Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson says the school’s first priority would be to join the Southeastern Conference — not the Big East.
“Quite honestly, the truth of the matter is the lifelong dream of Memphis is to get in the SEC,” Johnson said Thursday in a phone interview. “We’re surrounded by SEC country. When Arkansas got in Memphis thought they were going to get in.”
Johnson hired former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese on a six-month basis and gave him one overwhelming mandate.
“I told him, ‘It’s simple. There are six BCS conferences. Get us in one,'” Johnson said.
Memphis has been a member of Conference USA since the mid-1990s.
Tranghese, in an interview on Wednesday, said he couldn’t pull such a move off singlehandedly.
“I can’t get people into conferences. That’s not what I do,” Tranghese said.
The SEC currently has 12 teams and would need to add teams in order for Memphis to join.
“They would have to expand and I don’t see that happening,” Johnson said. “We’re right in the middle of the SEC country and we would hope someday that that would happen. That would always be our first choice. We would just really like to get in a BCS conference.”
Joining a BCS conference enables greater payouts from TV and bowl games, as well as enhanced recruiting opportunities.
“Money,” Johnson said. “Money and the image of recruiting. Truthfully, we think our program is better than about half the BCS programs. But not being BCS there’s always that stigma. Even when we were in the Final Four — basketball has nothing to do with BCS –they talked about us being a non-BCS school. And our coaches, they fight that all the time.”
Because Tranghese was associated with the Big East for three decades and was Commissioner for 19 years until stepping down at the end of June, speculation is running high that Johnson wants Tranghese to get Memphis in the Big East.
“Because Mike has been there, that’s the natural inclination. That’s not necessarily the case. I was at Temple before I came here and at that time Temple was in the Big East and that’s where I knew Mike. And we’ve been good friends all along. And he’s so highly thought of,” Johnson said. “We had him come here and analyze our situation and help prepare us.”
Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida joined the Big East in 2004 and Memphis still has strong regional rivalries with the Cardinals and Bearcats.
“Our fan base still relates strongly to Cincinnati and Louisville because that was such a huge rivalry,” Johnson said.
The Big East currently has 16 basketball teams and would likely have to kick somebody out — DePaul didn’t win a single conference game last season — in order for Memphis to join.
“I think so, to be realistically,” Johnson said of the Big East needing to lose a basketball team.
As for football, the Big East currently has eight teams, which creates an unbalanced situation where teams play either three or four league home games per season.
“From the football standpoint, it’s a little awkward on their scheduling because they have seven conference games and ideally you’d like to have a minimum of eight,” Johnson said. “So that’s one of the things that we would hope would be in our favor.”
Johnson said the Big 10 and Pac-10 could also be options if a spot were to open up.
“Our hope is that the Big 10 does something down the road, or the Pac-10, so that there’s a domino effect and then maybe can something where we can get in,” Johnson said.
The Big 10, which actually has 11 teams, could potentially add a 12th team. Rutgers and Notre Dame have both been the subject of numerous rumors.
“I’ve heard all sorts of rumblings,” Johnson said. “Their first choice would certainly be Notre Dame. But I keep hearing that Notre Dame may not be interested. I hear that they might try to get somebody from the East Coast.”
If Rutgers were to leave the Big East for the Big 10, that could potentially open up a spot but that doesn’t seem imminent.
“I’ve talked to some of the Big 10 athletic directors and we’re warmer,” Johnson said. “But I think it’s probably a little bit of a reach. But the truth of the matter is, we’re not too far away. And in this day and age, that doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Conferences are all over the place.”
On the Pac-10, Johnson said: “We’d go to the Pac-10 if they’d invite us. It’s that big of a deal.”
Johnson believes Tranghese can help get Memphis into any BCS conference, not just the Big East.
“I think he can get through any door,” Johnson said. “I really believe that. He’s so highly thought of, I think he can do that. And I think everybody would listen to what Mike has to say.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.