East Carolina University, in a joint announcement with the BIG EAST Conference Tuesday, has accepted a formal invitation to join the league as a football-only member starting with the 2014 season.
ECU will continue its current partnership with Conference USA for the 2013 campaign and remain eligible for its post-season bowl opportunities, but also included in all of the BIG EAST Conference's future television, marketing, promotion and bowl negotiations.
"ECU is excited to become a football member of the BIG EAST Conference," ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard said. "We know we will be successful and add value to the BIG EAST. While hundreds of dedicated Pirates have contributed to this day, I especially want to recognize the relentless energy of Terry Holland and Nick Floyd in making this day a reality. It is a great day to be a Pirate."
The BIG EAST has previously announced new members that will begin play in a football league with a national scope in the 2013 season. Those schools are Boise State, UCF, Houston, Memphis, SMU and San Diego State. Tulane will also begin play in 2014, while the Naval Academy will start BIG EAST play in 2015.
Existing teams include Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville and South Florida. The conference announced plans on Nov. 13 to begin divisional play and introduce an inaugural BIG EAST Championship Game in 2014.
"We are very excited to welcome East Carolina University into the BIG EAST Conference for football," BIG EAST Commissioner Mike Aresco said. "They have a strong football tradition and a consistently successful program that will help elevate our football league immediately. The University is an outstanding academic institution that reflects the values important to the BIG EAST Conference."
Founded in 1907, East Carolina University is a 105-year-old public university and research institution that is nationally-recognized for preparing rural family physicians, educational professionals and for its strong performing arts programs.
The move to the BIG EAST will provide the Pirates access to one of the largest national media markets in the nation, including major population areas in Florida, Texas and California. The BIG EAST has post-season tie-ins to the Russell Athletic Bowl (Orlando, Fla.), Belk Bowl (Charlotte, N.C.), New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Bronx, N.Y.), BBVA Compass Bowl (Birmingham, Ala.), AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Memphis, Tenn.) and Beef ‘O’ Brady's Bowl (St. Petersburg, Fla.).
East Carolina, which captured back-to-back C-USA football titles in 2008 and 2009 and were division co-champions with UCF this fall, has qualified for bowl appearances in six of the last seven years. The Pirates have averaged over seven wins per season over the last five years despite playing a challenging schedule that often consists of at least three contests against AQ BCS Conference opponents annually.
The Pirates are consistent Conference USA attendance leaders, topping all turnstile counts each season since 2008 with an average of 46,529. Since the completion of a 7,000-seat expansion project in 2010 that pushed the capacity of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to 50,000, ECU has set back-to-back school records in total attendance and season average attendance with 300,069 and 50,012 figures in 2011, respectively.
Nationally, East Carolina stands 45th in 2012 with an average of 47,013 - a number which would rank third among current BIG EAST members, trailing only Louisville (49,991/40th) and Rutgers (48,466/42nd). Additionally, ECU ranks second among all non-AQ BCS members on the FBS level behind BYU (61,161/26th).
The Pirate program has also produced plenty of professional talent as 11 former players occupy various roster positions in the National Football League, including All-Pro performers RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans) and FB Vonta Leach (Baltimore Ravens), as well as Super Bowl champions DT Linval Joseph (N.Y. Giants) and DE C.J. Wilson (Green Bay Packers). Former Pro Bowl and Super Bowl participants QB Jeff Blake, RB Earnest Byner, RB Tony Collins, QB David Garrard and LB Robert Jones, among others, also played collegiately at East Carolina.
"It is our intention for today’s announcement to be a strong first step toward finding the best competitive environment possible for ECU’s nineteen varsity sports," ECU Director of Athletics Terry Holland said. "BIG EAST Football provides an opportunity to renew old rivalries and begin new ones, both of which will be exciting for our players, coaches and fans. A football-only membership provided ECU’s gateway to an all sports membership in C-USA and a number of other successful programs, including Virginia Tech, received their opportunity through a football-only membership in the BIG EAST.
Holland explained that East Carolina's next step would be to find an "equally exciting and competitive environment for the eighteen sports other than football." He confirmed ECU has not initiated contact with other conferences prior to Tuesday's announcement, but indicated the search will begin in earnest as soon as the press conference concluded.
"The changing conference circumstances in today’s intercollegiate athletics landscape practically ensures that our quest will always be a journey and not a destination," Holland added.