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Requiem or Resurrection for the Big East?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


This should be a celebration. After all, it’s a resurrection…not a funeral.

Instead, the 35th annual Big East Basketball Tournament – the 32nd being played at Madison Square Garden in New York - is being treated as an afterthought by many in the national media, outside of Fox television.

No Syracuse, no UConn, no Louisville? No big draws. Although Creighton’s fans may ultimately have something to say about this, as they have reportedly sold out their ticket allotment – and then some. But because the former Big East members with local fans and large alumni drawing power now reside elsewhere in the intercollegiate landscape screwed up by football, the Big East can’t possibly be on par with the “old” Big East…the way it used to be.

The definitive answer won’t come this first year in the new alignment. It may not come in the second or third year, either; as building (or re-building) takes time…even Conference Creator Dave Gavitt didn’t get a hit until the event moved into the Garden in Year Four. The sooner the answer comes however, the better. Because there are some who believe the Big East actually died after last season’s 34th annual event.

ESPN is one of those, apparently. Ironic, since the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader was in the same birthing room as the conference back in 1979.  However, seeing as they have some ownership in the “old” league’s demise as well, it only makes sense they would step on the carcass left behind…since they are now in competition against the reformatted and resurrected Big East.

This coming Sunday, ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” film series will feature “Requiem for the Big East.” Even though the league itself is still standing. After viewing an advanced copy of the film presentation, I’m left with one overwhelming impression.


Directed by Ezra Edelman – a longtime Georgetown Hoya fan – the film will premier Sunday night at 9:00 pm, fittingly on “Selection Sunday” for the NCAA Tournament. It depicts the rise and fall of what we now call the “old” Big East Conference through the eyes and the stories of the men who defined the league’s existence.

The coaches: John Thompson. Jim Boeheim. Lou Carnesecca. Rollie Massimino. The players: Patrick Ewing. Chris Mullin. Ed Pinckney. Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. Cameos and additional stories come from Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Mike Tranghese and more names you’ll know…and you’ll be left wondering how the hell did all of this really happen? And why?

Two words – Greed and Avarice. They are not one and the same, but two words that define the mindset of the administrators and counselors charged with educating the student-athletes at their respective schools in the real world…and then deciding the goose that laid the fantasy golden egg before them was too valuable not to poach for themselves. Dave Gavitt’s vision, his dream, and his reality of creating the Big East came crashing to an end when presidents, athletic directors and administrators decided that “one for all,” the premise on which the conference was originally built, was no longer useful. Instead, “I want mine” became the battle cry.

“In setting out to make a film about the Big East, I hoped to not simply tell a story about the rise of a great basketball conference but also understand and ultimately convey the causes of its fall,” Edelman explains in an ESPN release. “What I quickly realized in talking to (the coaches and players) was that it wasn't just fans like myself who were saddened, even angry, by the Big East's demise: so, too, were many of those who helped build the league from nothing.”

That ESPN, the network that helped give birth to the Big East and ultimately played a part in its fall, is showing the film at all is a credit to the network. But it doesn’t take much to put “2 + 2” together, and figure out where the devils came from in the story of the league’s demise. If you’ve followed the news of the Big East breakup over the past decade, you know.   It’s a shame the film doesn’t give a voice to the original plug-pullers – former Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo and current Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg – on WHY they did what they did.  DeFilippo made the decision to bolt and stick his schools’ fate on the rear end of a Miami Hurricanes’ move; even though BC was a Big East original and DeFilippo had previously pledged his allegiance and supported sticking together.  Nordenberg is infamous in league circles for leading the presidential charge to vote against acceptance of a $1.4 billion offer from ESPN on a new TV contract, ostensibly because there was more money out there.  Fellow conference members were swayed by his influence, and voted to wait it out.   Before the offers could ever arrive, schools began to jump from the sinking ship of a league as if it were the Titanic.  Including Pittsburgh.

Why did they do it?  It’s a question that doesn’t get asked directly, and it’s one left for fans and historians to consider…even though you can probably color the answer green.  Whatever the ultimate answer might be, perhaps it’s best the two villains remain semi-secluded in their current worlds, insulated by friends, family and supporters.  Maybe, they’re just embarrassed by their wanton greed in gaining a few extra bucks for their schools…and helping to destroy decades of tradition in the process while sending the national collegiate landscape into a spiraling wheel of (mis)fortune?

Ah, yes. Rivalry on the floor moved into the boardrooms and administrative offices of college campuses.  Just where it never belonged.

Even former commissioner Mike Tranghese, who knew the day of reckoning was coming, has trouble with the thought of how things played out.   He was emotional then, and he’s still emotional today.  “This will be the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime,” Tranghese said back on May 19, 2003 when Boston College left for the ACC.   “It’s wrong.”  Then, in speaking in the film, Tranghese offers this reasoning for his response: “Schools have every right to leave. But there’s a way to conduct yourself. I have no forgiveness in my heart for the way certain people left. I’ll go to my grave with that.

“It’s like having a marriage that’s not working,” he continued. “I was tired of having to worry about keeping this thing together. That’s why I walked away, I saw it coming.”

The chronological story of the rise and fall of the former Big East tells a marvelous tale of the games themselves, of how the rivalries were built on northeastern “grit” and how the power of television played a significant part in what we see today on the college landscape.  Recruiting players became a national focus.  Coaches became celebrities.  The lights were bright and the games were wars, and they drew big ratings for a then-fledgling cable TV network.  It’s almost as if Dave Gavitt’s baby grew up too quickly, and even he realized that he needed to let go before he was ready to – just like a parent lets go of a child.

The entrance of football into the equation surely does the sport no favors in the basketball-centric northeast, but the power of the pigskin became evident very early in the evolutionary process of the Big East.  The failure to offer membership to Penn State, by a one-vote margin, ultimately proved prescient.  That the league and its many disparate partners stayed together as long as they did, becomes all the more remarkable as the tale is told.  Enter the power of television and the almighty dollar it brings, throw in greed and avarice along with the emotion inherent from the story behind the league’s simple founding in the back room of a Providence public relations firm – and you have a whopper of a tale to tell.

And a sad one, at that.  It should be celebrated, instead.

* * * * * * * * * *

John Rooke has covered the Big East, and broadcast league games in several sports, for 26 of the previous 35 years.  He has been the radio "voice of the Providence Friars" for 25 seasons.

Twitter: @JRBroadcaster


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