Tagliabue, 72, recalls a lighthearted exchanged with DeGioia: “At some point I said to him, ‘The only thing you’re east of now is Hawaii.’ ” But privately the board chairman wondered if it was time the league “give up the ghost” and create a basketball-centric conference. Many Georgetown alumni and fans had begun asking the same.
That’s the conclusion DeGioia reached in December after Louisville and Rutgers gave notice in November that they were following Notre Dame out the door. And he set about building consensus among the presidents of the six other basketball-centric schools, all of them Catholic institutions: DePaul, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova.
DeGioia is tight-lipped about the contours of the conference that’s taking shape, acknowledging that it likely will consist of 12 members though may expand to 10 initially. According to others close to the process, the three to five new members need not be Catholic schools. And though its boundaries may extend west of the Mississippi, some “geographical coherence” is expected.
As for the essential criteria of the schools that will be added, DeGioia, a member of the reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, cites three: Schools that put the student-athletes’ interests first, both in the classroom and on the playing fields; school whose athletic departments are conducted with integrity; and schools that play exceptional basketball.
They will also have to agree to surrender their media rights to the conference for a significant number of years — possibly the life of the league’s first TV contract, whether that’s five, seven or 10 years. The Big East’s failure to extract such a commitment, as the Pacific-12 Conference did of its members before signing its recent TV deal, proved the league’s Achilles’ heel. Football-playing Big East schools pledged allegiance to the Big East one day, then bolted for a richer league the next — the $10 million “exit fee” amounting to small change compared with the riches dangled by the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12.
To many coaches and fans, great basketball is the only requirement that should matter in the new league.
It matters profoundly to DeGioia, as well. And it has since he was a child.
“We really want to play great basketball,” DeGioia says. “We want to play it at the highest possible level.”
Today, as DeGioia and his fellow presidents prepare to launch a new athletic conference, many questions remain unanswered. Will it be able to keep the Big East name? Will it hold its annual tournament at Madison Square Garden? What schools will be invited to join?
The biggest question, however, is whether an athletic conference rooted in ideals, led by academics and trading on its basketball past can survive in a billion-dollar marketplace driven by college football.
“That’s our vision,” DeGioia says with a smile. “That’s our vision. We’re giving it everything we’ve got to demonstrate that we can build such a conference.”