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Big East Confirms West Virginia To Leave Conference; Louisville Staying

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(Rob Carr/Getty Images Sports)

(Rob Carr/Getty Images Sports)

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By RALPH D. RUSSO,  AP College Football Writer

The Big 12 welcomed West Virginia from the Big East and bid goodbye to Missouri before the Tigers even had a chance to make their move to the Southeastern Conference official.

Now that the poaching of the Big East seems to be over, the beleaguered league is not backing down. It has been busy courting six schools and says it was braced for the latest loss. And despite what the Big 12 says, the Big East plans to keep West Virginia for two more years– just as it has vowed to keep Pittsburgh and Syracuse away from the Atlantic Coast Conference until 2014.

The latest round of conference realignment appears to be winding down, but tug-o-war over who goes where when likely will take a while to sort out.

The Big 12 completed its work Friday by adding West Virginia to become its easternmost member, joining Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, TCU and Iowa State.

The Big 12 said it expects to have 10 schools for the 2012-13 season, listing West Virginia but not Missouri, which is expected complete its move to the SEC any day now.

Ames, Iowa, is the closest Big 12 campus to Morgantown, W.Va.,  at 870 miles away, but that hardly matters. The Mountaineers bring a football program that has consistently been ranked in the Top 25 in recent years, and that’s what counts most when it comes time to sell TV rights.

In April, the conference signed a 13-year TV deal with Fox worth $1.17 billion that kicks in next year and was based upon the league having 10 members.

The Big 12 leaders voted to add West Virginia, rather than closer Big East rival Louisville, on Friday morning.

“The addition of West Virginia, while expanding the reach of the Big 12, brings an impressive institution with esteemed
academics and a proud athletic tradition into the Conference. This is another step in building a strong foundation for the future of the Big 12,” said Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis, the chairman of the Big 12 board of directors.

West Virginia is one of the founding members of the Big East’s football conference, created in 1991. Of the eight original members, only Rutgers remains. The Big East is trying to reconfigure itself as a 12-team football league and has been pitching itself to six schools, including Boise State. Now it will need seven to get to 12, though maybe not for a couple years.

While the Big 12’s statement said West Virginia will begin competing in the 2012-13 athletic season, Big East Commissioner John Marinatto said the Mountaineers will be staying in the Big East for two more seasons.

“West Virginia is fully aware that the Big East Conference is committed to enforcing the 27-month notification period for members who choose to leave the conference,” he said in a statement.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced last month they would join the ACC, and Marinatto has been adamant about saying the Big East plans to hold them for two more seasons.

TCU was on its way to the Big East, set to join in 2012, before being diverted to the Big 12 earlier this month to take the place of Texas A&M, which was first to make the jump from the Big 12 to the SEC.

The Big East can’t hold the Horned Frogs because they never started competing, but it does expect to receive a $5 million exit fee from them, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia.

Big East presidents two weeks ago agreed to raise the league’s exit fee to $10 million, but not until it had received commitments from one of its two main expansion targets– Air Force or Navy.

West Virginia will not be on the hook for the doubled exit fee but clearly it will cost the something for the Mountaineers to start playing in the Big 12 next season. Same goes for Pitt and Syracuse and the ACC.

It appeared earlier in the week that the Big 12 had settled on West Virginia as its replacement for Missouri. But Louisville briefly re-entered the picture, and the Mountaineers’ invitation to the Big 12 was put on hold.

In the end the extra time didn’t pay off for the Cardinals.

“I’m not certain how everything went down, but they fought a good battle and won,” Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich said.

The Big 12, even before landing that big TV deal, distributed more revenue ($137 million) last year to its members than the Big East ($113), which will begin negotiating new TV deals next year.

West Virginia University President James Clements said: “The Big 12 is a perfect fit for West Virginia.”

“It’s a great day to be a Mountaineer,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin told the AP.

CBSSports.com first reported West Virginia’s move to the Big 12.

The decision by the Big 12 caps a strange week of conference realignment that included West Virginia officials on Tuesday preparing a press release and planning a news conference to announce its conference switch, then being told later that day to put the brakes on those plans.

Louisville made a late push for inclusion that reportedly involved a phone call from Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, a
Louisville alum, to Big 12 officials.

“He lobbied for us, of course he did, as did many other people,” Jurich said.

That set off Manchin, who threatened Wednesday a senate investigation if it were found that another lawmaker had stood in the way of the Mountaineers move.

Then late Thursday night, the SEC inadvertently posted on its website that Missouri was joining the league. The conference said no agreement has been reached with the school, but it was yet another sign that it’s just a matter of time before the Tigers follow Texas A&M.

Now, the focus shifts to the Big East and how it will rebuild. The plan is to add Boise State, Navy and Air Force as football-only members and SMU, Houston and Central Florida as all-sports members.

“This move by West Virginia does not come as a surprise,” Marinatto said. “League officials, members of our conference and the candidate schools to whom we have been talking were aware of this possibility. We have taken West Virginia’s possible departure into account as we have moved forward with our realignment plans.”

Temple had been considered before Big East officials settled on the Texas schools from Conference USA.

Marinatto met on campus with officials from Air Force on Wednesday and Boise State on Thursday. The Big East presidents are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Philadelphia and are expected to authorize him to officially invite new members.

Along with Louisville and Rutgers, the remaining Big East football schools are South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati.

The Big East also has eight members, including Notre Dame, that don’t compete in the league in football. Most are small private schools with strong basketball programs such as St. John’s, Georgetown and DePaul.

DePaul AD Jean Lenti Ponsetto said there are no plans for the basketball schools to split from the football schools.

“I would say at this point we have not gone down that path,” she said.

If the Big East can’t complete its expansion goals and crumbles, it could leave Notre Dame’s much-treasured football independence in doubt and start a whole new round of shuffling.

     (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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