The official announcement of the worst-kept secret in college sports happened March 20: Xavier is leaving the Atlantic 10 Conference and joining a newly restructured Big East. Talk of the change was a shadow story throughout much of the past year, and making the announcement official was not only a relief, it formally moved Xavier to the place it has been aiming at for the last 30 years—the national stage.
Xavier’s elevation into one of the most dominant basketball conferences in the country was met with a packed Cintas Center conference room and a great deal of pride among Musketeer alumni and fans. But what was lost in the announcement was the fact that the move into national prominence wasn’t an overnight event. Rather, it was the culmination of a well-planned, concerted effort that was decades in the making, starting back even before Xavier entered the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1979.
There were little steps along the way—ditching the “Xavier of Ohio” tag, ignoring the “mid-major” label, teaching people that it’s not pronounced “Ex-avier.” There were big steps as well—moving from Schmidt Fieldhouse to the Cincinnati Gardens, joining the A-10, building the Cintas Center. But like walking up a flight of stairs, each step elevated the University until it has now reached what could arguably be considered the top flight.
The question remains, though: Now what? The new Big East is in some ways an experiment in athletic dynamics. It’s now the nation’s only non-football, basketball-centered power conference. It’s also made up of nine Catholic schools and one private school. What does all that mean in terms of national interest? In terms of television revenue? In terms of quality?
• New athletic director Greg Christopher shares his views on Xavier joining the Big East.
• The competition: A listing of Big East schools and how Xavier compares.
• A video of Xavier sports highlights from the past three decades.
In some ways, the creation of the conference is a relief to the plethora of conference realignments driven by television exposure and revenue that have been taking place over the last five or six years. Its creation wasn’t spawned from a drive for more money and power, but from a protest against that.
The old Big East was crumbling from the inside out as its football and non-football schools (informally known as the Catholic Seven) engaged in an internal tug-of-war. By rejecting the idea that football comes first and breaking away on their own, the Catholic Seven not only found relief from the stress of financial inequality, but they found freedom as well—freedom to play for reasons other than commercialism.
“In a mercenary college athletics world drunk on dollars and disdainful of both common sense and the common fan,” Yahoo sports columnist Pat Forde wrote, “it’s nice to see one group declare that something else matters more. Identity matters more. Equality matters more.“
Arguably, so might mission. With all of the schools except Butler being Catholic, it offers the opportunity for subtle preaching of values and service through its on- and off-the-field actions. Before the first game has even been played, the new league can already boast about one record that most other conferences can’t—academic success. All of the new Big East schools have an NCAA graduation rate of at least 90 percent, with the exception of Butler, which is at 83 percent. Xavier’s 97 percent graduation rate is the best.
David Gibson, a writer with the Religious News Service, even posed the question, “Can a Catholic hoops conference save college sports?” By “the conference’s breaking away in protest,” he wrote, “the schools are offering a corrective example to the way big-money programs, especially in football, are driving (some would say warping) amateur sports.”
It’s a lot of added pressure—being able to compete at the highest level while not engaging in the kind of athletic and moral malfeasance that has dominated sports headlines of late. Still, it could set a benchmark other conferences may be challenged to meet.
Whatever ripple effects the league might have externally, joining the conference will certainly have a ripple effect internally for Xavier. Its effects will be felt in the admissions office and classrooms and bookstore as new audiences of potential students, fans and donors become exposed to Xavier and all it has to offer. What will that mean? Time will tell.
Time begins this fall.