Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

Big East fracturing emblematic of cracked college sports priorities

NEW YORK — I’m enough of a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the Vatican Bank had something to do with the dissolution of the Big East. This isn’t collegiate competition we’re watching any more. It’s thinly veiled money laundering, and it’s ruining the NCAA’s chief commodity, which is our affection.

To sit in a seat at the last Big East basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden is to feel a creeping suspicion that the craven executives who call themselves athletic directors and college presidents may have gone too far, overreached. In attempting to protect their access to lobster buffets, they’ve set in motion a fundamental destruction, the kind of sand slipping away from a foundation that creates a house-swallowing sinkhole. What fools, you wonder, thought it was a smart business move to breed this disenchantment?

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Over the past 33 years, Georgetown and Syracuse have been one of the most contentious rivalries in college basketball, but as Syracuse prepares to leave the Big East conference for the ACC and Georgetown moves to the Catholic 7 next year, former players, coaches, journalists and alumni recall the history of the rivalry.

Over the past 33 years, Georgetown and Syracuse have been one of the most contentious rivalries in college basketball, but as Syracuse prepares to leave the Big East conference for the ACC and Georgetown moves to the Catholic 7 next year, former players, coaches, journalists and alumni recall the history of the rivalry.

The elemental love in Madison Square Garden during the annual Big East tournament is irreplaceable. The ring of nightclub lighting that makes the floor flare, the foot-long hot dogs at 11 a.m., the crowds wild with energy, the drab preppy grays and blues dueling with the oranges and scarlets, the drums keeping time with your pulse and the deep-throated swells of noise from the stands that rise and fall with the ball — these will be gone. In its place: liquidation, the selling off of assets.

The whole idea of conferences, back when schools first formed them, was simple geography: They were loose alliances meant to facilitate competition based on proximity, and to foster deep local fan interest. Now they’ve become cable-television deals.

It’s the scrabbling that’s so repulsive, the reek of desperation, first from the schools that succumbed to corporate raiding by the Atlantic Coast Conference, and then the shoulder-curling conduct of the Catholic Seven — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova — who have the nerve to call their abandonment of the Big East after 30 years a “philosophical” move. No, it’s a struggle over “brand.”

This is the scourge that is realignment: The constant shifting of alliances in quest of ever bigger paydays to offset budget shortfalls. And it overshadowed all the fun in the quarterfinals Thursday, made each tick of the clock regretful.

These are the sorts of things we won’t get to watch anymore: classic Big East pendulum swings, such as the one Georgetown suffered after it built a 25-8 lead over Cincinnati, only to surrender it and lead just 29-24 at halftime. The building of Garden roars, such as the one during the Syracuse-Pitt thriller, a steady ambient wave that sounded more machine-like than human. The fascinating effect of tension on individuals — Pitt Coach Jamie Dixon smiling radiantly even as a vein throbbed in his neck, when his Panthers cut the Orange’s lead to 58-57 with 30.1 seconds to go to set up a classic one-possession Big East finish, that ended with an “Oooooooooohhhhhh,” as a missed free throw doomed the Panthers. The whipsawing of emotions, such as those of Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, waxing nostalgic over 31 straight years of coaching teams in this tournament.

“The heartbreaks are what makes the good ones so great,” he said. “You have to have them both. I can’t really describe it accurately. It’s just — my whole life.”

All of that will be replaced by . . . what? Market cannibalization. And what comes next? A trans-continental conference with the Big East fiscal refugees forming a frantic alliance with remnants of the Mountain West? U-Conn. commuting to UNLV and Colorado State?

The prospect of it, coupled with the loss to Georgetown, made Cincinnati Coach Mark Cronin so mad he couldn’t contain himself.

“The whole thing is tragic,” Cronin said. “Nobody cares about student-athletes. All anybody cares about is money. Everybody in the NCAA, everybody in college administration, they talk about academics and student-athletes. If people cared about student-athletes, West Virginia wouldn’t be in the Big 12 with 10 teams flying 800 miles to their closest home game. That’s really conducive to studying. The whole thing is a hypocrisy . . .

“The economy has trickled down . . . so everybody’s just, ‘Well, let’s change leagues because we can solve our money problems.’ And people that suffer are the student-athletes. They’re the ones that suffer. And the fans, because, obviously, what made college sports so special is really tradition. The fact that we’re sitting here, and this is the last Big East tournament is beyond ridiculous. . . . It’s only gone for one reason: money.”

One thing is sure: The system as it’s currently operating can’t sustain itself. Something will break — probably the audience, who faithfully bought tickets and tuned in to watch regional rivalries, not Doomsday scenarios. And with which the bonds steadily loosen each time a regional conference fractures.

The dissolution of the old Southwest Conference and the ACC’s raiding of the Big East — the original conflicts that set all this in motion — were based not on geography or on the best thing for athletes, but on plundering for revenue, and therefore inevitably led to even more predatory behavior. The ACC ate the Big East alive, and now in order to survive, the Catholic Seven will turn around and plunder the Atlantic 10 for members, and pretty soon everyone will be eating their own tails.

All of it is an anathema to the supposed goal of the NCAA, which is tenuously defined by the IRS as not-for-profit, because its revenue was never meant to be hoarded by colleges. It’s meant to be a profit-shared, the richer schools supporting the weakest, in the name of competitive balance and to provide opportunities for as many athletes as possible.

A few years back I mentioned this point to former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, during a news conference in which he defended cash grabbing by the football conferences in the BCS. He flippantly said, “This isn’t communism.”

No, it’s supposed to be education. But you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/
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