Keeping Score

Bye Bye, Big East: The Fall of a College Sports Power

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Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

Arinze Onauku, Josh Wright, Terrence Roberts and Demetris Nichols of the Syracuse Orange celebrate after defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers 65-61 in the Big East Men's Basketball Championship Final at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2006

They flock to midtown Manhattan every March, clad in orange and blue. Some are New York City residents and alums of Syracuse University. Others make the long drive, or take the quick flight, from upstate New York. For basketball fans, the Big East tournament is a slice of paradise, even if the weather is still sloshy outside.  Fans get four straight days of quadruple-headers at Madison Square Garden, with their inevitable buzzer-beaters and singular performances. And the Syracuse fans come out in droves. They give the tournament its electric atmosphere.

We’ll miss all those orange maniacs. Now, they’ll have to fly to North Carolina, or some other southern outpost, to see their team in a conference tournament. On Sunday, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced that it had accepted bids from Syracuse and the University of Pittsburgh to join their league. Yes, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, another school whose success over the past decade has energized Madison Square Garden in March, are leaving the Big East, and leaving 30 years of gritty, glorious history behind.

What a sad weekend for the Big East. On Friday Dave Gavitt, the first commissioner of the Big East, passed away, at 73. The next day, word trickled out that Syracuse and Pitt were leaving the conference. Within hours, the Big East lost its architect, and its foundation crumbled.

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The college sports landscape is changing daily. This year, Nebraska is playing in the Big 10, which has 12 teams. Like Nebraska, Colorado left the Big 12 – for the Pac-10, which is now the Pac-12, since the University of Utah also joined. Got all this? The Big 12, by the way, has 10 teams, for now. Texas A&M has one foot out the door, for the SEC. The Oklahoma schools, plus the University of Texas, might leave too. The Big 12 looks like toast.

The departure of Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East, however, really stings for basketball fans. Do you enjoy March Madness? You can thank Gavitt for helping make the tournament the spectacle it is today. When ESPN started broadcasting college basketball in the early 1980s, this new league called the Big East — Syracuse was a founding member, and Pitt joined three years later — was a key partner and content provider. The games were epic: future NBA Dream-Teamers like Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) and Chris Mullin (St. John’s) became fierce rivals in key TV markets (Washington D.C. and New York City, respectively). Syracuse, with players like Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, Sherman “The General” Douglas, and Derrick Coleman, was a fun, high-flying show. Pitt had bruisers like Charles Smith and Jerome Lane. Countless new fans, in both the Northeast and around the country, were exposed college basketball. There are many reasons why CBS and Turner Sports paid the NCAA $11 billion dollars for the rights to broadcast the NCAA Tournament for the next 14 years. But no one deserves more credit than ESPN and the Big East.

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So why would schools like Syracuse and Pitt abandon a structure that made them so much money, and created so many rivalries cherished by students, players, alums and appreciative fans alike?  This move, like all the others shaking up college sports, is all about business.

Right now, the Big East is a weak football conference. Teams like Rutgers, Cincinnati and Louisville aren’t national championship threats. So by joining the ACC, Syracuse and Pitt will receive revenue windfalls. The stronger your football conference, the more money television networks will pay you for the rights to broadcast your games. On the basketball side, Syracuse and Pitt will likely make more money too, since the ACC, which already has hoops royalty Duke and North Carolina, becomes an even more attractive basketball league for future TV partners.

The money grab, however, hurts those left behind. Without Syracuse and Pitt, the Big East is a less attractive basketball league, and an even weaker football conference. The ACC, which now has 14 teams with Syracuse and Pitt, is already whispering about adding another two teams: 16 schools, with two-eight team divisions, is nice symmetry. It would make sense for the University of Connecticut, another Big East hoops powerhouse with football aspirations, to join the ACC. Rutgers could sign up too.

Unless the Big East makes a Hail Mary play for one of the dissatisfied Big 12 schools – we’re looking at you, University of Kansas – the conference could crumble. Schools with no major football programs, places like St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, Villanova, Seton Hall, and DePaul, which all happen to be Catholic institutions, could form a formidable hoops league of their own.

As fans, we’ll eventually warm to the idea of Duke-Syracuse and North Carolina-Pitt basketball games. We always wind up moving on. Still, we can’t help but look back sometimes. We’ll always long for the old Big East.

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Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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