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What If Joe Paterno’s East Coast Conference Plan Succeeded?

As someone who grew up watching Penn State football, I unfortunately missed out on some of the long-standing regional rivalries of Penn State’s past. I caught on just as Penn State was preparing to move to the Big Ten, abandoning many of their regional rivalries in the process. With today’s news that Penn State and West Virginia have agreed to play a home-and-home series in 2023 and 2024 (plan accordingly) coupled with the fact that I spent some time this afternoon watching a replay of the 1985 Penn State at Maryland game on my local Comcast Sportsnet, I was reminded of this story which originally appeared on Bleacher Report about a year ago. I have touched it up a bit where needed.

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Realignment in college athletics is nothing new, but it certainly has risen to new heights over the last few years. Notre Dame’s announcement to leave the Big East in all sports and move to the ACC, while remaining a football independent, was significant for college football in a number of ways. It also got me thinking about the history of the Big East and how it relates to Penn State.

Long time Penn State fans are probably more familiar with the story than some of the newer generation fans, but here is a quick run down of Paterno’s idea at the time.

Paterno wanted to form an all eastern football conference that would be able to market exclusive television deals and offer revenue sharing between members, as well as make scheduling a little less cumbersome by instituting a number of set games between schools that were largely already playing each other anyway.

Paterno tried to get Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Temple, Maryland, Syracuse, Rutgers and Boston College to go in on the idea with him, but they ultimately left Paterno and Penn State hanging.

Some will suggest that these schools did not want to be a part of a football conference that would be routinely dominated by Penn State, while others will say it was a good idea but needed more security for other sports.

The Big East eventually was formed under a similar structure to Paterno’s idea, and Penn State was left out of the mix. When Penn State attempted to join, the conference turned their back on the school largely due to the state of Penn State’s basketball program, a sticking point that was not a hassle when Miami applied for membership a few years later.

Paterno felt betrayed, but Penn State was already preparing to move in to the Big Ten. To this day, some Penn State fans feel out of place and believe Penn State should have been in the Big East all along. And with recent realignment issues popping up everywhere, some believe Penn State would be better suited in the ACC, which brings us to this discussion.

What if Paterno’s eastern conference idea did pan out, with Temple, Boston College, Maryland, West Virginia, Syracuse and Pittsburgh all getting on board, and perhaps adding some other members like Miami and Virginia Tech? Would it still be around today, roughly 30 years later? What would the rest of the college football map look like?

If this eastern conference were to fall in to place, Penn State likely never would have joined the Big Ten, leaving the conference with 10 members for years while Notre Dame remained a football independent.

The Big East never would have been formed as an FBS conference and would probably have instead been set up as a 1-AA conference with schools like Villanova and Georgetown. Connecticut probably would have remained an FCS-level school in this alternate Big East, and maybe that would have led to Massachusetts joining the Big East.

The fall of the Southwest Conference probably still develops, leading to expansion in the SEC and the formation of the Big 12. Once these moves begin to happen the ACC would still be likely to be looking to expand their conference.

With the Big East playing at the FCS level, the top target now becomes Paterno’s creation. Miami and Virginia Tech still make the most geographic sense at first, but this is an alternate universe where Penn State is competing in a conference they likely dominate year in and year out with the frequent challenge from Miami. That makes Penn State the more attractive candidate, and not Virginia Tech. The ACC then pushes for Miami and Penn State to join, and the schools both accept membership, although Paterno is reluctant to leave his creation behind.

Obviously this is all speculation and letting an imagination run a little wild. But isn’t it fun to wonder “What if?” every now and then? What do you think would have happened over time if Paterno’s conference idea panned out?

About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.