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Revamped Big East not Dean's List material

By Alex Thibodeau and Sean McDonough
On March 12, 2012

The Big East announced that it will expand for the second time since the 2005-06 season when DePaul, among others, was added to the conference.

The latest expansion comes after several other major conferences, including the Pac-10, Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coastal Conference (ACC) have either added or lost teams within the past year in what has become a rampant reshuffling of intercollegiate conferences.

The Big East has been on both sides of the conference kerfuffle trend by losing several key members whom the conference has been intent on replacing to ensure its strength as a major player in big-time-revenue sports.

Just because the Big East conference will be gaining more members does not necessarily mean they will be gaining in prestige. More teams mean more grade data to scrutinize, and it turns out the newcomers don't fare too well academically against current, and the soon-to-be former conference members they will replace.

The new members of the Big East will include the Universities of Memphis, Houston, Central Florida and Southern Methodist University (SMU) as all-sport members. In addition, Boise State, San Diego State and The U.S Naval Academy (Navy) will join as football-only schools.

Navy's move, due to media contract stipulations, will be delayed until 2015. Moreover, the conference is also rumored to be considering Temple as possible addition. The aforementioned schools will be replacing Syracuse (a founding member), and Pittsburgh (member since 1982) and West Virginia, which reached a settlement with the Big East to leave for the Big 12 this July.

The 2012-13 season will be the 34th in Big East history and will also bring with it the largest expansion since its creation in 1979. The conference originally was made up of seven teams: Providence College, St. Johns, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College.

In the 2005-06 season, the Big East became the country's largest Division I-A conference adding five teams including DePaul, Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida. That same year the conference lost Boston College. While membership changes are not uncommon, the 2013 expansion will make the largest conference even larger. Despite losing three teams, the Big East will round the conference off to 20 teams.

On the outset, one would be loath to compare any of the future Big East additions to academic juggernauts already in the conference such as Villanova, Notre Dame and Georgetown. Navy would be the exception here, having already established an infallible and prestigious academic record. And when the schools are compared using academic statistics it becomes more apparent that the Big East has added schools that don't quite match up to the current crop.

To determine whether or not the Big East will be better or worse from an academic standpoint, it serves us well to liken the conference additions and subtractions as a trade in professional sports. Of course, instead of players being exchanged from one team to another, here we are comparing and contrasting certain institutions based on academic statistics including academic progress reports and academic rating.

The NCAA measures schools on an institution's ability to retain and move student-athletes toward graduation using a statistic called the academic progress rate (APR). APR is rated on a sport-by-sport basis. Schools that fail to reach an APR score of at least 925 (equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate) are penalized by the NCAA with the loss of scholarships. A perfect score is 1000.

Soon to be departed West Virginia was second in 2009-10 men's basketball APR with a score of 995. Pittsburgh also posted an impressive 985, while Syracuse earned only a 928 rating. Among the soon-to-be-added schools, Memphis boasted an impressive APR score of 989, the highest among new Big East schools. However, other incoming Big East schools didn't do as well as Memphis for men's basketball APR. SMU posted an APR score of 946, while UCF came dangerously close to the 925 cutoff with a 929; and Houston scored a 907 which would make them second-to-last in men's hoops APR in the Big East (UConn's 893 APR score was last).

The football-only schools were not so bad. For instance, Boise and Navy achieved a 981 and 978, respectively in APR football scores for 2009-10. On the other hand, San Diego St. had a lower score of 934.

So in terms of men's basketball APR, the Big East will suffer a setback with the loss of West Virginia and Pittsburgh. However, they will be glad to welcome the schools who posted impressive scores like Memphis, as well as SMU and Navy for football. UCF and especially Houston certainly drag the conference down a notch or two with their less-than-impressive, and in Houston's case failing, APR scores.

Although DePaul is sad to see long-time members Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia leave, it welcomes with open arms the new schools, viewing the expansion as entirely positive for both DePaul and the conference.

"Every time the Big East has reinvented itself, it has turned out better," said DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto.

Ponsetto also added that she is eager to renew relationships with schools DePaul has dealt with in the past. One of these schools is Memphis, who like DePaul in 2005-06, will be departing Conference USA for the Big East.

"All schools, each in their own way, bring something special to the conference," added Ponsetto.

The expansion will come as a crucial business saving move, according to ESPN and will give the conference an enormous corner on the media market. The new additions will bring Big East markets almost one-fourth of all television coverage in the U.S.

"[The conference changes] will represent the single largest media footprint in intercollegiate athletics from coast-to-coast in football," said conference commissioner, John Marinatto in an interview with ESPN.

However, schools such as SMU and Boise St. will come into the conference with considerable baggage. SMU, for instance was given the NCAA's "Death Penalty" in the late 1980s when it was discovered multiple times that its football players were receiving improper benefits from boosters. The NCAA cancelled SMU's entire 1987 football season and upon permission to return for a shortened 1988 season, the school opted to sit out another year after determining that it would not be able to field an entire team for the 1988 season.

In a 2011 interview with the Associated Press, University of Oklahoma law professor and former NCAA Vice President David Swank said of SMU, "In the nine years I served on the (NCAA) committee on infractions I never saw another one that was even close to what occurred in the SMU case."

Recently, Boise State was stripped of a total of nine football scholarships, three for the course of each of the next three years for NCAA infractions. In a statement the NCAA wrote:

"[Boise State failed to establish an adequate compliance system to report NCAA rules violations with regard to impermissible housing, transportation and other benefits to prospective and enrolled student-athletes. The university failed to provide adequate rules education and training to staff members to ensure compliance."

"[In addition, the university failed to monitor its program to deter, find and report instances of NCAA violations to the NCAA."

Moreover, current Big East member and men's basketball defending champion, UConn, is in the midst of being disciplined by the NCAA for infractions as well. Head coach Jim Calhoun was suspended for the Huskies first three conference games this season in addition to the team being docked three scholarships a year for the next three seasons for recruitment violations in connections with illegal booster activity.

Analyzing future Big East schools against current ones based on academic rating is more difficult because a handful of new schools don't have an academic rating attributed to them. Academic rating is a statistic developed by the Princeton Review that rates schools on the following:

How hard students work and how much they get back for their efforts, on a scale of 60–99. Factors weighed include how many hours students study outside of the classroom and the quality of students the school attracts. We also considered students' assessments of their professors, class size, student–teacher ratio, use of teaching assistants, and amount of class discussion, registration, and resources.

Memphis, Boise State and San Diego State do not have an academic rating on the Princeton Review. To the surprise of few, Navy's academic rating of 91 would be tied with Villanova for the highest in the conference if they were added today. On the other hand, SMU's 77; UCF's 70; and Houston's 67 are less than impressive. However, the new ratings do not bring the conference down all that much when compared to the three departing schools. Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Syracuse posted academic ratings of 78, 75 and 62, respectively.

So in regards to APR and academic rating statistics, it appears that the Big East conference is heading toward a slight decline, academically speaking. When news of the expansion first surfaced this notion had many onlookers both surprised and skeptic of the new additions. DePaul's Ponsetto, however, was not the least bit surprised.

Ponsetto noted that there are a lot of changes in the business of intercollegiate athletics. "I don't think anything is surprising anymore. Schools have to decide philosophically where their home is," she said.

"It starts with the recruiting process," said Ponsetto who went on to add, "We recruit student-athletes who are serious about getting the full benefit a DePaul degree has to offer."

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