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BIG 4 SCHOOLS CAST WARY EYES ON CONFERENCE METAMORPHOSIS

For now, at least, no one has changed addresses.

Miami, Syracuse and Boston College have not bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East still exists largely in the same form as it was upon its formation in 1979.

All indications are, however, that things could change by the end of June. If and when that trio leaves to create a superpower 12-team ACC, the ripple effects will dramatically alter the face of college athletics.

Western New York's Division I schools are keeping a wary eye on the situation. There will be some trickle-down impact, especially at St. Bonaventure because the Atlantic 10 could be the league most affected by shifting in the Big East.

"There are so many people playing what-ifs," said Bona Athletics Director Paul Grys. "You and I could probably come up with 100 scenarios. I sat down with the spreadsheet and I was scratching my head in a half hour. There's no easy answer. It's all over the ballpark."

Here's a look at how the changing landscape of conferences could affect the area schools:

St. Bonaventure

The Bonnies' membership in the Atlantic 10 in the wake of their academic scandal was reaffirmed by conference presidents in April. The A-10's resolve to maintain a strong membership was the key component of this week's athletics directors meetings in Amelia Island, Fla.

Bona intends to ride out any change in the conference's makeup and is not looking elsewhere.

"St. Bonaventure is completely committed to the Atlantic 10," Grys said upon his return from Florida. "We believe the A-10 has a bright future. We also believe St. Bonaventure is good for the A-10. We are a traditional rival for most of the schools and we bring Buffalo, Rochester, the whole Western New York media market to the table.

"If I had to summarize what I think the A-10 people feel, they see the league just like St. Bonaventure does -- as a premier conference. We agree the landscape in intercollegiate athletics is changing. But if those changes take place, we'll look aggressively at institutions that are elite basketball schools to join us."

The A-10's profile is likely to take quite a hit in the short term, however, if the Big East shake-up occurs. Temple and UMass both might join the new-look Big East. Xavier, Dayton and Saint Joseph's would be candidates to join a proposed league of Catholic schools that would include the Big East's non-football schools (Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, Seton Hall and Providence).

A-10 Commissioner Linda Bruno issued a strong statement this week that the conference will pursue others even if the conference loses its marquee names.

"Members agree that should the landscape of intercollegiate athletics change, the conference will aggressively pursue adding institutions with outstanding basketball programs in order to maintain the high national stature the Atlantic 10 enjoys," Bruno said.

"We are all pleased with the productivity of our meetings. We had frank discussions about the collegiate athletics landscape. . . . The spirit of cooperation and collegiality was gratifying."

Schools targeted, according to sources, for the A-10 include Butler, an NCAA Sweet 16 team last season; Charlotte, Detroit and Boston University. All of them have made multiple NCAA Tournament trips in the last 10 years.

"We're all pretty happy where we're at," Grys said. "It's a premier league and conference. Linda's comments are very proactive and we'll maintain that stance as we go forward."

University at Buffalo

The Mid-American Conference doesn't appear as if it will undergo major changes at this point.

Because it's in Orlando, Central Florida is getting some mention as a potential big-market target down the road for a new-look Big East. Marshall's top-notch football program makes it an attractive target for Conference USA and perhaps the Big East, although arch rival West Virginia would likely be opposed to that move.

UB, meanwhile, is taking the public stance that it must first be able to compete in the MAC before striving to move any higher. At first glance, it seems the potential departure of Syracuse could open a media market hole in New York State that UB could easily fill.

UB, however, does not nearly have the budgetary commitment or fund-raising ability for Big East membership at this time. Nor does it have the on-field success to make it an attractive addition. The school has played Division I-A football for only five years and is coming off a 1-11 season. It's had only middling success in basketball since upgrading to Division I in 1991 and has not been over .500 since joining the MAC in 1998.

"Clearly our focus has to be growing our program in the Mid-American Conference," said Bill Maher, UB's interim athletics director. "Any eventuality that comes from shake-ups is something every school across the country has to look at."

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese has said the conference has not pursued any potential new members, choosing instead its fight to keep Miami, Syracuse and BC. Maher added that UB has not been involved with the conference in any way.

"There have been no discussions from the Big East to us or from us to the Big East," Maher said.

"We have to figure out what is in the best interest of the university and as you're seeing with the ACC and the Big East, those decisions are much larger than an athletic department decision. That's an overall university decision and one that would be done after careful consideration."

In coming years, UB must continue to step up fund-raising efforts and find new sources of revenue. Of course, that process will be made much easier when victories start coming on the football field and basketball court.

"With the domino effect that's going to take place, we want to ready ourselves for that eventuality somewhere down the line, and who knows when that might be?" said Andy Hurley, UB's director of athletics development. "We want to be ripe for the picking. We want to be an attractive acquisition target for a major conference so our ability to fund a program is eased for all."

Niagara/Canisius

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has been one of the nation's most stable leagues in recent years. No school has left since 1992 and there have been no additions since Marist and Rider joined in 1998.

"What's going on right now is certainly something you keep your eye on as a conference and as an institution," Niagara Athletics Director Mike Hermann said. "But one of the strengths of our league is how homogeneous we are. The similarities will be a strong bond that will help us make decisions."

The A-10 is not expected to have any interest in Niagara or Canisius because its current targets have had much more success in basketball in recent years.

There has been some speculation that the A-10 might covet Siena because of its following in the Albany area and its large fan and media support. But while the Saints would certainly be capable of competing in basketball, a move to the A-10 would probably be cost-prohibitive in other sports.

The same problem would apply for Niagara or Canisius. A men's soccer team going on a road trip to, say, George Washington and Richmond would be much more costly than one headed to locales such as Marist and Manhattan.

"The commitment at that level is very significant in terms of travel and other things for your Olympic sports," Hermann said. "I thought about that regarding Syracuse and started to think about their sports in the Big East. It would make sense for people like Virginia Tech and Miami (to be in the ACC). The others? They have to evaluate it to see if it makes sense for them."

Canisius Athletics Director Tim Dillon, who has been out of town, could not be reached for comment but the Griffs are known to be staunch supporters of the MAAC.

Canisius and Niagara both entered the conference in 1989 after spending eight years in the North Atlantic Conference, a grouping of large Northeast public universities that became the America East. The MAAC is much more to their liking because it's a collection of small private schools, most in large media markets.

News Sports Reporter Rodney McKissic contributed to this report.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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