College campuses were rife with post-war disillusion and post-Watergate cynicism when a Georgetown freshman football player named Jack DeGioia decided to start a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on the Hilltop. He posted flyers throughout the gym promoting the inaugural meeting, but only one person showed up: men’s basketball coach John Thompson.
So the 18-year-old defensive back and 34-year-old coach, then in his fourth season, held the meeting. And they continued meeting that spring of 1976 and beyond, talking about God, education and what the two had to do with one another.
Thompson went on to transform Georgetown basketball into one of the most powerful brands in college sports, producing teams that reached three national championship games between 1982 and 1985, and won the 1984 NCAA title. DeGioia, a philosopher by training, went on to become Georgetown’s 48th president.
Nearly four decades after their first meeting, DeGioia has taken the lead in a high-stakes effort to preserve the basketball tradition Thompson built on the Hilltop, shepherding the creation of a new conference constructed around the founding members of the imploding Big East. He does so at a time when college sports is being riven, with schools that play top-level football on one side and those that don’t on the other.
Saturday’s game perfectly illustrates the divide. Syracuse, the Hoyas’ fiercest Big East rival, is defecting to the ACC next season in pursuit of a bigger payday from a league with a more lucrative television deal. Georgetown, lacking big-time football, is left seeking a path toward preserving a basketball program that has become the public face of the university and, for many, has connected the cloistered institution with the multicultural city in which it resides. The increasingly unstable Big East no longer provided that path.
“We sort of stepped back and said, ‘Does this make sense for us,’ ” DeGioia said in a recent interview in his Healy Hall office. “We no longer had our history and our traditions and our historic rivalries. We no longer had geography in a way that was making sense. . . .
“From a basketball perspective, we just felt we needed to go back to our roots. We needed to get back to our fundamental foundation that brought us together in 1979: an urban tradition of basketball.”
DeGioia, 56, sees Georgetown basketball as a touchstone of memory, a tie that binds alumni to the Hilltop.
“It means a lot to our community — to our alumni, to our students,” DeGioia said. “This is something to rally around, something to identify with. . . . Our community can measure key moments and milestones in their lives by certain kinds of events around our athletics programs here.”
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, chairman of Georgetown’s executive board and a former Hoyas basketball player, credits Thompson and his teams with creating diversity on campus and connecting the school to the life of the city, rather than being “some elite institution sitting off there on top of a hill.
“When I played at Georgetown, 1958 to ’62, not only did we not have any black athletes — we didn’t have any black spectators,” Tagliabue said. “Now, when you go to a Georgetown basketball game, it’s a diverse group of athletes and, just as important, it’s a diverse group of people from all walks of life: graduates, doctors from the medical school sitting next to people who are first generation trying to send their kids to college. So I think it has created a much richer, much more open, much more diverse urban university than it was before.”
Georgetown basketball also has become a powerful asset in extending the university’s brand and reputation overseas. Thompson’s teams, with their groundbreaking blend of urban ethos and championship-caliber talent, made the Hoyas hip coast to coast in the 1980s. Today, the program led by Thompson’s son serves as a tool for global outreach as Georgetown builds relationships in Asia and the Middle East, where the university opened a campus in Qatar in 2005. The team’s tour of China in the summer of 2011, which was soured by an on-court brawl during one game in Beijing, was part of that effort.
As an undergraduate, DeGioia reveled in playing football and running track, describing himself as a classic small-college athlete — clearly not Olympic or pro-caliber material, but a student who loved going to the gym each morning and took enormous pride in finding a niche on his teams.
Today, sports play a similar role in the lives of many Georgetown students. More than one in 10 of its 7,600 undergraduates competes for one of the Hoyas’ 29 varsity teams. That’s far broader participation than found at athletic powerhouses such as Alabama and Florida, where roughly 2 percent of students compete in considerably fewer varsity sports. It reflects a philosophy central to Georgetown — and one that distinguished the original Big East and will inform the new conference — that sports is meant to enrich students’ lives rather than define them.
Basketball played that role for Tagliabue, captain of Georgetown’s 1961-62 squad, teaching leadership, teamwork and individual responsibility.
“Competitive athletics teaches you that there is a cycle of preparation, a cycle of performance, performance produces success or failure, then there is a cycle of re-evaluation and a cycle of re-preparation,” said Tagliabue, who serves as a frequent sounding board for DeGioia. “That’s what life is about, too.”
For DeGioia, Georgetown basketball took on deeper significance in the 1980s, as Thompson transformed the Hoyas from a regional power to a national one.
Daniel Porterfield, then a 19-year-old Georgetown sophomore, recalls long, impassioned talks about basketball with DeGioia, who was then a graduate student and resident director, when the two lived across from one another in New South Hall. They weren’t fixated on statistics or win-loss records but the social statement they felt was being made by Thompson and his Hoyas.
“We would talk about how John Thompson was creating a program that might well influence the lives of the students that played for him and all of society, and we had these long conversations about what it meant,” said Porterfield, an English scholar who co-taught a course, “Human Rights: A Culture in Crisis,” with DeGioia for several years, served as a senior vice president in DeGioia’s administration and is now president of Franklin & Marshall College.
Porterfield recalls their pride in 1989, when Thompson boycotted two Georgetown games in protest of an NCAA rule that denied financial aid to athletes who failed to meet minimum SAT scores.
“I remember conversations about how inspiring it was that our program stood for opportunity,” Porterfield said. “Jack was very inspired by the idea that that the basketball program could achieve competitive and educational excellence — and that fact that in doing so, it could influence America.”
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.”
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.”
But the Big East morphed into a hybrid of schools that played big-time football and those that didn’t (Georgetown among them). As the priorities of its two camps diverged, with football schools needing more revenue and exposure to stay competitive, the bond between them frayed.
With each wave of defections, the Big East restocked, poaching football-playing schools from smaller conferences while trying to maintain its reputation as a basketball power. But the lengths it went to, extending its footprint across all four time zones by adding Houston, Southern Methodist, Boise State and San Diego State, strained logic.
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.”