Keeping Score

Dispatch From College Basketball’s Big Funeral

The Big East, as we know it, will cease to exist next year. Why the final post-season tournament is so bittersweet

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Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two teams leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, in the Big East tournament quarterfinals on March 14.

Stacey Hand had never been to New York City before. But she had to come this March, for the wake.

Hand lives in Orange County, Cailf.; but she was raised on Syracuse Orangemen basketball. Her late father was a Syracuse alum, and like thousands of basketball-obsessed children of the 1980s, Hand devoured of Big East basketball. She watched those ESPN weeknight games from the Carrier Dome, 20,000-plus fans packing the house, future NBA players like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas going at it. The spectacle hooked her. “I still have VHS tapes,” Hand says.

Now, the Big East as we know it is about to die. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame will go play hoops in the Atlantic Coast Conference; Rutgers is headed for the Big Ten, and seven Catholic schools with small, or no, football programs are breaking away to start their own hoops-centric league. The “Catholic 7” will purchase the Big East name, and play a post-season tournament in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, just like the conference has been doing for the past 30 years.

But without original members like Syracuse and Connecticut, the Big East, and its popular post-season tournament, will never be the same. The loss of Syracuse is especially jarring. Every March, a sea of orange pours into Madison Square Garden; Syracuse, in effect, enjoys a home-court advantage. “Syracuse lights up the Garden,” says Bill Raferty, the ESPN commentator and former coach at Big East charter member Seton Hall.

For fans like Hand, rivalries like Syracuse-Georgetown are personal. She had never been to a Big East tournament — or the Big Apple — before this year, and since Syracuse is leaving, she has one last shot. When she walked into Madison Square Garden for the first time this week, Hand started to cry. “My dad should be here with me,” she says during halftime of the Syracuse-Pittsburgh quarterfinal, which Syracuse won, 62-59. “This is something we should have done together. It’s unbelievable. To be here, with all these other fans who understand what the Big East meant to college basketball — this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Mike Bilodeau, 30, grew up in Syracuse; he flew from his current home in Boulder, Colorado to see a Big East tournament for the first, and likely last, time. “The battles with Pitt, with Villanova —  they were all great,” says Bilodeau. “Now, it’s going to be Duke or North Carolina or whatever.” When I note that Bilodeau sounds bummed that Syracuse will be playing future conference games against Duke and North Carolina — only two of the most decorated college hoops programs in history — he laughs. “Well, I hear we’re still going to play St. John’s every year,” Bilodeau says. “That’s great.”

Pining for the past is never healthy. And all this longing for the Big East’s 1980s glory days may have fans west of the Mississippi rolling their eyes. Yes, the Big East  receives outsized media attention because of the conference tournament’s New York base. (Full disclosure: I grew up a St. John’s fan and fell hard for basketball during the Ewing-Mullin-Villanova ’85 national title-era. So it’s personal for me too).

(MORE: Five Lessons To Learn From Gonzaga Basketball)

But if you’re a sports fan, from anywhere, who loves college basketball — or just likes blindly filling out brackets during NCAA Tournament office pools — you should thank the Big East. The conference helped fuel March Madness.

The quick history: back in the late-1970s, former Providence College basketball coach Dave Gavitt had an idea for a basketball league that would stretch along major markets in the Boston-Washington corridor. Around the same time, a fledgling all-sports network in rural Connecticut, called ESPN, was desperate for programming. The Big East-ESPN partnership took Hoya Paranoia, Carrier Dome, and Louie Carnesseca’s St. John’s powers national. The league’s star power helped broaden the popularity of college ball. Other conferences now wanted their games on ESPN.

In 1985, the NCAA expanded its tournament to 64-teams. A few years later, CBS forked over $1 billion for the rights to every NCAA tournament game from 1991 through 1997. Office productivity during March Madness plummeted. The early-round upsets that created countless “One Shining Moments,” and gave college hoops its charm.

So why would such a successful basketball league break up? Blame football. Over the past decade, college football’s popularity has grown, so television networks will pay millions for the rights to televise football games. The Big East tried to compete in football, but leagues like the Big Ten and A.C.C. are more successful in that sport. The schools in those conferences have major programs in both basketball and football, while the Big East has a clear divide. Schools like Syracuse and Pittsburgh can command football money, while the Catholics schools — St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette, and others — can’t.

So it made no financial sense for football schools to stay in the Big East, and the Catholic schools, tired of being beholden to football, broke away. (The new Fox Sports network will reportedly pay the Catholic schools for the rights to their games). “All sense of loyalty broke away,” says Raferty. “It was all about self-protection, survival. No one wanted to be left out of the dance.”

“Nobody cares about student-athletes,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said after his team’s 62-43 loss to Georgetown. “All anybody cares about is money. Everybody in the NCAA, in college administration, they talk about academics and student-athletes. If people care about student-athletes, [former Big East school] West Virginia wouldn’t be in the Big 12 with two teams flying 800 miles to their closest home game. That’s really conducive to studying. The whole thing is a hypocrisy … The money has ruined it. If I was a fan, I’d be very disenchanted.”

While the Thursday afternoon Big East crowd wasn’t moping around — fresh beer and good basketball helps — the whole event has a bittersweet feeling. “The finality of it is so stark,” says Raferty. “It’s like, ‘let’s enjoy it this week, and think about the end later.’”

At least the Big East will get a parting gift: one final Georgetown-Syracuse game on Friday night, in the tournament semifinals. “It’s a great way for this league to go out,” says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “I love hating Syracuse,” says Georgetown fan Kirk McMurray, Hoya Class of ’99. “I’m upset that I’m not going to be able to almost get into fights with Syracuse fans.”

Hand, the California gal who loves ‘Cuse, is staying upbeat. On a chilly March day, she’s in not rush to get back to Orange County. After all, she spotted Derrick Coleman at the Garden — and he gave her a hug. “So many people are sharing stories – it’s phenomenal,” Hand says. “It still feels like a party.

“No funeral yet.”

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