Marinatto easy to target for Big East woes, but he's hardly alone

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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John Marinatto brought TCU to the Big East, then watched it leave for the Big 12. (AP)  
John Marinatto brought TCU to the Big East, then watched it leave for the Big 12. (AP)  

Go ahead and blame John Marinatto. Blame him for the Big East's instability and all the league's defections.

While you're at it, blame him for high gas prices, unemployment and even the torn ACLs recently suffered by Derrick Rose and Mariano Rivera. It's all Marinatto's fault. Everything that has gone wrong in the world since he took over as the Big East's commissioner on July 1, 2009 can be directly linked back to Marinatto.

On Monday, Marinatto resigned as the Big East's commissioner. I don't have the exact figures, but I'd guess about 99 percent of the college sports fans on Twitter wondered why Marinatto hadn't been fired months earlier. And that's sad. Because Marinatto is not solely to blame for the Big East losing four schools since he became commissioner. The league's presidents are the ones that bumbled and stumbled so that their league became more of a punch line than a BCS conference. The same Big East presidents that make up the league's board of directors that asked Marinatto to resign on Sunday.

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After Marinatto replaced Mike Tranghese, he was doomed. It was only a matter of time. He was set up to fail by the league's presidents because they handcuffed his ability to make any relevant changes.

"He was the human pin cushion," a league source said. "Nobody in the world could have made this work. Look at the things he was dealt."

With conference realignment sweeping the country, Marinatto still was able to convince TCU in November of 2010 to join the Big East, to help bolster an inconsistent football league. People mocked a Texas team joining the Big East, but it gave the league a solid football addition. That would have given the Big East nine football members in 2012. There was even speculation the Big East might be able to attract an ACC school to join the Big East, which was in the midst of negotiating a huge upcoming media rights deal.

"At that point when the Big East was intact, the only school the Big East could have legitimately added that made sense was UCF," an industry source said. "Maryland and Boston College? They wouldn't even return the Big East's calls. But the Big East couldn't add UCF because [South Florida president] Judy Genshaft kept shooting down UCF."

Genshaft's continuing insistence to block UCF from the league was a huge contributing factor which ultimately led to the league's current instability, a league source said. That's because in April of 2011, with TCU on board, Marinatto and the league negotiated a nine-year deal worth $1.4 billion for its new media rights deal. Marinatto recommended to his presidents that they accept the offer and they promptly voted against it.

"I think that was the stupidest decision ever made [to turn it down] in college athletics," a league source said. "To have the equity of ESPN as your brand and the stability that would have gone with it."

Five months after the league's presidents turned down $1.4 billion on the night of Sept. 16, 2011, I reported that Syracuse and Pittsburgh were leaving the Big East for the ACC. I tried to contact Marinatto for a quote. I never reached Marinatto that night, but a few weeks later I was told Marinatto first learned Syracuse and Pittsburgh were leaving for the ACC from me. The obvious reaction is how much in the dark he must have been, but the fact was no one at any Big East school or Big East employee knew Syracuse and Pittsburgh were leaving until CBSSports.com reported it.

That's how badly Syracuse and Pittsburgh wanted to leave -- and to what lengths they kept it secret from the other league institutions. "If the TV deal was accepted and UCF had been added [as a 10th football member], who knows if Pitt and Syracuse ever leave," an industry source said.

"Everyone left because of stability and right there was your stability with that TV deal." A month after Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced they were leaving, Marinatto -- to help stabilize the league -- recommended on Oct. 2 to the league's presidents that the Big East should increase its exit fee from $5 million to $12 million-$15 million, according to documents obtained by CBSSports.com.

And surprise, surprise: the league's presidents refused to increase the exit fee. Four days later, TCU announced it was headed to the Big 12 and two weeks after that, West Virginia announced it was leaving for the Big 12. Because the Mountaineers didn't provide 27 months notice, as required, Marinatto and the Big East reached a $20 million settlement -- not bad, considering the Big 12 only received a combined $24.8 million in exit fees from Missouri and Texas A&M to go to the SEC. But still, West Virginia was on its way out. Marinatto, again, took all the blame.

With Pittsburgh, Syracuse, TCU and West Virginia leaving, the league's board of directors allowed Marinatto to bring in new members: Boise State, Houston, SMU and, yes, UCF. He also added Temple, San Diego State, Memphis and Navy and nearly had BYU on board, until the Cougars did a 180, changing their position on home television rights literally at the last minute. Some of the criticism about Marinatto -- most critics called him "Meatball Marinatto" behind his back -- was that he wasn't a "strong leader." Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, I would argue, was one of the strongest leaders and best commissioners in college athletics. Yet in 2003, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech left Tranghese and the Big East for the ACC.

Tranghese said he had all but given up on the Big East surviving and was figuring out how to the dissolve the league when Marinatto, then an associate commissioner, walked into his office. Marinatto had devised a plan for a 16-team league that ultimately kept the conference from folding.

"John Marinatto did the work and did the plan," Tranghese told the New York Times. "John is the hardest worker I've known."

In the coming weeks or months, a new commissioner will take over with plenty of hard work ahead. The Big East's spring meetings are in two weeks and there are concerns -- some real and some imagined -- that Boise State and San Diego State may reconsider joining the league. Also with the AQ and non-AQ labels gone in 2014, when the new BCS playoff format is determined, will the Big East still receive AQ type revenue or non-AQ revenue or something in between? More critical, is that league's negotiations for its new media rights deal begin in September.

It's not an understatement to suggest these could determine the league's long-term future. But Marinatto won't be there to kick around anymore. Marinatto is a former choir boy, but for the past 34 months has been a living hell. I saw him in Hollywood, Fla., a couple of weeks ago at the BCS meetings. He looked and sounded like he hadn't been sleeping more than four hours a day for the past year.

When Marinatto was first hired as commissioner in 2009, I joked with him that he was "too nice" to be a commissioner. He was too honest, never lied and wasn't conniving enough. He told me a few months ago, he didn't know who he could trust anymore. Leaders at the league's schools, who he fought for and acted like they were friends of his, were the ones complaining the loudest and pushing for his ouster behind the scenes.

"This job was his life," a league source said. "He doesn't have a life. But people were always behind his back spitting him up and chewing him out. "He took this job and did it all for the right reasons. But I guess it is true: good guys really do finish last."

So go ahead and blame John Marinatto for all the Big East's problems. But don't bother congratulating the Big East presidents for Marinatto's exit. They're already busy doing that.

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