Not very Big and not very East, Creighton University nevertheless is movin’ on up — and by most measures, so is its hometown.
In one sense, the soon-to-be-announced move to the Big East Conference happened quickly behind the scenes in recent weeks. But becoming partners with schools in major metropolitan areas couldn’t have occurred at all without the very public investment over the past 15 years or so by Creighton and by Omaha.
"Creighton has repositioned itself over the years, and that has coincided with Omaha’s emergence, too," said David Brown, president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. "Both are in the national consciousness in a way we haven’t been before."
The Bluejays aren’t expected to take the Big East by storm, but a billion-dollar vision by university, municipal and business leaders created a perfect storm of development. Without all that has happened from the banks of the Missouri River west to merge with the eastward-moving CU campus, it’s hard to imagine Creighton being invited to join the high-profile athletic conference.
The most westerly outlier in the realigned league, the Jesuit university in Omaha is now — to borrow from the theme song of the 1980s TV show "The Jeffersons" — movin’ on up to the east side. In Creighton’s case, the Big East side, with its annual men’s basketball tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The Omaha school will compete with universities in metropolitan New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Cincinnati instead of in such cities as Evansville, Springfield, Carbondale, Normal, Peoria, Des Moines and Wichita.
It’s a big step up, and no one believes it will be easy. But the invitation — and a TV contract expected to pay each school at least $3 million a year — was the proverbial offer you couldn’t refuse. And not just for the money.
"If it’s offered, you have to go," said Omaha attorney John K. Green, whose undergraduate and law degrees are from Creighton. "It means more than athletics. It raises your visibility so much, and the universities you would be aligned with now are national universities rather than regional ones.
"It’s like Nebraska going to the Big Ten. From an academic standpoint, it enhances your position."
Not all alumni and fans favor the move.
"I don’t really want them to do it," said Harry Hess, a retired certified public accountant who played for Creighton at the old Madison Square Garden in the 1940s. "I love Creighton, but I don’t think it’s a big enough school. And I don’t know what kind of team we’ll have after (All-American Doug) McDermott leaves."
Former Mayor Mike Fahey, an avid Bluejays fan, said the downside to the move to the Big East is that fans no longer will travel each March to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis, where more than 6,000 went last weekend. "That’s probably not feasible at the Garden," he said, "so that’s a loss."
But on balance, he said, he favors the move to the Big East.
"The upside is the economics of it," he said. "I really think this is an opportunity for us to spread our wings as a more attractive place for a lot of visitors and even for people to invest in our city."
Andrew Fellingham, a New York-based athletic consultant, said the TV exposure and the larger markets will give Creighton important access to student recruitment — especially important, he said, for a Jesuit institution that charges far higher tuition than do public universities.
"As a private institution," he said, "you have to go farther afield to find your student body and get them to pay the price that you need them to pay. You’ve got to get into places where you find people who value a Jesuit education and are willing to pay for that."
About two-thirds of Creighton students already come from outside Nebraska.
CU’s overall enrollment of 7,730 — which includes law, medicine, dentistry and allied health schools — is much smaller than the 25,000-plus at DePaul in Chicago, the 21,000 at St. John’s in New York and the 17,000 at Georgetown in the nation’s capital. But three schools in the 10-member league are smaller than Creighton.
The 18,320-seat capacity of the publicly owned arena in which the Bluejays play, the CenturyLink Center Omaha, compares favorably — the sixth-largest available to league teams.
And Creighton fans nearly fill it, ranking as high as sixth in the nation this year in average attendance.
During negotiations with the conference, Creighton leaders have kept a low public profile. The Rev. Timothy Lannon, the first CU alumnus to serve as the school’s president, sent word through a spokeswoman Saturday that he was traveling and unavailable.
But if he and Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen have had to sell other schools in the league on Creighton and Omaha, there’s been a lot to show off.
Omaha consistently stands high in national rankings, and the Brookings Institution last month rated it the No. 1 city in America for weathering the effects of the Great Recession. The Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area also was ranked No. 1 nationally in a Consumer Distress Index based on employment, housing, net worth and managing family budgets.
Kiplinger’s Personal Finance in 2011 rated Omaha the top "great value city" in America.
Moreover, in the past 13 years, more than a billion dollars has been invested in building and renovation in Omaha’s north downtown area and the adjoining riverfront.
That’s separate from more than $250 million in nearby Creighton development, including student housing, the Harper Student Center, Morrison Stadium (soccer) and the Ryan Athletic Center and D.J. Sokol Arena.
Remarkable public transformation has occurred on the sites of a former smelting plant and a rail yard. Voters approved a bond issue and business leaders donated money to build the $291 million CenturyLink Center (then called the Qwest Center) in 2003.
The TD Ameritrade Park baseball stadium, home of the College World Series and Creighton baseball, was completed for $131 million in 2011.
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, Lewis & Clark Landing, the Gallup campus, the Hilton Omaha hotel, the Riverfront Place condominium towers, the Slowdown music venue and Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater all have risen in the formerly gritty industrial zone, along with apartments, retail stores, restaurants, offices and artist studios.
More is planned, including a $200 million development across the street from the convention center and arena where the Bluejays play.
Mike Moylan, a Creighton season-ticketholder and president of Shamrock Development, which is coordinating that hotel-apartments-retail project at 10th Street and Capitol Avenue, said financial arrangements are progressing, and groundbreaking should occur in 2014.
As for Creighton’s move to the Big East?
"It’s fantastic for Omaha," Moylan said. "To associate the name of Creighton with some of those schools really brings a whole new aspect and allows us to broaden our footprint. We’ll be able to bring in people from all over the country to see what Omaha is about."
Said Mayor Jim Suttle, preparing to march in Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown: "It’s going to be tremendous for Creighton but also tremendous for Omaha because we will get Omaha’s brand and Creighton’s brand in those big, big markets."
Omaha’s redevelopment has occurred under Democratic and Republican mayors, including the GOP’s Hal Daub, who pushed for the bond issue to build the convention center and arena. Before it opened, Creighton played in the old Civic Auditorium, seating about 8,000.
The CenturyLink Center is home to many top-name concerts, such as Taylor Swift for two nights last week, as well as to events such as the past two U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and Omaha investor Warren Buffett’s annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meetings. It’s a nice place for Creighton basketball to call home.
Now it is making a very big move to a very high-profile conference home. Ready or not, the Creighton Bluejays are movin’ on up to the east side.
World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.
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The TRULY BIG East
Creighton's switch to a major conference places Omaha in the same class as some major metros
New York City
St. John's; MSA includes Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J.
*Yet to accept offers to join the new conference
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 Metropolitan Statistical Areas