Meeting of the minds
It sounds like the setup to a joke: “A philosopher, a mathematician and five priests walk into a board room and decide to form an athletic conference. . . .”
But that’s what has unfolded behind closed doors, where the so-called “Catholic 7” presidents — DeGioia, Seton Hall’s A. Gabriel Esteban (a mathematician) and five clergy members — have huddled with former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, their consultant on broadcast issues, and legal strategist Joseph M. Leccese, co-chairman of New York-based Proskauer Rose’s Sports Law Group.
The presidents have divided themselves into small working groups tasked with such topics as media rights, new members and governance. DeGioia has the most experience in sports among them, having supervised Georgetown athletics while dean of student affairs (1985-92) and represented his predecessor, Rev. Leo J. O’Donovan, at Big East meetings while Georgetown’s associate vice president (1992-95).
The Rev. Donald J. Harrington, president of St. John’s, describes DeGioia as a low key, insightful and pragmatic leader.
“He doesn’t manifest any need to impress people,” said Harrington, who has known DeGioia since 1993. “He listens first, gets a sense of the landscape and then speaks if and when it’s needed. He doesn’t seek to overpower; college presidents can tend not to do that.”
Thompson can’t explain why he hit it off with DeGioia so many years ago, but recalls being struck by his intelligence and lack of guile.
“Most people probably would not have perceived me, with my profanity and cursing, that I would have had any interest in Fellowship of Christian Athlete things,” Thompson said. “But we sat down and talked, and we talked about a lot of things. He was very interested in education. He was very sensitive about minorities. He’s an extremely smart person, but he doesn’t flaunt it.
“I am not a good person to ask about Jack because I am too emotionally attached to him. I’ve had a chance to hear him talk off the ball. Everybody acts great on the ball — in the spotlight, you know what I mean? Jack is great and strong off the ball. I would come close to jumping in front of a bus for him.”
Big East tradition
DeGioia grew up steeped in the basketball rivalries among schools that came together to form the Big East. And he understands well the hold they have on alumni such as his own father, a Connecticut graduate whom he has brought with him to the Big East tournament almost every year since the early 1980s.
“When he comes into Madison Square Garden with me, he is bringing a lot of history, memory and tradition,” DeGioia said. “And when alumni come to one of our games in Philadelphia or Providence or New York City, they remember  and John Thompson walking to mid-court holding his jacket close to the vest and then opening it up to show the lucky sweater that Louie Carnesecca had worn all year. The whole place gave him a standing ovation. It was college basketball at its best.”