As we enter the final stretch of the college basketball season, a lot is going to be written about the dissolution of the Big East as we currently know it. A lot of basketball guys are going to blame football. And a lot of folks are going to blame money and greed. And some will blame selfishness of this group or that group. Some will lob bombs at the ACC. While there may something to each argument, most of the blame will be attached to things that happened in the last ten years. People will argue that there has been a sudden wave of conference shifting (false; conference-shifting has been going on for decades). People will try to trace this back to only things that took place since 2004. But the truth is that the seeds of the break-up of the Big East began almost at the Big East’s founding.
The Big East was started as a basketball-first league. There was no football league at the outset. It was all about basketball. That’s why the league had no interest in a program like Penn State. The Nittany Lions were one of the premier brands in college football when the Big East was founded, but they’ve never been much for basketball. Football just wasn’t part of the plan. Which was just fine in 1979, when the Big East was founded. And it seemed fine in 1981, when Joe Paterno pitched an eastern football conference, but the plan failed in large part because the Big East schools were too happy with what they already had. There was nevertheless an opportunity at the same time for the Big East to build a bridge with Penn State by inviting Penn State for basketball. But the league voted down Penn State’s application (Joe Paterno insisted that Penn State turned the Big East down, but the rejection by the Big East seems more credible). A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dave Gavitt, the original mastermind behind the Big East, acknowledged that rejecting Penn State would be a move the Big East would come to regret.
A few years after the Big East was founded, the nature of college athletics was changed dramatically when some teams sued the NCAA for the right to sell their football product without limitation. Those teams won the lawsuit. A new age dawned in college sports – an age where football, without any doubt, would be the premier revenue product in the NCAA (but without any of that revenue being pooled and shared by the NCAA).
There was some doubt at first about whether the court ruling would really provide much value down the road, but it didn’t take all that long for the visionaries around the country to see where things were headed. It was right then, right at that moment, right around 1986-1988 or so, when the members of the Big East likely still had the power to control their own destiny. But seizing the moment would not have allowed for the conference to remain intact. Instead, what needed to happen was for the schools that prioritized FBS (then I-A) football to split into one group (Boston College, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh), and for the schools that de-emphasized football and made basketball their centerpiece needed to split into another group (everyone else). In other words, they needed to come to terms with what was happening and go their separate ways right then and there.
It was really about seeing where things were going and making the tough choice about where each group was headed. The football-focused programs needed to give up the dream that they could live without a football conference. They needed to split and get aggressive. The basketball schools could go their way and add pretty much any other eastern or midwestern basketball school they wanted to ensure they would remain a basketball powerhouse.
Football schools Boston College, Syracuse, and Pitt could have gone to Penn State (who allegedly tried to join the Big East again in the late 1980s) and maybe even have gone after Florida State and Miami. Then fill out the conference with the likes of South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech. That would have been a formidable 9 team league, and it probably could have been done if the three football schools teamed up with Penn State and got aggressive. All they had to do was beat leagues such as the Big 10 and the SEC and the ACC to the punch. Instead, the Big East sat and waited.
In 1989, the Big 10 announced the addition of Penn State. The Big East had lost their football prize. At that very moment, the Big East was effectively doomed. They had spent 10 years pushing Penn State away, and only when someone else embraced the Nittany Lions did the Big East start to figure out what they were missing. The Big East started a football league, but, aside from being a day late and dollar short, it was simply appended to the basketball league that remained at the core. Rather than dividing up into two separate groups so that each could excel at either football or basketball, the league tried to have it both ways – have a league that was basketball-first, but that would also provide some security for the football schools as well. All that did was put the league on the clock.
FSU would be snatched up by the ACC and South Carolina by the SEC (when FSU spurned the SEC). By not catching Penn State, Florida State, and South Carolina – the three biggest independent state schools available to it – when they likely had the chance, the Big East forever forfeited the opportunity to become a major player in college football. Throw in Miami and Virginia Tech, and the Big East could have been the premier football conference during the 1990s. Instead, they were mostly an afterthought, barely kept afloat by Miami and a surging Virginia Tech program.
As for the basketball schools, they simply could have gone off and put together the same type of conference the Catholic 7 is now assembling. Instead they, like the football schools, simply delayed the inevitable because they had grown so attached to what they had started a decade earlier.
Most know the story from there. The ACC made their move. The ACC was a league that was the basketball match for the Big East but offered a better football product anchored at the time by mega-brand Florida State (a particularly attractive match for Miami, which had no real connection to the Big East’s basketball roots). While the ACC originally wanted Syracuse instead of Virginia Tech, being forced to take the Hokies accidentially served to help further diminish the Big East’s football and prop up the ACC’s football product when FSU sagged in the 2000s. As television contracts for football soared and the importance of TV money skyrocketed to schools that wanted to be part of the highest level of football, further expansion moves were made, triggering the ACC’s further poaching, and even the Big 10 taking Rutgers.
The Big East as we’ve known it is dead.
But imagine that alternate reality where, circa 1987, Boston College, Syracuse, and Pitt awoke to the tectonic shifts happening underneath them and were able to recruit Penn State to start building a football-first conference away from the basketball-centric schools. Where the addition of Penn State led to the dominoes of Florida State, South Carolina, and Miami falling in this new conference’s favor. And then Virginia Tech and West Virginia. In this alternate reality, when the early 2000s roll around, it isn’t these guys that are being poached; they are doing the poaching. They go out and steal a Maryland and a Clemson. Or Virginia and Georgia Tech. When the recent round of expansion rumbles come, perhaps it is Tobacco Road schools that come calling, hoping to be the teams that take this fantasy conference to 16, enough to own much of the east coast as they start their very own cable network.
This fictional conference likely would not have stopped the football ascendance of the SEC, a league with a focus on football that few teams in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic will ever hope to match. And indeed, this conference would not have been a perfect list of football powers – there’s little reason to believe that the schools on the list that have struggled for times in the last decade or so wouldn’t have had the same struggles. But would they have had the upper hand over the ACC? I think so. More than anything else, this scenario would likely have meant that the core Big East football teams would have been controlling their own conference destinies, rather than hoping and praying some other conference would rescue them from the shambles of their present conference. All they had to do was see what was happening before their eyes in the mid-to-late 1980s and not have clung to that dream of 1979 longer than that dream was viable.
Why did the Big East fail? Well, I think it was doomed at inception – at least in the form it took then. But by failing to see what was happening and failing to take the difficult, proactive, and necessary choices that would have allowed its members to control their own destiny, the Big East goes down as, ultimately, a failure of a league, rather than as the start of something big.