Pitt, Syracuse to leave Big East for ACC

By Roger Sepich

It’s been 29 years since Pitt joined the Big East Conference, but the University won’t… It’s been 29 years since Pitt joined the Big East Conference, but the University won’t remain a member for much longer.

Pitt and Syracuse accepted invitations to join the Atlantic Coast Conference after both schools submitted letters of recommendation this week, a news release from the ACC said Sunday.

“This is an exciting day for the University of Pittsburgh,” Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said in the statement released Sunday morning. “We have a long history of competing and collaborating with the distinguished universities that already are members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and [we] have enormous respect for both their academic strengths and their athletic accomplishments.”

The move will cost $5 million and may take more than two years, because of Big East bylaws, and will pit Pitt against more competitive teams in many sports, with the potential to bring in millions more in broadcast revenues. The swift departure of Pitt marks a shift from a University that, in 2003, decried three other universities jumping from the Big East to the ACC.

The announcement comes only weeks after Texas A&M announced its decision to move to the Southeastern Conference from the Big 12. It also occurs amidst speculations that college athletics might be moving toward four 16-team super-conferences.

When Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech all left the Big East for the ACC in 2003,   Nordenberg criticized the three schools and made it clear Pitt was determined to make the Big East stronger going into the future.

“Back in 2003, the notion that three members of one conference might move to another really did send shockwaves through the world of intercollegiate athletics,” Nordenberg said. “Today, as I indicated earlier, every major conference has been affected by realignment.”

Because of Big East bylaws that state teams must endure a 27-month waiting period before leaving the conference, it could be a while before Pitt and Syracuse effectually  switch conferences. In addition, both universities will have to pay a $5 million exit fee to leave the Big East. Nordenberg hinted that Pitt might try to have that waiting period reduced.

“We will see if the 27-month waiting period serves everyone’s best interest,” Nordenberg said. “What I don’t know obviously is how the conference intends to respond to this planned departure.”

But the exit fee pales in comparison to the 12-year football and men’s basketball television deal that the ACC agreed to with ESPN in July 2010. The Associated Press reported the deal was worth almost $2 billion.

Swofford said in the teleconference that, with the addition of two new teams, the ACC is allowed to reopen negotiations with ESPN.

The Big East voted to turn down a contract offer with ESPN in May that the Boston Globe reported would have paid up to $11 million per team.. Nordenberg and Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson have received criticism that has asserted that they led the charge in persuading the members of the Big East not to accept the offer.

Nordenberg said that Pitt acted along with the rest of the teams in the conference, and did not actively campaign against the deal.

“Any characterization that either Pitt, Steve or I led a charge against consummating a contract with ESPN is simply inaccurate,” Nordenberg said. “In the end, when the conference did decide not to accept the ESPN offer, it was an unanimous vote of all 16 members that was not led by us or by anyone else.”

Although the deal makes geographical and financial sense for both Pitt and Syracuse, some members of the Big East community view this decision as a betrayal of the Big East by two of the conference’s oldest members. Syracuse was a founding member and Pitt joined in 1982, three years after the conference formed.

Marinatto said in a statement that he was “very disappointed” by the news.

Pederson defended the move. “Everyone had the same approach, which is [that] you want what’s best for your institution,” he said. “We’re going to worry about us, we’re going to worry about making Pitt great in every area of what we’re doing.”

ACC Commissioner John Swofford said Sunday morning that conversations about expansion began on Tuesday, and that Pitt and Syracuse applied for membership late in the week.

“By the end of the day on Friday we had submitted a letter expressing interest in membership,” Nordenberg said in a press conference Sunday. “That’s about the most expeditious, compressed decision making process that I’ve ever been a part of — but I think that did reflect the view on both sides that this was a very good fit.”

Several news outlets began reporting Saturday that both schools applied for membership to the ACC, and the rumors were confirmed Sunday morning when Pitt, Syracuse and the ACC all released statements saying the two teams would be joining the conference.

Other concerns for Pitt fans include potentially losing the opportunity to play teams like West Virginia and losing scheduled out-of-conference series like the Penn State football series set for 2016.

“It’s not going to affect the Penn State series, I can tell you that,” Pederson said, with a laugh. “We’ve had a great history and series with West Virginia dating back before the Big East Conference, and we’re hopeful that can continue.”

The additions of Pitt and Syracuse — expanding the ACC to a 14-team conference — make geographical sense, Swofford said. He added that no decision has been made on the composition of the new conference divisions.

“Pittsburgh and Syracuse serve to enhance the ACC’s reach into the states of New York and Pennsylvania and geographically bridges our footprint between Maryland and Massachusetts,” he said in a statement. “With the addition of Pitt and Syracuse, the ACC will cover virtually the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States.”

Nordenberg added that the geography of the conference is important to Pitt also, as the University tends to focus on recruiting students from the East Coast.

While Pitt begins it’s transition, other schools will undoubtedbly begin to plan their future as well. ESPN has already reported that the University of Connecticut, another Big East school, has expressed interest in heading to the ACC. Swofford didn’t refute the possibility of the ACC adding two more teams in the near future to make it a 16-team conference.

“We are very comfortable with this 14, but we are not philosophically opposed to 16,” he said.

Although the ACC currently has just two teams in the Associated Press Top 25 for football, the conference boasts one of the most impressive basketball lineups in the country, with Duke and North Carolina consistently maintaining their statuses as two of the top teams in the country.

Swofford also said that the ACC would be open to the idea of making Madison Square Garden part of the rotation for the ACC basketball tournament. The Big East currently holds its conference tournament in the arena.

The ACC takes pride in all of its sports, with its baseball and soccer competition specifically among the best in the country.

“As we looked at the ACC, we’re very similar in so many areas and our sport offerings are very similar, so I think we come in very complementary to what they’re already doing,” Pederson said. “Sometimes opportunities present themselves that seem logical in every way, and the ACC opportunity was so logical and such a perfect match in so many ways.”

Assistant Sports Editor Isaac Saul contributed to this article.