The Big East says the Tigers officially accepted an invitation to be part of the conference’s next incarnation in 2013. Memphis is the seventh school, and fourth from Conference USA, to sign up for future membership in the Big East since December. The Tigers will compete in the Big East in all sports.
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 rebuilding again and eventually in need replacements for West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, there was finally room for Memphis.
The Big East’s long-term goal is to have a 12-team football league, while maintaining the supersized and strong basketball side of the conference.
To accomplish that goal, the conference has traveled across the country to recruit new members to a league that will span from coast to coast. In December, the Big East announced Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West Conference would join the Big East in 2013 for football only, and Houston, SMU and Central Florida, from Conference USA, would become members in all sports.
Last month, Navy football jumped on board, though that won’t happen until 2015.
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 – though the league could ask the NCAA for a waiver to play a title game with less than 12 teams. Plus, there’s 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.
And it’s still unclear when West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse will leave. Big East bylaws require a 27-month notification period for schools that want to leave and commissioner John Marinatto has said he intends to make the departing schools honor that. 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.
It’s possible the Big East could have 14 football teams and 20 basketball teams in 2013.
Memphis is just happy to be part of 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.
Memphis had made 23 NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Final Four three times. 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.
On the football side, Memphis has never found the right formula for success, despite being located in the Southeastern Conference country. 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.
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."