Sports Essay: Six Years Later, Was Joining the Big East the Right Move for the DePaul Athletic Department?

Allstate Arena Photo/WikiMedia Commons

Some observers think that Allstate Arena, where the DePaul men's basketball team plays its home games, has prevented the school from becoming a Big East contender. Many think an on-campus arena would attract better recruits and possibly students.  (Photo courtesy WikiMedia Commons)

Fullerton Stop IconAnalysis by Sean McDonough
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, March 12, 2012

When DePaul University left Conference USA for the Big East in 2005-06, the move was generally understood by those who follow sports as a motive aimed to reestablish credibility to DePaul’s sports program, specifically its once-proud men’s basketball program. And since the Big East has historically been prominent in basketball, it seemed like a perfect fit.

But since its exodus from the now-evaporating Conference USA, DePaul men’s basketball has amassed a 25-97 conference record (a .205 win-percentage) in its six years in the Big East. Although DePaul has struggled mightily in with its premier sport since the move, DePaul’s move to the Big East in 2005-06 was certainly in the best interest of the athletic department as a whole, and for the university in general because of major benefits that stem from membership in a major conference, including increased media exposure and association with other member schools who excel in athletics and academics.

Currently, DePaul’s presence in the Big East isn’t entirely beneficial, and the institution and the conference are equally blameworthy.

Arena Issues
First, the fact that DePaul’s premier conference sport, men’s basketball, plays at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., an inconvenient location so far off campus that it diminishes student fan support and, some experts say, deny the university a strong recruiting point with both student-athletes and the student body -- an on-campus arena.

Additionally, recent Big East expansion, which appears both random and odd considering the newly chosen school’s academic and athletic reputations as well as their proximity to other Big East schools diminishes the value of affiliation with member schools the Big East once had, thus providing room for argument that the Big East is now an average conference and no longer the athletic and academic powerhouse it once was.

Big East LogoAt its inception in 1979 the Big East was a Northeast-centric conference. Every founding member was an institution located nearby that region: Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College. A year later, Villanova joined, followed by Pittsburgh in 1982. Since that time, the conference has undergone many facelifts. Some schools, like Boston College, have since left, while many others, such as Rutgers, and Notre Dame as a non-football school, joined. Other schools, like Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech, have joined and left within that time span.

The biggest change to the Big East has been the reinvention of itself from a Northeast-centered conference to one that is more national. In 2005-06, for instance, the conference added schools from the south and mid-west: Louisville, South Florida, Cincinnati, Marquette, and of course, DePaul.

Recently, the Big East announced it will expand again in a move that will make the conference the largest in the country. Incoming schools include the Universities of Memphis, Houston, Central Florida and Southern Methodist University as all-sport members. Additionally, Boise State, and San Diego State will join as football-only schools.

Moreover, the U.S Naval Academy has accepted a football-only invitation and will join the conference in 2015. Temple was the most recent school announced to be added to the conference, and will do so as a football-only member starting in 2012, moving to an all-sport member in 2013. The expansion schools will replace Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which will both join the ACC; along with West Virginia which reached a settlement with the conference to leave for the Big 12 in July.

Dating back to its first expansion the growth of the Big East can be traced by its desire to ground itself into as many major media markets as possible. Including the recently announced expansion, the conference will have its footprint in the following major-city media markets: Chicago (DePaul), New York (St. John’s, Seton Hall), Washington D.C., (Georgetown), Philadelphia (Villanova, Temple), Hartford (Connecticut), Providence/Boston area, Louisville, Memphis, Houston, Cincinnati, Dallas/Fort Worth (SMU), San Diego (SDSU), Milwaukee (Marquette), Boise and much of Florida (UCF, USF).

Ponsetto PhotoThe conference’s desire to add DePaul and the Chicago market was a major factor in the conference extending their invitation to DePaul in the mid-2000s, according to DePaul University Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto (right).

“I think we were an easy selection for the conference, being the number-three market in the country,” she said.

But Ponsetto went on to emphasize that the ability for DePaul to play in a variety of different media markets is a huge attraction for the school and a great benefit to being a member of the Big East.

“Playing in so many media markets across the country gives DePaul the opportunity to tell our story. It’s a big allure for us to have people learn about that nationally,” says Ponsetto.

Although she does not want to see Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia leave, Ponsetto eyes the upcoming expansion with optimism, mainly due to the opportunity for visibility across the nation, but also because of the conference’s past track record with expansion, to which she points out, “Every time the conference has gotten better (after expanding).”

Ponsetto is also content with DePaul’s current standing within the conference, citing the strong reputations of other Big East members as one of the biggest advantages to the conference.

“We have the opportunity to line up with Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, and St. John’s. These are schools that pride themselves on strong academics. Philosophically, it’s a good opportunity to have access to that type of profile,” she said.

Conference Marketing Opportunities
Dr. Richard Rocco (right), a marketing professor at DePaul University, also lauds the conference expansion and characterizes the move as “a natural flux of all conferences changing and looking for other opportunities.”Richard Rocco Photo (DePaul University)

Rocco sees the expansion as having a positive result from DePaul’s perspective in trying to attract future students from places across the county.

“In collegiate athletics, strong brands and increased exposure is one indicator students look for as part of their decision,” he said.

From a conference-expansion perspective, Rocco views the Big East expansion as a move to try to catch up to standards in football, where other conferences like the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC hold an advantage over the Big East.

“The football aspect appears to be the core driver and basketball seems to follow,” he said.

The Big East certainly has incentive to try to gain more of a presence in the football market. Football is arguably the most popular sport in the country and has the potential to yield excessively high numbers in revenue from TV contracts.

When looking at some of the schools the Big East has added, it certainly is apparent that the conference had an eye on football when deciding which institutions to extend invitations to. Boise State, for example has established itself as a major player in the Bowl Championship Series, despite not having an affiliation with a BCS conference.

From a purely sports point of the view, it would seem both sides would benefit from Boise State’s presence in the conference. The Broncos would finally get the respect from the BCS which it has lacked in the in the past while the Big East adds a successful football program to replace the void to be felt without Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia.

Big East's Identity Issues
The Big East has received its fair share of criticism by adding teams that don’t quite fit the identity it has built over parts of the past three decades. Two major critiques abound in this regard: that some of the new schools aren’t on par academically with current conference members; and that the location of many new schools jeopardizes the brand identity of the conference.

The NCAA measures schools on retention and graduation using a statistic called the academic progress rate, or 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% graduation rate) are penalized by the NCAA with the loss of scholarships. A perfect score is 1000. The most recent data the NCAA provides concerning APR is from the 2009-10 season.

DePaul Blue Demons LogoSoon-departing West Virginia was second in conference for 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 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 in Big East APR (UConn’s 893 APR score was last).

The newly added football-only schools fared relatively better than the basketball schools. For instance, Boise and Navy achieved a 981 and 978, respectively in 2009-10 football APR. On the other hand, San Diego State had a lower score of 934.  

In comparing incoming schools to current conference members it is apparent that the new schools land near the middle-to-bottom of the conference in terms of retaining and graduating students.

The APR scores of new schools by any means don’t indicate that the conference will be beginning to free fall academically. But on the other hand, they also don’t suggest that the conference gained much academically, which only strengthens the critique that the Big East expanded to stay on or close to par with other expanding conferences. In this round of expansion, it looks as if the conference was more interested in adding noteworthy athletic programs rather than improving the academic standards of the conference.  

Some incoming schools also enter the conference with baggage. SMU’s football program, for instance was given the “death penalty” by the NCAA when it was discovered multiple times that members of their football team were given improper benefits from boosters. The findings were so severe that the NCAA, in an unprecedented move, cancelled the program’s entire 1987 season. The next year, SMU decided to sit out the 1988 season as well after determining that they would not be able to field an adequate team. 

Boise State recently received infractions resulting in the loss of three scholarships per season throughout the next three seasons. Yet, in addition to Boise and SMU, current Big East schools have also been hit hard with NCAA infractions. Defending NCAA men’s basketball champions, UConn was also hit with the loss of scholarships and head coach, Jim Calhoun was suspended for multiple conference games this season.

Moreover, in addition to the Bernie Fine scandal, Syracuse recently announced self-reported incidents pertaining to masking drug use among its players.  Granted, NCAA infractions have become commonplace in recent years with what seems at least one team in every major conference facing NCAA discipline. However, conferences ought to be trying to clean their images rather than further muddy them by bringing in schools whose athletic integrity has been questioned and disciplined.

In addition to unsubstantial academic additions to the conference, the Big East may end up jeopardizing its brand identity by adding a selection of schools that don’t align with what many perceive the profile of the conference to represent. The title of the conference suggests that it would be grounded on the East Coast.

Although this may have been the case in the early years of the conference it certainly is not anymore. The conference began straying from its own identity in 2005-06 with its last round of expansion by adding mid-west and southern schools. Now, the Big East stretches across the nation from Providence to San Diego. The name, itself, has lost all connotation and prestige it formerly had because it is no longer indicative of the member teams.

Kalsbeek Photo

Dr. David H. Kalsbeek (left), senior vice president of DePaul University Enrollment Management and Marketing, said there is no explicit evidence to suggest that DePaul’s affiliation with the Big East has significantly increased the number of applications the university receives each year.

According to Kalsbeek, “The long term effect comes if you’re a perennial contender.” And since DePaul is no longer the perennial contender like it was in the 1980s, there is little to suggest that DePaul’s Big East affiliation is driving applications. Kalsbeek went on to point out, “The single biggest year with the highest amount of applications (at DePaul) was when we went winless (in 2008-09 Big East play).” This stat, according to Kalsbeek, reinforces the idea that Chicago, the city itself, is more of a driving force for applicants to apply than athletics.

Moreover, Dr. Kalsbeek opines that DePaul’s application numbers won’t see a noticeable increase as a result of its Big East affiliation until the university reaches the point where they are able to enjoy year-to-year success in addition to committing to playing in an arena closer to campus.

“If there is ever going to be an appreciable impact on enrollment at DePaul (stemming from Big East membership), for it really to be a driver, it won’t be until we play on campus,” Kalsbeek said. “Until you’re at a position where [athletics] is having an impact on campus décor and affinity  . . . and until it’s conveyed on TV, it’s going to be negligible.”

In other words, DePaul won’t be able to realistically expect its men’s basketball program, despite its Big East membership, to significantly increase their enrollment or application numbers unless university administration is able to create the type of environment perennial contenders have at their arenas, an idea that shouldn’t be viewed as unrealistic. DePaul could one day reach this point if the university ever realizes how badly students crave a basketball arena that is at least somewhat nearby campus. The Big East competition alone would be incentive enough to attract students to games if it wasn’t such a taxing commute.

DePaul Women's Team Has Campus Presence
Currently, DePaul men’s basketball plays its home games at the Allstate Arena, which is located in a Chicago suburb 17 miles from DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. DePaul does offer free shuttles to and from the Allstate Arena, but many students remain reluctant to attend because the quality of basketball DePaul offers is not enough to convince students to sacrifice an entire night only to see their team blown out by fellow Big East foes.

If a student takes the bus, they are essentially tethered to it because it’s their only mode of transportation back to campus. Buses only leave after the game has ended. Therefore, students are restricted from leaving early if the score gets out of hand.  

DePaul will continue getting a handful of games broadcast each season on national networks like ESPN. And this is thanks to the Big East. The conference tournament alone guarantees at least one national game a year, plus more if the team advances.

This is also true for the women’s team, which, unlike the men, has become a perennial contender under the leadership of the man whose DePaul’s on-campus court at McGrath-Phillips arena is named for: Doug Bruno. Bruno has made the Lady Demons perpetual visitors at the NCAA Women’s tournament.

Last season, the team made it to the Sweet 16 and finished the season with a top-10 ranking. Unfortunately for Bruno and his players, the women’s game continues to get outshined by the men. But the men could learn a thing or two from their counterparts.

By getting to the national tournament and wining one or two rounds, the affect could start a movement similar to what Kalsbeek outlined earlier because the women’s program has succeeded in almost everywhere the men have faltered. The Lady Demons are: local because they play on campus at McGrath-Phillips Arena; successful, having reached nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (and expect to make it 10-straight on Monday); followed by a solid fan base; and is led by a coaching staff that is the epitome of stability, having been coached by the legendary Doug Bruno who is in his 24th season as head coach.

In closing, DePaul’s affiliation with the Big East conference has been primarily positive. The relationship DePaul has with the conference enables the school to increase its visibility and marketability throughout the nation by appearing in various major markets across the U.S. Their affiliation is also beneficial because it gives DePaul the opportunity to be mentioned in the same breath as academic elites such as Georgetown, Notre Dame and Villanova.

But these connotations are mostly superficial and don’t yield any measurable effect as to whether or not the school benefits financially or in the application and enrollment sector.

This could all change if DePaul stops using its identity as an urban school as an excuse for not having the means to construct a near-campus arena for its main sport. 

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