Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 16, 2012

Big East Basketball Schools Return To Their Roots

Surely the spirit of Dave Gavitt is looking down and smiling. Gavitt was a basketball man, in love with the hardcourt game from his days as a Dartmouth undergraduate, when he played on the last men’s team from Hanover to win the Ivy League championship. After graduation he went immediately into coaching; first at the prep school level and then as an assistant coach at Providence College, where he was mentored by the legendary Joe Mullaney. Gavitt left Providence briefly prior to the 1967 season to become the head coach at Dartmouth, but returned to Rhode Island two years later when Mullaney moved on to the NBA.

In ten seasons as the head coach at Providence Gavitt’s teams won better than seventy percent of their games, posting a record of 209-84. Five of his teams went to the NCAA tournament, which in those years included as few as 22 and never more than 32 teams. In 1973 the Friars made it to the Final Four. In addition to the NCAA berths, three of Gavitt’s teams won berths in the NIT tournament, which at the time was considered nearly as prestigious as the NCAA championship. Beginning in 1971 Gavitt also served as Providence College’s athletic director.

In later years he was active in Olympic basketball, and spearheaded the movement to allow NBA players to participate on Olympic teams, giving birth to the U.S.A.’s “Dream Teams.” He served a term as chairman of the NCAA Division I Basketball Committee. In that role he expanded the tournament to 64 teams, moved the Final Four to domed stadiums that could accommodate tens of thousands of fans, and negotiated television contracts that ensured full coverage of the tournament from beginning to end; simultaneously giving birth to rabid sports fans’ annual fixation with March Madness and innumerable office betting pools.

But for all of his accomplishments as a coach and later as an administrator, Gavitt’s greatest contribution to the game began in 1979, when he convinced a group of athletic directors to form a new conference with basketball as its primary focus. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, and Syracuse were the initial core of the new conference. These four schools invited five others to join. Rutgers and Holy Cross declined, but Seton Hall, Connecticut, and Boston College agreed, and the new conference began play with seven teams. One year later Villanova came on board, and Pittsburgh made it a nine-team conference in 1982. Gavitt and his fellow AD’s named their conference the Big East, and Gavitt was named the conference’s first commissioner.

If on the surface the name seemed presumptuous, on the basketball court the conference’s teams wasted little time living up to it. Seven of the nine schools were located along the I-95 corridor, from the Palisades high above the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., up through Philadelphia and New York, and on to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and so to Chestnut Hill in Boston. In this part of the country college football is not the all-consuming religion that it is in the southeast or parts of the Midwest. Some of the Big East’s original members didn’t even have football programs above the club level. But during Gavitt’s eleven-year tenure as the conference’s first commissioner, all nine teams made it to the NCAA tournament at least once. Six of the teams made it to the Final Four. In 1985 the tournament finals were played in Lexington, Kentucky, but it would have made far more sense to stage them in the northeast. For the first time ever a single conference accounted for three of the four teams in the Final Four. That conference was of course the Big East, with eventual national champion Villanova, Georgetown, and St. John’s all making it through their respective brackets in the first tournament that included 64 teams.

The Big East became a basketball power outside of the season-ending NCAA tournament as well. Gavitt had the idea of making Madison Square Garden the permanent home of the conference’s own championship tournament, and the week-long event quickly became one of the hottest tickets every season at the “world’s most famous arena.” By moving the college game out of campus arenas and into high-capacity and high-profile locations the Big East helped to elevate the college game in the consciousness of fans, generating healthy cable television contracts along the way.

But shortly after Gavitt left his post as commissioner in 1990, the Big East began to change. Football was added as a conference sport in 1991. Since only Boston College, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh had major football programs, the conference added five more schools to form an eight-team football league. Then in recent years the pace of conference realignment among NCAA schools has accelerated to the point that most conference media guides are now being issued on an Etch-A-Sketch. All of the movement is driven by the lure of fat television contracts for each conference’s football games. With Miami and Virginia Tech, two teams that were part of the 1991 expansion leaving after the 2004 season, and founding member Boston College joining their defection to the ACC one year later, the Big East began casting about for new members. The goal was always to maintain a viable football conference and preserve the Big East’s position as one of six conferences within the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision whose champion is guaranteed an automatic bid to one of the BCS Bowl games.

The focus on football may have generated lots of dollars for participating schools; it also served to steadily dilute the Big East’s basketball brand. As the league at one point ballooned to sixteen teams playing basketball, the season-ending tournament at MSG became increasingly unwieldy, and the overall quality of play began to decline. Finally this week, officials at the seven Big East schools that don’t field football squads at the elite Bowl Subdivision level reached their breaking point. Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova, DePaul and Marquette announced that they would leave the Big East to start a new, basketball-focused conference. The first four were founding members of the conference, including Gavitt’s own Providence. Villanova has been a member since the conference’s second season, and DePaul and Marquette joined in 2005.

The seven defectors, all catholic schools, represent the nucleus of a strong basketball conference. As they now negotiate a timetable and terms for their exit, they will also look to add a few members to round out their new league. Schools like Butler and Xavier might be enticed to join the existing Midwest members DePaul and Marquette. Within the Big East’s traditional geography are solid basketball programs at places like St. Joseph’s and Virginia Commonwealth. All this will play out over the next several months, but there is every reason to think that in the end a basketball conference that can hold its own with any in the nation will emerge. In the course of their negotiations, the seven schools might also consider asking that they be allowed to keep the conference’s name. Truth be told, as power football conferences go, the Big East has always played really good basketball. Plus Dave Gavitt would no doubt think it would be the fair thing to do.

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