It’s been a slow death, agonizing to watch for those of us who remember what the Big East represented when it started some 30 years ago. It's been confusing to follow the almost constant updates over the past 14 months since Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced they were leaving for the ACC.
To say that league founder Dave Gavitt is turning over in his grave is an understatement.
The Big East emerged on the college basketball scene making a lot of noise. It had big-name coaches, high-profile players and a commissioner in Gavitt who ascribed to the P.T. Barnum school of thought that any publicity was good publicity.
I can remember covering back-to-back Big East games early on where the teams were involved in bench-clearing brawls, and while Gavitt made a few public reprimands, privately he knew that they got his upstart league pretty good coverage on a fledgling television network called ESPN.
“I think that was one of the things Dave saw, what ESPN could do for the league,” Gary Williams, who coached at Boston College for four years during the league's early heyday, said Friday. “He would schedule games at 9 o’clock on a Thursday night and then you had to play at noon on Friday, but he was a former coach [at Providence] and none of us would complain.”
I was there when the Big East took its post-season tournament from Providence, R.I., where the league offices were located, to Madison Square Garden, and the type of heavyweight fight buzz it caused in the Big Apple.
I was at the Garden that during the 1984-1985 season when No. 1 St. John’s took on No. 2 Georgetown – Chris Mullin’s team vs. Patrick Ewing’s team – and Hoyas coach John Thompson unveiled the same ugly sweater that had been Loooouie Carnesecca’s good-luck charm.
I was in at Rupp Arena later that year when the Big East put three teams in the 1985 Final Four – with Memphis State being the lone interloper after narrowly knocking off a Williams-coached Boston College team in the Sweet 16 – to see Villanova shoot 80 percent in the second half to beat Georgetown for the title.
“To see what the Big East did in such a short amount of time was amazing,” Williams recalled.
The ACC eventually regained its stature as the best league in the country, and the Big East suffered some down years, but eventually teams like Syracuse and Connecticut brought the league back to prominence.
But when Syracuse announced it was leaving for the ACC last year, it was a sign that the Big East was in trouble. Gone would be those terrific games against Georgetown and Connecticut. I couldn’t wait for that first Syracuse-Clemson match-up at Littlejohn Coliseum. I was going to wear something orange.
When everyone around here got upset about Maryland’s announcement last month that it was leaving for the Big Ten, I wondered if some had forgotten that the Terps had been given Pitt as their travel partner for basketball, meaning there would be fewer games with Duke and North Carolina.
When the Big East started adding those teams for football – including Navy in 2015 – I figured it was only a matter of time before the non-football playing teams that were among the league’s founders – the ones who were represented when Gavitt first drew up plans on a paper napkin at Dante’s, a little Italian restaurant near the St. John’s campus – would finally say enough.
“I could see it coming when the Big East got up to 16 teams and a lot of those non-football schools weren’t getting the money,” Williams said.
The end of the Big East is going to happen officially Saturday when the presidents of those seven schools announce they are leaving to form their own league. They should raise a toast to Gavitt – and to Big John and Looouie, to Gary and Rollie Massimino, too – for giving us some great moments in the past 30 years.
I know there will be Big East games to watch this spring, and maybe even next, but it won’t be the same.
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