The Redshirt Senior: Looking back at the Big East’s glory days

by Evan Griffith | 2/11/19 2:10am

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a pretty big homer when it comes to sports. I strongly believe that Syracuse University basketball was hit way too hard by the NCAA Investigation in 2015 and that has hurt the program’s recruiting to this day (while the University of North Carolina faced no penalties for offering fake classes). I also believe the relocations of the Rams and Chargers to Los Angeles within a year of each other was a plot by Rams owner Stan Kroenke to keep the most popular team in the area, the Raiders, out of town when it came time for that team to move so the Rams could build a brand in the city while having “competition” from a team with an even smaller California fan base.

As I now remove my tinfoil hat, I also miss what once was the greatest college basketball conference in America, the Big East. I don’t miss the current Big East, which includes schools in Wisconsin and Nebraska, but the old Big East, where old northeastern schools played physical basketball and intense rivalries were formed. The schools that formed the Big East were underdogs, mostly small, Catholic universities that simply wanted to compete with the North Carolinas and the UCLAs of the NCAA. It’s a sad story how the conference became so popular, then fizzled out.

The formation of the conference actually has roots here in Hanover. The first commissioner of the Big East, and the man who spearheaded the conference’s formation, was a Dartmouth graduate: Dave Gavitt ’59. Gavitt was a Dartmouth athlete; he played on the last Dartmouth men’s basketball team to win the Ivy League. After coaching a few years at Providence College and Dartmouth, he eventually settled in Providence, where he served as both the men’s basketball coach and athletic director. Providence was an independent program at the time, and Gavitt envisioned a high-profile, competitive, northeastern-based basketball conference during his time there. Gavitt organized the Big East conference in 1979 with Providence and six other schools: Boston College, Georgetown University, St. John’s University, Seton Hall University, Syracuse University and the University of Connecticut. Big East mainstays Villanova University and the University of Pittsburgh would join the conference one and three years later, respectively.

The Big East, amazingly, took off quickly. Part of the conference’s success was due to the decision by Gavitt, chosen to be its first commissioner, to partner with a fledgling television station, ESPN. ESPN acquired the rights to broadcast the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament in 1980, but Gavitt also struck a TV deal between ESPN and the Big East, and in 1984 the network covered the Big East Tournament. This brought in not only revenue for the conference, but also the recruits who would watch the Big East Tournament at home, then watch those same teams against bigger competition in the NCAA Tournament. 

All of this started to pay off quickly. In 1982, just three years after the formation of the conference, Georgetown and future NBA great Patrick Ewing made the NCAA Championship game, losing to Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels. Two years later, Georgetown won the Big East’s first NCAA championship. The next year, in 1985, three of the four teams in the Final Four were from the Big East: Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova, with Villanova winning it all over heavily favored Georgetown. 1987 held similar success for the Big East, with Syracuse making the championship game and Providence also making the Final Four. All in all, during Gavitt’s tenure as Big East Commissioner from 1979 to 1990, six of the Big East’s nine teams made the Final Four and all nine teams made the NCAA Tournament at least once. Not only that, some of the names that have come out of the Big East are instantly recognizable: Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony, Ron Artest, Jimmy Butler, Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Kemba Walker, to name a few.

Then in 1990, the Big East decided to incorporate football into its previously basketball-only conference. At the time, the only three schools that had Division I football programs — Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — were independent, while the basketball teams were a part of the Big East. Not wanting to shy away from the revenue that comes from football, the Big East added Rutgers University, Temple University, West Virginia University, Virginia Tech and, most importantly for the conference, a three-time national champion team in the University of Miami. The Big East had an unusual structure; the football powerhouses and the basketball powerhouses were very different schools, but the conference still found success. Miami would go to win another football national championship in 2001 while winning nine of the first 13 Big East titles, while the Big East would win three more basketball national championships from 1990 to 2005, Connecticut winning two and Syracuse winning one.

“The Big East had an unusual structure; the football powerhouses and the basketball powerhouses were very different schools, but the conference still found success.”

The instability in the conference led to tensions between the “football” and “non-football” schools. The success of the football programs led three schools to depart the Big East for the ACC in the mid-2000s: Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. After continued instability, in which five more schools would join the conference and Temple left and came back, the announcement that both Syracuse and Pitt would leave the Big East for the ACC, which came two days after Dave Gavitt died, as well as Louisville also leaving a few years later, proved to be the final straw that led to the dissolution of the conference. The “Catholic 7,” the seven remaining non-FBS football schools in the Big East, effectively declared a mass exit from the conference in 2013, and formed a “new” Big East, retaining the same name and basketball focus as the old conference. The remaining football schools became a part of the new American Athletic Conference, which retained the old Big East’s structure and its automatic BCS bowl bid.

The Big East produced some great talent but ended its original existence a hollow shell of what Dave Gavitt envisioned, bloated with member programs looking for an easy way up the conference totem pole. Nothing will ever match sitting at your TV and watching Georgetown almost lose to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, or a six-overtime game between Syracuse and Connecticut in the Big East Tournament, or great coaches like Jim Boeheim, John Thompson Jr. and Lou Carnesecca go crazy on the sidelines. There was nothing like it, and there may never be again.