Baltimore has long represented hotly contested recruiting ground for basketball coaches at Maryland and Villanova, roughly halfway between College Park and Philadelphia and teeming with prospects capable of turning a college team’s fortunes around.
Cal and Billy Ripken brokered a truce this week, bringing together Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon, his predecessor Gary Williams and Villanova Coach Jay Wright for a wide-ranging conversation about college basketball to benefit the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.
There was plenty of good-natured ribbing about Wright’s meticulous appearance (moderator Jay Bilas called him “the George Clooney of college basketball”), Williams’ habit for sweating through his tailored suits and Turgeon’s prep career (not quite a McDonald’s All American, but an all-American who often ate at McDonald’s). But the juiciest conversation was about the rapidly churning landscape of college conferences, given the ACC’s raid this fall of Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East and the upheaval still to come.
Turgeon, a Kansas native and former Jayhawk point guard, described himself as a traditionalist who loved Kansas so much as a child that he hated all seven other members of the Big Eight—so much so, he said, that as a young assistant coach he never considered taking a job at one of those reviled rivals.
So Turgeon said he welcomed the addition of Syracuse and Pitt, predicting it would restore the ACC’s dominance in basketball, he said he felt sorry for fans whose loyalties have been scrambled by the re-alignment.
Like Williams, Wright characterized the tumult as “a football issue” but made clear that it has upended college basketball in the process.
“The Big East is probably the sixth-best football conference, so that’s the one they’re going to pick from,” said Wright, alluding to the defections this fall of Syracuse, Pitt and now West Virginia. “I think as long as we have the seven [traditional] basketball schools and keep the BCS [automatic-qualifying] status is football, we’re going to have one of the best conferences in basketball. But it’s never going to be the same.”
Asked whether there was room in the Big East for both Villanova and Temple, an appealing candidate if the league suffers further losses, Wright said he felt the Big East would make room for anything that provided stability. “Temple could be part of that solution,” Wright said. But Villanova’s bigger concern, he added, was ensuring that Villanova football be part of the Big East, too, noting: “We want a football spot.”
Williams pointed out that in 2004, ACC basketball coaches voted 9-0 against adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. But the league expanded anyway. And as basketball coaches feared, the football-driven move diluted ACC basketball.
Williams characterized the current rash of conference-jumping as schools jockeying for position to make more money. “It’s a shame it comes down to that,” Williams said. “But money is needed to run these programs.”
The event drew roughly 850 and raised $225,000. Founded in 2001, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation used baseball as a way to reach children in often troubled communities. It’s rooted in a belief that the lessons imparted by teaching baseball the way Cal Ripken Sr. taught his sons and legions of other players can serve youngsters equally well in life.