Memphis Tigers officially accept Big East bid

By John D. Martin

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson cried.

Frequently lambasted for his inability to lead Memphis into a BCS conference, Johnson got the news from Big East commissioner John Marinatto on Tuesday afternoon that the Tigers had been unanimously voted into the conference as an all-sports member.

Immediately after he hung up with Marinatto, he embraced his wife, Melba, and they began to weep with joy.

“That’s what we did,” said Johnson, who is retiring in June. “That’s pretty professional, huh? It’s been a long haul.”

A long haul, indeed. After more than a decade of seeking BCS affiliation, Memphis, along with other outgoing Conference USA members Houston, Central Florida and SMU, will begin Big East competition in the 2013-14 season.

Memphis becomes the 12th football member and the 17th basketball member of the conference. Navy will join as a football-only member in 2015.

The addition of the Tigers gives the Big East yet another program in a top 50 media market. As a whole, Big East games will reach more than 31 million homes in 2013 and beyond.

“We’re grateful to each university and their presidents for their vote for the University of Memphis and for Tiger athletics,” Memphis president Dr. Shirley C. Raines said. “We look forward to serving with the Big East.”

Johnson said talks had been ongoing but heated up in recent weeks. Big East commissioner John Marinatto flew in last week and got an all-encompassing tour of the campus, including the athletic facilities.

“Upon visiting Memphis, it immediately became clear to me and to our membership that the administration of Dr. Raines and R.C. Johnson has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to maintaining first‑class athletic facilities,” Marinatto said in a teleconference Wednesday.

Marinatto said Memphis was one of the more attractive options because it would give the Big East a school within the Central time zone. With San Diego State and Boise State joining as football-only members in 2013, the Big East has plans to create East and West divisions. Memphis, with its location, would fall under the West division and fill a geographical need for the conference.

“Geographically the school is located in the heart of our conference, in the heartland of America,” Marinatto said. “All of those things were contributing factors in us determining ultimately that this was the best decision to make.”

Wednesday’s official announcement was the payoff Memphis’ administration had long hoped for.

The Tigers were left behind in the first round of Big East expansion in 2005, when then-fellow Conference USA members Louisville, Marquette, Depaul, Cincinnati and South Florida fled the conference to join the Big East.

Johnson was criticized for, among many other things, a lack of preparation and poor presentation to Big East officials during that time. Until the sequence of events this week, the window appeared to be shrinking for the Tigers to ever be invited to a BCS league.

Johnson deflected credit for the Tigers’ long trek into a BCS conference.

“It’s not about me. I mean that sincerely,” Johnson said. “This is my 33rd year as an athletic director. Melba and I love Memphis, we love the community, we love the university, and we love the Tigers. If you’re gonna do what I’m doing, you learn to develop a really thick skin. You’ve gotta be able to move on. Does anybody like it? No. But it doesn’t bog us down. You’ve got to move on.”

And move on the Tigers will, leaving behind a wobbly C-USA. The loss of Memphis, which was the league’s biggest name draw, is almost certainly devastating. C-USA and the Mountain West Conference are rumored to be close to a full merger after the two leagues agreed to a football-only merger last year.

While Memphis boasts a storied basketball program, the Tigers’ football program has been mired in losing for the last several seasons. Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who was hired on Dec. 8 to replace the fired Larry Porter, inherits a program that has stumbled to a 5-31 record the last three seasons.

“Everybody’s job got harder,” Fuente said. “The expectation level, the commitment level from everybody just got raised, from the community to the alumni to the university. If we wanna go do this, which we do and I’m excited to go do, we’ve gotta step up.”

Marinatto said Wednesday he has full confidence that Memphis will correct its football program’s losing ways.

“We feel confident not only with regard to the moves that the university has made in the past in upgrading its facilities, but … with the personnel and administrative moves they’ve made in order to solidify their situation going forward,” he said.

Johnson and the athletic department announced last summer a capital campaign for a $10 million indoor practice facility. He said he hopes to have the majority of the fundraising for the facility accounted for by the end of this fiscal year.

The upgraded football facilities, to go along with Memphis’ well-documented success in basketball and central location, helped push the Tigers over and finally into a BCS league, Johnson said.

“As big as our basketball has been, in the TV world and in the media world, the football is such a big spoke,” he said. “The thing we had going for us is what we did with our facilities, our location, and they really wanted to get to 12 teams. I think all that really helped us.

“People said early on Boise State and San Diego State may hurt (us). Actually, they helped us, because then it kind of eliminated time zones and they wanted to get something in this area. And it’s easy to get in and out of here. All that really boded well for us.”