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BIG EAST LOOKING FOR A KEY TO LOCK IN MIAMI

Mike Tranghese's first significant act as Big East commissioner in 1991 was to form a football league. His last act might be trying to save the conference.

It won't be easy.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has targeted three Big East schools, with Miami at the forefront, in an effort to expand to 12 teams -- a move that would drastically alter the Big East and quite possibly the rest of college football.

The Big East's annual meetings begin Saturday in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and the first priority will be to hear counteroffers to the ACC's expansion proposal.

"This is all about Miami," Tranghese said Thursday. "If Miami goes, people are going to go. If Miami stays, we'll stay intact. As I have said, Miami is the jewel in all of this. What I'm trying to do is preserve the current structure."

The Big East is prepared to reorganize the conference's makeup and its revenue distribution package, several league officials said. But will anything be enough to keep the Hurricanes from jumping to the more financially lucrative ACC and taking Syracuse and Boston College with them?

"It behooves all of us to do what we can to keep the current Big East as it is," Virginia Tech Athletics Director Jim Weaver said.

Still, Weaver is working to get the Hokies included if ACC expansion happens. Most reports suggest the Hokies would be left out. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner has been trying to build support for the Hokies, but any influence he has on the matter likely will be only marginal.

"Some of the teams don't necessarily want to go," Weaver said. "I think they go only if Miami goes because they think it's the best thing for them to survive."

The Big East could sever ties with its nonfootball members to create a league in which all eight teams play football and basketball. Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence and St. John's would be left to find or create a new conference.

The Big East might then try to add four schools to become a 12-team superconference, which would allow it to split into two divisions and add a moneymaking football title game. The Big East could try to raid Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and South Florida from Conference USA, or possibly court ACC powerhouse Florida State and/or Notre Dame to spearhead the expanded conference.

Landing Notre Dame might be too ambitious. A member of the Big East in basketball, the Fighting Irish are one of the few independents left in football. They have their own TV contract with NBC, a special deal to get into the BCS and what looks like a ton of leverage if they care to be wooed.

"They view their football independence as being very, very important," Tranghese said. "They've told us that from the start."

More important for the Big East is to keep Miami -- something that will depend largely on money. The ACC splits its television revenue more evenly than the Big East, makes more money from basketball and hopes to get a more lucrative television contract with a 12-team league.

The Big East will try to counter this weekend by changing its revenue distribution plan to more like the ACC and could increase bowl appearance fees and create other financial incentives to take care of Miami. That might mean less money for some other schools, but the conference would survive.

Without Miami, Syracuse and Boston College, Big East football would suffer considerably -- and may be headed for the same fate as the Southwest Conference, which disbanded in 1995 after its top teams left to form the Big 12.

If the Big East fails to remain intact, the Bowl Championship Series would pull its automatic berth -- and $13 million in guaranteed revenue. That would leave the remaining Big East teams scrambling to find new homes.

Pittsburgh probably would try to join the Big Ten, leaving the conference with Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple and two options: dissolve football entirely or try to rebuild by luring other schools from around the country.

Connecticut might be the Big East's biggest loser in the move. The Huskies, who already have strong basketball programs, are set to replace Temple in the Big East in 2005. The university switched to Division I-A last season, built a $90 million stadium and have watched season-ticket sales slow since talks of ACC expansion -- and possibly Big East elimination -- began.

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