Editor’s note: This is the second of a two part series from our interview with Marquette Athletic Director Larry Williams. Be sure to check out Part I.
One of the biggest challenges remaining for Marquette and other Big East schools will be creating a non-conference schedule that makes up for the loss of teams like Louisville and Syracuse on a yearly basis. Marquette Athletic Director Larry Williams and his department are well aware of those challenges.
Asked if they had contacted Notre Dame or Louisville about continuing to play in the coming years Williams responded saying:
“Yes, yes, yes. In this new conference we’re going to have to be really thoughtful about what our non-conference RPI looks like and all such things. The non-conference becomes a key component to what we do. It isn’t an automatic that you get to bring in a Syracuse or a Louisville and some of the other great programs. We’ve been really thoughtful about what our non-con schedule looks like. We’ll try to make sure that it’s appropriately challenging for the particular year that we’re in. We’ve had a number of conversations with some of the elite programs in the country. We’re committed to playing at that level.
“A great thing about Buzz is that he’s not afraid to play anybody. That’s who he is. It’s great to be able to pick up the phone and say, absolutely we’ll play at your place, and then you’re going to play at our place. Not all coaches are like that. But Buzz isn’t afraid of anybody. “
As is the case with much of the details regarding the new conference, no games were set in stone as of April 11, but more and more of the information will be revealed as spring turns to summer.
What he could talk about was getting some background into what goes on behind the scenes during times like these. Running an athletic department is quite a feat in and of itself, but when you add building a conference to that equation, now that’s a tall order for any athletic director, particularly one as involved in the process Williams is.
“It really has been hectic. Quite a busy four months trying to get this new conference up and running,” Williams said. “That’s an additional additive to what our regular job is, trying to make sure that we run a great program and have as many engagement opportunities for our constituent base as possible. It basically feels like there are two jobs going on at once.”
The results speak for themselves. Williams has yet to see the basketball team lose at the Bradley Center in his tenure, the three main fall sports (men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball) all made the NCAA Tournament and the Big East signed a lucrative deal with FOX Sports, helping to subsidize the transfer and keep the conference nationally relevant.
“On the one side, I’m very pleased with how our program’s running, on the other side, I’m really excited about what we can do in this new platform,” Williams said.
That is not to say it has been easy, though. Scheduling time for meetings across different levels of administrators at 10 universities is no simple task. Those meetings and maintaining ongoing dialogue are crucial in the development stages, as important decision are made on a daily basis.
“Logistically, it’s really being able to make sure that the communication lines are open and appropriately utilized,” Williams noted. “It’s hard to schedule folks. You have presidents that are all very busy right now running around the world, literally around the world, and athletic directors who are trying to run athletic programs in the paramount sport that we’re in, basketball. Logistics have been the biggest challenge.”
Unlike much modern day organizing at the local level, the Big East does not have one giant Facebook group updating members on the minutiae of the moment and keeping everyone in constant communication. Much of the day-to-day business is handled over the phone.
“It’s typically via conference call. We all know what each other look like so we don’t have to video conference, but typically it’s most convenient to do conference calls,” Williams said. “There are a lot of one on one conversations as well. I’ve burned up all my monthly minutes on my cell phone package after the last six months or so. It typically is handled over the phone. We’ve had a couple in person meetings as well. Those are really helpful. There’s just such a dynamic when you get people in person that’s just not able to be replicated when you get somebody on the cell. “
Williams also noted he works with Marquette’s President, Father Pilarz and Deputy Athletic Director Mike Broeker on an almost daily basis as it pertains to the creation of the conference. These three main decision makers saw the changing landscape and did not want to put the university behind the magic eight ball of realignment, instead choosing to get in front of the times.
“It’s a matter of what’s in the best interest of Marquette. And the way we saw the landcape coming into focus, we didn’t that,” Williams said. “The future presented an opportunity that this university, this basketball program, this athletic program has given itself a right to claim. We wanted to make sure, just being thoughtful, that we looked at all potential future directions, and fortunately we’ve arrived at a spot that I think gives us a great opportunity.
“It was a bunch of discussions and deliberations, data crunching, trying to figure out what the best option might be. Fortunately, I think we all arrived at a pretty good spot. The old Big East, now the American Athletic Conference, is in a pretty good position themselves. They can manage their football property and blend in some pretty good basketball, but can go off and create their new future. More importantly, we have the opportunity to really control what we do as it relates to our future, and that’s a unique opportunity that we were very driven by. “
As for the schools joining the seven Big East schools on that journey, it was a matter of dedication to elite level athletics that saw Butler, Xavier and Creighton to invited in, not any religious background or Catholic order as has been rumored when it came to the Jays’ invitation.
“Clearly this was a presidential decision. Creighton sets up really nicely for our conference in that they’re committed to the same things we’re committed to. They’re committing to an elite level basketball program and broadbased success across some of the other sports,” Williams said. “That’s very evident when you look at the data and so they’re a wonderful fit. I won’t say that any particular Catholic order was given precedent over another. That isn’t driving the decision, but rather, as an institution, do they value the same things that we do, development of the student athlete, and are they making a significant commitment to elite level success.”
As for future possible members, Williams couldn’t definitively say whether the Big East would expand past ten members in the near future.
“We want to make sure we have the correct size. It’s impossible to put a timeline on it but we will take a close look at it,” Williams said. “It will be a data driven decision and I would expect that the deliberations on that will be ongoing as a matter of business in this world of conference realignment. I think we’ll be looking at that for some time, what the right size is.”
For now, sports like lacrosse that do not have the required number of schools for a league will invite in affiliate members from the AAC and other conferences.
“We’re in the middle of the weeds of that right now. Our intention is to sponsor men’s and women’s lacrosse under the Big East banner,” Williams said. “That means we will invite in associate members in the form including and excluding the AAC.”
Details are sparse at the moment, but a general sense of what the conference will look like is definitely starting to take shape.