By Ralph D. Russo
The Associated Press
NORMAN — The Big East moved quickly to replace Rutgers and braced for more possible departures, getting Tulane and East Carolina to agree to join the re-invented conference in 2014.
“I would go as far to say as this is a historic day for Tulane University ... the Big East is coming to the Big Easy,” school President Scott Cowen said Tuesday.
Tulane, in New Orleans, and East Carolina, in Greenville, N.C., will make it six Conference USA schools to join the Big East in the last two years.
Rutgers announced one week ago that it would leave the Big East for the Big Ten. Cowen and athletic director Rick Dickson said serious talks with the Big East began about a week ago.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity to join a national conference,” Dickson said.
Rutgers would like to join the Big Ten by 2014, along with Maryland, but the Scarlet Knights have left their departure date from the Big East ambiguous. Conference bylaws require members to give the league notification of two years and three months before departing, but the Big East has negotiated early exits for Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia in the past year.
West Virginia joined the Big 12 this year. Syracuse and Pitt will begin play in the Atlantic Coast Conference in September.
With Maryland leaving the ACC, there has been strong speculation that Connecticut or Louisville will be the next to leave the Big East as the Terps’ replacement.
If either does, the conference is still on target to have 12 football members in 2014, just not the same ones it will have in 2013 when the new Big East debuts.
“We’re not finished,” Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “We obviously have some other plans for expansion.”
Boise State and San Diego State, currently in the Mountain West, are set to join for football only starting in 2013, anchoring the Big East’s new West Division. Also on schedule to join next season are current C-USA members SMU, Houston, Memphis and Central Florida.
Navy has committed to join the Big East for football in 2015. The conference had planned to find a 14th member to balance out its divisions even before Rutgers left. BYU and Air Force were top targets for that spot.
Aresco said that the Big East could even expand to 16 members, depending on what schools are available.
“We have to let that play out,” he said.
Officials from San Diego State and Boise State have said they are still committed to joining the Big East but have expressed a desire for the conference to add more western schools.
“They absolutely are extremely committed to the Big East,” Aresco said. “We absolutely will be looking at some western schools.”
The Big East’s membership also includes seven schools, including Georgetown and St. John’s, that either do not have football teams or don’t compete at the FBS level, but have helped it become a premier basketball conference.
Tulane seems an odd choice based on the school’s recent performance in football and men’s basketball, the two most prominent sports.
The Green Wave haven’t been to a bowl game since 2002 and last made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1995. Tulane just completed a 2-10 football season under first-year coach Curtis Johnson.
It hasn’t always been this way for Tulane. Cowen said in the decade before Hurricane Katrina devastated the school in 2005, forcing it to shut down for a semester, Tulane won more sports championships than any program in C-USA.
Cowen said it took three years for the university to fully recover.
“Once we recovered financially and academically, we invested heavily in athletics,” he said.
He said the school has sunk $125 million into the athletic department for facilities and coaches. Tulane will open a new on-campus football stadium in 2014, which the school hopes will rejuvenate interest in the team.
The Green Wave currently play their home football games in the Superdome but have struggled to draw fans. Tulane’s average attendance for home games was 18,085 this season.
The Big East has been trying to gather as many major television markets as possible and New Orleans comes in at 53rd-largest in the country. Tulane also provides a regional rival for Memphis.
East Carolina has been a consistent winner in football and looked to get in the Big East for years. The Pirates have played in a bowl five out of the last six years and finished 8-4 this season, just missing out on a trip to the C-USA title game.
ECU AD Terry Holland said East Carolina’s next step is to find an “equally exciting and competitive environment for the 18 sports other than football.”
Conference USA had already replaced the previously announced departing members. Next season Louisiana Tech, Florida International, North Texas and Texas-San Antonio will join C-USA, giving it 16 football schools.
In 2014, Old Dominion will join C-USA, and Charlotte is scheduled to join with its fledgling football program in 2015.
“To be clear, we have several options but no new member agreements have been made at this time,” C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said. “We appreciate the support of our members and will immediately begin a presidentially led process to evaluate our future options.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAp
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