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Thursday, May 15, 2008

U of M denies Big East negotiations

U of M denies Big East negotiations
But Tigers 'positioned' to switch leagues
By Phil Stukenborg
May 15, 2008

University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said Thursday he has not entered into any discussions with representatives of the Big East Conference regarding Memphis as a possible expansion target.

While Johnson has said the Tiger athletic program, a member of Conference USA, continues to make itself an attractive option for a Bowl Championship Series conference, there have been no meetings with the Big East.

‘‘No, absolutely not,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘I have had no meetings with the Big East.’’

Johnson was reached by phone at the C-USA spring meetings in Destin, Fla., where league commissioner Britton Banowsky, other league officials, coaches and administrators congregate annually in mid-May to discuss league matters.

‘‘In fact, Britton called me because he got a call about it,’’ Johnson said, regarding a WHBQ-TV report Wednesday that the UofM had entered serious discussions with the Big East. ‘‘We stepped out of our meeting.’’

When reached Thursday in Rhode Island, John Paquette, a Big East spokesman, said he had seen the television report on the Internet. The Big East has 16 teams, eight of which play football.

“We have no expansion plans and are speaking to no schools about expansion,” Paquette said.

Johnson also said no representatives of the university had entered into discussions with the Big East about the UofM being an expansion candidate.

Johnson said he has routinely kept Banowsky informed of the UofM’s interest in upgrading its program. Eventually, the Tigers — charter members when C-USA formed in 1996 — would like to land in a BCS league, which brings added prestige, lucrative bowl games, higher annual revenue distributions and a better opportunity to play for a national football championship.

‘‘The best thing for us is I’ve been involved with the management council and the presidents on the NCAA board,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘We have an incredible amount of interaction with athletic directors and presidents of other schools and other conferences. We’ve kept that pipeline open.’’

Since former C-USA members Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida departed for the Big East after the 2004 season, the Tigers have, according to Johnson, continued to make themselves more attractive.

The men’s basketball team has made repeated deep runs in the NCAA tournament, including playing for the national title last month against Kansas. The football team, which went to bowl games after the 2003 and ’04 seasons, earned bowl trips in 2005 and ’07, as well.

‘‘To win in basketball — plus the four bowl games — really (boosted) our visibility,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘I don’t know when something will happen, but I think something will happen. And I think we’ve really positioned ourselves.

‘‘We’ve got incredible coaches, our academics have really improved, our sports successes have really improved. And making this run to the Final Four ... we’ve really got ourselves positioned.’’

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