The Big East came into existence way back in 1979 when Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown and Syracuse extended invitations to Seton Hall, Connecticut, Holy Cross, Rutgers and Boston College to form a Northeastern-based conference with a concerted emphasis on basketball (the original seven added Villanova the next season and took in Pittsburgh in 1982). The league captured the ears and eyes of major media markets, had access to talent-rich recruiting bases (this was before AAU made geography an absolute afterthought when drawing up a scouting itinerary) and as a result quickly became the preeminent college basketball conference — hitting its zenith in 1985 when three of its members reached the Final Four in Lexington.
Although the league certainly was a bastion of star players during its’ heyday, it was the league’s coaches that formed an unspoken emotional bond with its cities and fan bases — they were a perfect reflection of their schools’ genetic makeup. Louie Carnesecca was the ideal fit for St. John’s outer-borough mentality, a soft-spoken Italian who just as easily could have been coming out of a Queens bodega in his bathrobe than controlling the sidelines of New York City’s most visible college program. Jim Boeheim personified the caustic, often paranoid, personality of the upstate New York denizens who felt the “city folk” were always casting sideways glances at them (albeit from a distance). John Thompson, the league’s lone black coach, turned Georgetown, an academically high-ranking Jesuit institution, into a desired destination for DC’s previously marginalized inner-city black players. Those Hoya teams replicated their coach’s personality more so than any other program in the Big East, playing a rough-and-tumble style with a huge collective chip on their shoulders. Rick Pitino spoke and carried himself like the owner of any of Federal Hill’s dubiously-financed Italian restaurants would. PJ Carlesimo was gruff and unapproachable, an embodiment of Northern Jersey. And was there anyone more Philly than Rollie Massimino? (For the record, Jim Calhoun was always an unpleasant prick. I have no knowledge of what people from Connecticut are like. I assume they ski a lot and were wearing cardigans way before it was in vogue).
The conference churned along with impunity and ease until 1991, when the powers that be (Mike Tranghese) saw the financial writing on the wall and added Rutgers, Miami, Virginia Tech, Temple and West Virginia as football-only members (all except Temple, which was ousted from the league under the rarely exercised “you’re fucking terrible and upsetting everybody as a result” clause, were made full-term members in later years). The Big East’s basketball programs continued to excel but the die was cast — the league was steadily moving away from what made it special in the first place.
From a personal perspective, I came into my sports consciousness during the glory days of the Big East, so the league, especially its core, will always be remembered fondly. Save the ACC during the mid-90s, no league matched the intensity and fervor that surrounded conference basketball games like the Big East experienced during the league’s infancy. I now look upon the current amalgamation of teams with skepticism, like a snobby hockey fan (the first time that phrase has ever been written) that holds the “original six” in better light.
There’s no need to delve into the details at this point, conference realignment is a runaway train ridiculed and criticized at every turn. The Big East unfortunately being one of the biggest offenders.
Which of course has led to continual speculation regarding the future of the league’s basketball-only members forming the Catholic Cabal with like-minded Atlantic Ten members (The Overlords, UD, Butler, Saint Louis, et al.). It seems that whenever a domino falls in the conference realignment game stories of clandestine meetings among the “Catholic Seven” get circulated. The facts are usually slim, the bluster and opining plentiful.
With the latest round of discussions on the subject, it was refreshing to see someone in the media, mainstream no less, take a course I happen to endorse.
David Steele, a writer with AOL Fanhouse, hits upon some points I personally, and adamantly, agree with:
Well, there’s griping, and there’s metaphor-making … and there’s action. Seven schools are now talking about seceding—including Villanova, not coincidentally. All seven are the biggest of big-time in basketball and are Division I-AA in football or lower. All seven of them—again, including Villanova—date back nearly to the birth of the league; all five have been to Final Fours, and two (yup, ’Nova’s in there again) have brought back the national championship.
That’s not good enough for the Big East, clearly.
This is the crux of the problem. Out of all the conferences that decided to enlarge their football footprint, no league lost quite as dearly as the Big East. The league added programs haphazardly, in a rush to keep up with the Joneses. And the ACC. It’s fine if you want to reinvent yourself, but at least utilize enough due diligence to ensure you are strengthening the overall product. Currently, the Big East is not only taking home a slumpbuster at three in the morning, it’s bringing it breakfast in bed as well.
The dirty secret of the seven schools staring down the Big East hierarchy is that they, their men’s and women’s basketball programs and the rest of their programs, do pretty well as they are and where they are.
They aren’t the universities that are writing checks for the football program that the rest of the school’s programs and their students are forced to cash. They’re not hoping some new conference will come along to serve as their ATM, and paying legal fees to break contracts all over the place. They’re not building turf fields and luxury boxes while the swimming team holds bake sales to stay alive.
If basketball is what they do extremely well, and everybody who needs to be taken care of is taken care of, and there’s still $11 billion in March Madness television money in sight, and they can still fill the Garden and lure the networks for a postseason tournament … why is that unacceptable?
It isn’t unacceptable. Fans of the Catholic Seven should want to secede and go it alone. While losing Pitt, Louisville, Syracuse (especially Syracuse) and possibly UConn will take some of the luster off the Big East basketball brand, it is surely better than what lies ahead — games, road games, against the likes of Houston, Central Florida, SMU and Tulane. The Big East started out as a seven-team league with common purpose and shared culture, why not get back to that?
If Villanova, Georgetown and the rest pull out and lay down a foundation that follows their original vision, it would not only be successful and popular. It would be a radical, yet refreshing, departure from the notion that at any school that’s worth anything, it’s football or nothing.
Nobody should have to apologize for making basketball No. 1, and nobody should act as if a school is settling if it doesn’t sell itself out in the name of football.
The key word there is foundation. While I would like to see the basketball-only teams go it alone for a period of time, there’s no reason the league couldn’t eventually grow to 8-9 teams in the future.
Fortunately, at this time, the leaders of the Catholic Seven don’t seem interested in linking up with the Atlantic Ten.
ESPN.com reported Tuesday that the A-10 has discussed the possibility of inviting some or all of the Big East non-football schools. “The seven Big East schools have no interest in that at all,” a Big East source said.
The Big East will never be the Big East again, and that’s a damn shame. However, it has the opportunity to make a statement, go rouge and get back to its original mission. Making the league insular, rather than overly inclusive, is the best thing these schools could do.
Tom Blackburn is a proud U. o' D. alum. He loses faith in humanity one day at a time, but not in you, you seem like you are all kinds of alright. Charter member of the T-Man fanclub.