Football, fear fuel Big East's quick demise

Seven more schools are kicking the Big East aside

Founded on a basketball-first mindset, the Big East is now collapsing under the weight of heavier powers.

In early May 1979, word started to leak of a college basketball movement in the northeast corner of the country. The athletic directors at Providence, Georgetown, St. John's and Syracuse were engaged in discussions regarding the formation of a new conference.

The Washington Post interviewed Providence AD Dave Gavitt, who described the new league as "an enthusiastic new look, in a sense a way to dominate the East."

Goodbye, Big East?
The 16 schools below played basketball in the Big East last season. And now? Those highlighted in red have announced their intention to leave. West Virginia, highlighted in green, left before this season.
Cincinnati
Providence
Connecticut
Rutgers
DePaul
St. John's
Georgetown
Seton Hall
Louisville
South Florida
Marquette
Syracuse
Notre Dame
Villanova
Pittsburgh
West Virginia

Just days later, Gavitt was joined by the directors from the other three schools, as well as Connecticut, Seton Hall and Boston College, to announce the formation of what would be known as the Big East.

Here we are more than 33 years later and it appears Gavitt's dream has been torn apart by fear, panic, greed, football, television rights, and the almighty dollar. It was great while it lasted, but the world of college athletics has changed dramatically.

The Big East's seven Catholic schools -- DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova -- have decided to break away from the Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the conference. The presidents of those schools met with Big East commissioner Mike Aresco by teleconference call Thursday and informed the unlucky fellow of their decision.

The formal announcement will come as soon as the Catholic Seven decide the process for this mass exodus. There are a couple of options available but regardless of the choice, this figures to be messy and complicated. We've already heard a source refer to this as the "blowing up" of the Big East.

As rumors swirled, The Providence Journal quoted an unnamed official from one of the schools saying, "The train has left the station. Get on board or get run over."

There's no room for sentimentality at this stage. The Big East has moved past that point. Gavitt's dream worked and, for those who love college basketball, his contribution will never be forgotten.

Jim Boeheim and the storied Syracuse program will soon leave the Big East for the ACC.

"He took basketball in the East and made it relevant," former Connecticut coach and Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun said not long after Gavitt passed away after a long illness on Sept. 16, 2011. "I think that was important for the entire country. It changed the landscape. It made us a national player.

"Dave's brainchild was something special for all of us. It meant teams like Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse and Connecticut had an opportunity to make a run at the national championship. Where were the teams from the East in the Final Four before Dave?"

That Final Four list was short before Gavitt and before the Big East. But within five seasons, the conference had its first national championship. Georgetown, coached by John Thompson and led by Patrick Ewing, won it all in 1984. One year later, the Big East all but totally occupied the Final Four at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., with Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova representing Gavitt's baby. Villanova upset Thompson and Ewing in a championship game for the ages and the Big East officially was on the map.

No conference has ever duplicated the feat of sending three teams to a Final Four. Syracuse brought home a national championship trophy in 2003 and UConn, under Calhoun, has three trophies (1999, 2004, 2011).

For all that success, it didn't take long for the Big East to become a dysfunctional family. Mike Tranghese, Gavitt's right-hand man, became the conference's second commissioner and he had to face the fact that football carried the ball in college athletics -- not basketball. The Big East football conference was formed in 1991 and for a few years Miami and Virginia Tech gave the basketball conference visibility and success in the football arena.

But by the mid-1990s there was clearly a rift between the basketball schools and the football schools. They had different agendas. One quick look into the Big East archives shows the constant evolution of the basketball conference. There were three seasons with divisions known as the BE 7 and the BE 6, then it was back to one 13-team league for two seasons. The following three seasons featured an East Division and a West Division. Fans found it all awkward and confusing.

Since 2003, when the Atlantic Coast Conference took the first realignment step by luring Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College away, the Big East has never had a comfort zone with its membership. When the ACC returned to its poaching last year, it started with Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Now Notre Dame (in all sports except football) and Louisville have gone in the same direction. West Virginia has already moved to the Big 12 and the Big Ten has accepted Rutgers.

"When Pittsburgh was going to go (to the ACC), the reason we went was because this was going to happen," Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim said Thursday, referring to the exodus of the Catholic schools. "Once Pittsburgh was going to leave with another school, you had to be the other school or else you would be left (out)."

"Left out" is the feeling at Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida today. It's especially so at UConn, the final original Big East member still standing. Since Pitt and Syracuse jumped on that realignment train about 15 months ago, UConn has been bypassed by the ACC at least twice. And the UConn administration has openly flirted with the ACC to the point that Big East officials privately mumble about the Huskies' lack of loyalty.

Loyalty is pretty much out the window these days. The Catholic schools now walking out on the Big East aren't showing their disloyalty. They are simply watching out for themselves, like everybody else. For too long, those seven schools pushed their own needs aside for the good of the Big East.

Kevin Ollie's UConn has been looking for a way out of the Big East as well.

When the pathetic estimates for a new conference television contract were published last week, the Catholic Seven finally said, "enough is enough." With so much instability, the Big East was looking at a deal worth $60 to $80 million annually. Pitt and Syracuse left after a $130 million-per-year deal with ESPN was rejected in 2011. That's all you need to know about how badly the Big East has botched its affairs.

"I don't think you can tell what's going to happen any more," said Boeheim, whose Orange begin ACC competition next season. "I think if teams leave the ACC, then I think there's going to be a need to bring teams in. It hinges on teams leaving. All the presidents have signed on that they're not leaving. But that's been done before too."

It's a bit ironic that UConn is still searching for a seat in this game of musical chairs. The Huskies almost missed out on the Big East in 1979. They got in when Holy Cross rejected an offer.

"That decision really hurt Holy Cross," UConn assistant coach George Blaney said in an interview a couple of years ago. Blaney was head coach at Holy Cross at the time. "It drastically hurt in recruiting. Suddenly we were recruiting against the Big East."

Holy Cross never truly recovered.

Right now the Huskies are in no-man's land. It wouldn't hurt to team up with Cincinnati and call the Big 12. Sources in the Big 12 say everyone is content with the current financial share with 10 teams. But adding two teams would allow the Big 12 to return to a conference championship game in football, a tremendous source of revenue. And Cincinnati and UConn, with their strong basketball programs, would enhance that side of the conference.

"Anything that has a sense of stability is in everybody's best interests," Calhoun said Thursday.

That certainly does not describe the Big East right now -- nor in the future. The only thing Big East basketball fans can do right now is enjoy the 2012-13 season. With an upper echelon that includes Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame playing at a high level (all but Pitt are in the current AP top 25), the possibility of a great conference race exists.

If you close your eyes, you might even be able to visualize Dave Gavitt's dream from 1979. In a pure basketball world, it's still there. But it won't last much longer.

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