The Big East Conference, at least the Big East as we know it, may die as soon as today.
The so-called “Catholic Seven,” seven Big East schools that are parochial and do not have Football Bowl Subdivision programs, will be walking away
from what is left of the conference.
It took 21 years, but the vision of the late Dave Gavitt when he founded the league in 1979 is gone.
Gavitt, a one-time basketball coach and athletic director at Providence College, thought the Big East would be a way to bring together some of the parochial institutions along the East Coast that had mostly played as independents for decades.
And so the conference launched with Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Syracuse. The following year, 1980, Villanova joined the fold and in 1982, Pittsburgh came on board.
The impact on college basketball was almost immediate. The Big East became a behemoth.
The physical style of play in the league, along with a burgeoning new audience brought about by the launch of ESPN, also in 1979, shined a spotlight on the conference.
The Big East landed its first Final Four berth in 1982 when Georgetown, led by dynamic freshman Patrick Ewing, lost by a point to Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the national championship game.
The Hoyas were back in the Final Four in 1984 and won the whole thing. In 1985, Georgetown was a Final Four team once again, this time bringing company. St. John’s and Villanova also reached the Final Four that year, marking the first and only time in tournament history that three schools from the same conference were among the last four standing.
No one realized it at the time, but the beginning of the end for the Big East began in 1991, when new commissioner Mike Tranghese decided that football was a must-have for the conference.
It was a different time then. In 1991, no conference was split into divisions. There were 18 major independent programs. There were also only 18 bowl games for the 104 Division I-A teams to fight over.
But that was about the same time the football gold rush began.
In 1992, the Southeastern Conference added Arkansas and South Carolina, split into divisions and launched a championship game.
In 1993, Penn State forever changed the equation of the Big Ten and in 1996 the Big Eight consumed most of the Southwest Conference and became the Big 12.
Now, with the additions of such basketball bottom feeders as Tulane, SMU, Central Florida and others—all added to keep football viable with the pending defections of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the Atlantic Coast Conference to join former Big East members Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College—the Catholic Seven have reportedly decided enough is enough.
Rutgers will also be leaving the Big East to join the soon-to-be-14-member Big Ten. West Virginia damned the geography and charged full speed ahead this year, leaving the Big East for the Big 12.
Basketball got shoved aside, marginalized because of the huge dollars to be chased through football.
So while it’s a bit sad for me that Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall and Providence will no longer be under the Big East banner, along with later additions DePaul and Marquette, at least they will no longer be treated as second-class citizens because they refuse to belly up to the trough that is big-time football.
These schools may lose some dollars—basketball rights are now just a fraction of what television pays for football, but what they’ll gain can’t be measured in money.
They will reclaim their identity from a conference that sold its soul to football cash decades ago.