak will remember to speak about the non-revenue related issues such as how this move may affect everyone, both positively and negatively.