Burgos: There’s more than athletics to consider with Pitt-Big Ten rumors

By Evan Burgos

For the Pitt Panthers, the Big East is home. It’s a cozy abode, too. It’s one of… For the Pitt Panthers, the Big East is home. It’s a cozy abode, too. It’s one of the six power conferences in college sports, a basketball powerhouse with enduring and storied rivalries, and it makes a lot of money every year.

Lately, rumors surfaced that Pitt might be moving to a new home. Those rumors — that Pitt will make a move to the Big Ten — were rebuffed by the athletic department this week. In December, the men’s head basketball coach Jamie Dixon told the Chicago Tribune that he didn’t see how Pitt could improve by shifting conferences.

“Every situation, you have to look at why you’re doing it to improve yourselves,” Dixon said. “And I can’t see how moving from the best conference in college basketball history would be a good thing for anybody.”

Dixon was referring to the sports department in particular, and that is what most people first consider when discussing collegiate conferences. But Pitt is, after all, an academic institution first, and the implications of a potential league swap transcend what transpires between the lines.

What prompted Dixon’s comments in December was a Big Ten conference announcement that it will pursue options over the next 12-18 months to expand the conference by one, three or even five teams. Naturally, athletic credentials and geography are factors in considering a potential school. But E. Gordan Gee, the president of Ohio State, a member of the Big Ten, told The New York Times last week that academic credentials would be considered as well.

All current members of the Big Ten belong to the Association of American Universities, a guild of the nation’s top 62 research institutions. The universities mentioned at the forefront of a prospective expansion — Pitt, Syracuse, Missouri and Rutgers — are also members of the AAU. The Big East, which houses lesser academic institutions such as South Florida and Seton Hall, isn’t quite as prestigious, though it does boast the likes of Georgetown and Notre Dame.

A move to the Big Ten would enhance Pitt’s reputation academically and place it among some of the most prominent public universities in the nation, which inhabit the Big Ten. Think Ivy League — a sports conference with strong academic ties. In this way, Pitt could bolster its image in a way that benefits not only its student-athletes but also its faculty, the rest of the student body and all other aspects of the university.

It is important, though, to keep the athletic side of things in perspective. If Pitt jumped the Big East ship, it would abandon its rivalries. No longer would West Virginia or Connecticut be Pitt’s league foes. Pitt versus Iowa in the Brawl a Couple Houses Down the Street? Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?

Monetarily, however, Pitt could see a benefit. According to the NCAA’s 2008 statistics, the Big East was last amongst the six major conferences in television revenue, banking $40 million. The Big Ten, which was first amongst all conferences nationally, made $214 million. And in total revenue, the Big East was last yet again, pulling down $93.1 million. Who was first? You guessed it: the Big Ten, which earned a whopping $280.6 million.

In 2005, the Big East experienced a realignment of its own when it lost three teams to the ACC. It responded by inviting five teams from Conference USA to join the bigger league. Pitt was a major contributor in developing the realigned conference and stabilizing it after the departure of tenured members. A Pitt departure now might come across as abandonment. But before the university banishes the notion of a move, it has to consider all the factors.

An association with the Big Ten could mean opportunities that the Big East simply cannot provide. It would mean more money. It would mean heightened academic prestige. You could even replace those old rivalries with new, equally enticing ones — how about the first football game between Pitt and Penn State since 2000?

For now, nothing is certain and nobody knows. But change, as it’s often said, isn’t always a bad thing.