When the Big East was formed in 1979, the westernmost school among the seven members was Syracuse. When the league expanded a couple of years later, it went way west — adding Pittsburgh (and also Villanova). That gave the league nine members, just three of which — Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh — played in college football’s top division.
As it turned out, it was the perfect basketball conference: built on major TV markets and Hall of Fame coaches.
By 1985, the conference had won two national titles and had been represented in the Final Four five times, with three schools — Georgetown, St. John’s and eventual champion Villanova — in the 1985 semifinals. Two years later, two more schools — Syracuse and Providence — reached the Final Four. Two years after that, it was Seton Hall. A year later, Connecticut emerged as a power and just missed the Final Four.
Then came football — and chaos.
Wednesday’s announcement that Louisville will leave the Big East for the ACC in two years makes one thing crystal clear: It is time for the real Big East schools to return to their roots. It is time for the league’s basketball schools to abandon the pretense that they can be part of a football conference and go back to the brilliant concept the late Dave Gavitt brought about more than 30 years ago.
Consider the geography of the so-called Big “East” two years from now. It will include two teams from Florida (which is, at least, in the eastern time zone); one from Louisiana; one from Tennessee; two from Texas; one from Wisconsin; one from Illinois; one from California and one from Idaho. Georgetown fans no doubt can’t wait for traditional rivals such as Houston, SMU, Central Florida and Tulane to come to Verizon Center. And let’s not even discuss the logistics involved for non-revenue athletes who don’t travel on chartered airplanes.
That’s not even the main issue at this point. For all intents and purposes, the Big East no longer exists. It should be re-named Conference-Anywhere or Conference-We’ll-Take-Anyone-We-Can-Get-As-Long-As-You-Field-A-Football-Team. A bit unwieldy, but accurate. The saddest part in all of this is the fact that Mike Tranghese, Gavitt’s successor as commissioner, brought football into the conference 21 years ago to appease Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College; all three, naturally, have bolted for the ACC.
Once all the dust settles, there will be seven former Big East schools calling themselves ACC schools: the aforementioned trio along with Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame (sort of) and Louisville. There will be just seven teams left that were in the ACC before ACC Commissioner John Swofford made it his life’s mission to destroy the Big East. Maybe that league should be called the Big ACC. (Not better, certainly bigger).
Louisville plays good football — better than anyone in the ACC other than perhaps Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech (pre-2012). It plays great basketball. It wanted out of the Big East because the league is going to be treated as a second-class citizen under the new playoff setup beginning in 2014. That the ACC continues to blunder along with first-class status is baffling, considering its last meaningful football win was in the 1950s when Jim Tatum coached former member Maryland. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but not by that much.
So what does the Big East do next? New commissioner Mike Aresco’s strategy seems to collect stray teams from the sidewalk. The Big East hired Aresco because of his TV savvy and contacts after firing John Marinatto in the wake of the conference’s clearly disastrous decision to turn down a new ESPN contract 18 months ago. Even though that decision was ultimately made by the presidents, Marinatto was the front man.
The conference wasn’t happy with the money offered and turned down a deal that would have been worth about $11 million a year per school. This was when the conference still had Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville and was recruiting TCU to strengthen itself in football. Those schools are now replaced by schools such as Houston, Central Florida, SMU, Tulane, Temple (which at least plays good basketball) and East Carolina.
“You are looking live at Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina for today’s matchup between Tulane and East Carolina!” That would be a matchup between the 53rd largest TV market in the country and the 103rd if you’re scoring at home — which the networks do on a daily basis.
So, what should happen? The remaining members from the group that made the conference famous — Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, Providence and Seton Hall — should join with Marquette and DePaul and try to lure Xavier, Dayton and Saint Joseph’s from the 16-team Atlantic 10 to form a new conference called “The Real Big East.”
None of those nine schools plays top-level football. They are all great basketball schools that have had major success in the past and, in most cases, have strong programs today. No, they’re not all in the East, but at least no one is west of the Central time zone. They would get a big-time basketball-only TV contract from someone, and because none of them plays big-time football, their costs are a fraction of those fielding 85-scholarship teams.
And they would be a real league: round-robin play could come back and, if the conference didn’t want to pay to play at Madison Square Garden, it could move the conference tournament to the Barclays Center or (even better) the Palestra, the cradle of the college game in the best college basketball city in the country. Yes, it is smaller (about 9,500 seats) but it would be packed and tickets would be at a premium.
That’s the route to go. Otherwise, the basketball schools can just wait until Swofford comes back to pluck away Connecticut, and Aresco can proudly announce the addition of Hawaii to a conference somehow still known as the Big East.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.