A Look at the Rise and Fall of the Big East in This Week’s Sports Illustrated

12COVv12BigEast_PromoAs the Big East plays its final conference tournament at Madison Square Garden this week, senior writer Alexander Wolff tells us about the individuals and moments most responsible for the rise and downfall of the legendary college basketball conference. One of the league’s best players of all time, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, is featured reaching for a jump ball against Walter Berry of St. John’s on a regional cover of this week’s SI. This is the 10th time the Hoyas have appeared on an SI cover and the fifth time for the Red Storm.

Wolff recalls how the Big East first rose to prominence in the 1980s due to the vision of the late Dave Gavitt, the founder and first commissioner of the league who cut TV deals with CBS, ESPN and regional sports networks, took the conference championship to the world’s most famous sports arena, and brilliantly managed the egos of the league’s coaches. Wolff writes: “Gavitt understood the importance of three factors: television, Madison Square Garden and Syracuse.” (PAGE 59)

The TV partnerships provided a stage for the larger than life coaching figures, such as John Thompson (and his white towel), Lou Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino and Rollie Massimino, and star players like Ewing, Chris Mullin, Earl “The Pearl” Washington and Ed Pickney. The Big East saw plenty of early success—NCAA titles for Georgetown and Villanova in ’84 and ’85, three final four teams in ’85, and last second losses by Georgetown (’82), Syracuse (’87) and Seton Hall (’89) in title games. More recently, Connecticut (‘99, ’04, ’11) and Syracuse (’03) won titles as well.

However, the college sports landscape encouraged big-time college football members to chase TV and bowl money. Since 2004, the Big East has lost 19 members, including 16 in the past two years, three without ever playing a conference game. However, the biggest blow came two years ago when Syracuse announced it would join the ACC in 2013.

Wolff writes that their departure essentially finished the league. “Syracuse’s departure would result in nothing less than a mutation in the conference’s DNA, the equivalent of North Carolina or Duke joining the Big Ten or SEC.” (PAGE 57)

Wolf found a few pivotal moments that led to the eventual downfall of the Big East, such as league members not voting in to add Penn State in 1981, the addition of too many schools outside the conference’s original geographic footprint and the killer—league members turning down a $1.2 billion TV contract from ESPN in early 2011 (They signed a TV deal with ESPN last month at nearly 15% of what they could have collected).

Many feel that league still could have survived had they signed that TV deal in 2011, including Boeheim. He says: “Sign the original TV deal and nothing would have happened.” (PAGE 60)


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