Published Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 8:05 am
Lannon's lobbying helped make Creighton a Big East 'favorite' from the beginning

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NEW YORK — Creighton University's president doesn't normally pay attention to his cellphone when it rings and certainly not when he's in the middle of a meeting with his vice presidents and deans.

But the Rev. Timothy Lannon had a feeling something big was coming March 13 when the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, popped up on his phone's caller ID.

So Lannon ran out of the meeting to take the call.

The Rev. Timothy Lannon

“I've got some great news for you,” Holtschneider told him. “On behalf of the presidents, we'd like you to join the Big East.”

Wednesday, just one week later, Lannon and Holtschneider were in a Fox studio in midtown Manhattan alongside presidents of the eight other schools that will constitute the new-look Big East.

In addition to its new membership roster, the group announced a lucrative 12-year television contract with Fox Sports and the continuation of a partnership with Madison Square Garden, the “temple of basketball” that hosts the Big East conference tournament.

CU-Big East timeline

December 2012: The Rev. Timothy Lannon, Creighton University president, has conversations with several Big East school presidents, alerting them Creighton would be interested in joining the new conference.

January 2013: Lannon lobbies the other university presidents in earnest, making the case for inviting Creighton. The other presidents remain tight-lipped about where Creighton stands.

Feb. 27: Big East legal counsel informs Lannon that an invitation is possible.

March 4: Although an official invitation has yet to be extended, the Creighton Board of Trustees discusses the possibility in executive session during a regularly scheduled meeting. Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen walks the board through the challenges and opportunities involved.

March 7: The Board of Trustees' executive committee grants provisional authority to accept an invitation if extended.

March 13: Lannon receives a phone call from DePaul's president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, officially extending an invitation. Later in the day, the executive committee convenes a special meeting, grants authority to join the new conference.

March 15: Lannon calls Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin to inform him of the decision.

March 20: The Big East announces its new lineup featuring Creighton and nine other schools at a press conference in New York City.

Creighton's move from its traditional home in the Missouri Valley Conference was the result of months of lobbying by Lannon, as well as internal university discussions. Both Creighton and the Big East carefully weighed the pros and cons before ultimately deciding that the Jesuit school in Omaha would make a great fit in a conference that includes mostly Catholic, urban and academically accomplished schools.

Oh, and they all know a little something about big-time hoops as well. Five of the conference's 10 schools — including Creighton — are playing in this year's NCAA tournament.

“This is a match made in heaven,” a beaming Lannon said at the press conference.

The Rev. Brian Shanley, president of Providence College, praised Creighton's fan base, its venues and its record of athletic success in many sports.

“There's nothing not to like about Creighton, except it's a long trip from Providence to Creighton,” Shanley said. “But we're willing to make it because we think they're a perfect partner for the Big East.”

Joining the Big East will mean big changes for Creighton and its supporters: an enhanced national profile, a much bigger pot of television revenues and higher travel costs.

Creighton becomes a full member of the Big East on July 1. All sports will move to the new conference, and CU will receive a full share of Big East television revenues right off the bat.

Lannon declined to share details of the financial arrangements, although he said the move will be a net plus to Creighton's bottom line. The league will be showcased on a new Fox Sports 1 channel. A 12-year TV contract reportedly will pay schools at least $3 million per year. The university faces no exit fees for leaving the MVC.

It was not immediately clear what the school will do with all that extra revenue.

“There are always competing demands for limited resources,” Lannon said.

The school closely scrutinized two key issues: finances and the lost class time for its athletes.

Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen and his staff put together an analysis that showed swapping bus rides for air travel will not result in much additional lost class time, Lannon said.

After news of the move started to surface, Lannon said he received emails from a handful of faculty members and fans who were upset about abandoning “Arch Madness,” the annual Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis where the stands are typically dominated by Bluejay colors. Lannon said he hopes that many fans will make the trip to New York for the Big East tournament.

“I don't know if we'll have 6,500 fans migrate to New York City to the Garden for the tournament, but we've got loyal fans,” he said.

FANS REACT TO MOVE
See more of how fans (and some CU officials) reacted to the news.

Those fans might find getting into Madison Square Garden isn't easy. Those at Wednesday's press conference bragged about the high demand they expect for tickets.

“New York City is a destination place for everybody. Even Omaha people are going to come to New York City,” Shanley said. “They're going to love it.”

Lannon said the wheels began turning on Creighton's move late last fall, when he got a sense that change was in the air for college basketball. Moving to a power conference would enhance the school in many ways.

Conference realignment seemed inevitable, and Lannon started reaching out to some of the presidents of schools in the Big East.

“I contacted some of them and just said, 'Hey, we're very happy in the Missouri Valley but if there's an opportunity for a change I'd like to put our nose under the tent in terms of the conversation,'” he said.

BIG EAST ATHLETIC SPENDING
Click here to compare CU's athletic spending with other Big East schools.

More on the deal from Fox Sports.

Those informal conversations morphed into a determined lobbying effort as the Big East's plans took shape. Creighton faced some challenges — geographic location, TV market and commercial air travel.

But Lannon focused on the positives — the school's fan base, its top-notch venues and the success of its programs.

“I was trying to state our case to say, 'Hey, we'd be a very, very good candidate.'”

Lannon could lean on personal relationships as he made his pitch. He rattled off a partial list of schools whose presidents he knows well — DePaul, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette.

In fact, some reports indicated that Marquette played the role of advocate for Creighton, pushing to include it over some other schools that were candidates.

Marquette's president, the Rev. Scott Pilarz, described Lannon as one of his closest friends and pointed out they were both presidents in Pennsylvania at the same time — Lannon at St. Joseph's and Pilarz at the University of Scranton. But Pilarz downplayed any suggestion that Creighton was a tough sell to the rest of the conference.

BLUEJAYS TODAY ON FACEBOOK
Discuss the Big East move on the Bluejays Today Facebook page.

“I would always stick up for Creighton —- it's another Jesuit school,” Pilarz said. “But really Creighton was a favorite for all of us from the very beginning.”

Despite Lannon's ties to many of the other presidents, they all stayed tight-lipped throughout the process, he said.

“They never gave anything up at all, and so I really had no idea how we were faring,” Lannon said.

Then on Feb. 27, the Big East's legal counsel informed Lannon that an invitation was possible. The school's Board of Trustees discussed it on March 4, and Rasmussen walked the board through the challenges and opportunities posed by joining the new conference. On March 7, the board's executive committee gave a provisional green light to accept an invitation if it were offered.

The phone call with the official invitation came March 13, and the executive committee convened a special meeting and accepted the invitation.

Lannon called MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin a couple of days later to inform him of the decision. Creighton sent letters to all the other MVC schools on Wednesday, as soon as the official announcement was made.

The letters were full of appreciation, praise and best wishes. Lannon described the parting from the traditional conference as cordial.

“The saddest thing for me and a lot of us,” Lannon said, “is that's been home for us for a long time, and we've had great success, tremendous success.”

Contact the writer: 202-630-4823, joe.morton@owh.com, twitter.com/MortonOWH

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Reaction: Creighton joins the Big East



Contact the writer: Joseph Morton

joe.morton@owh.com    |  

Joe is The World-Herald's Washington, D.C., bureau, covering national political developments that matter most to Midlanders.

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