When Dave Gavitt, the Big East Conference founding commissioner, died in September 2011, the conference he had constructed so masterfully was perceived to poetically be saying goodbye with him. With the departure of three pioneer members of the conference in Syracuse, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh, no longer would Orange, Huskies or Panthers run rampant through the streets of New York City in the middle of every March.
The truth is the Big East that Gavitt constructed left before the legendary coach and commissioner died. The change in the conference truly began when Gavitt left the Big East to become CEO of the Boston Celtics in 1990. It was from that moment on that the conference began a never-ending expansion to appease the growing malcontent of schools that prioritized football over basketball.
Despite the on-court success during some of this two-decade long expansion era, including a 2011-12 season where a remarkable 11 of 16 schools made the NCAA Tournament, the odds of the conference sustaining itself as constituted were slim at best.
After a mass exodus at the turn of the last decade, only seven schools, coined ‘The Catholic 7,’ remained in what was not even a conference for a short while. When the schools finally bonded and acquired the naming rights to the Big East, many people envisioned the conference as being relegated from the mountaintop of college basketball to mid-major status.
While some people still see the Big East that way, the conference has grown into something much richer than it was in the latter stages of its previous incarnation.
The talent of the Big East on the basketball court in the turn of the century was undeniable, but the conference was an uncomfortable mixed bag. The Big East went from being a neighborhood of mom and pop restaurants where business was booming to somewhat of a retail strip. It still had the excitement, and perhaps had more talent than ever, but it lacked the character it had in its purest moments.
This is important to note now because people will often compare this new era of the conference to the ‘old era,’ when often times the era they are referring to as the ‘old era’ is the wrong one. Reliving the rivalries of Jim Boeheim vs. John Thompson or P.J. Carlesimo vs. Lou Carnesecca will be hard to do, but the conference today is developing fresh rivalries, cementing present-day legacies and embracing a new identity.
It is also living up to the promises of its earliest days to put basketball first. Even in the golden era of the Big East, the football ambitions of schools like Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh had to be managed. Today, no such Division I ambitions exist among any of the 10 schools.
Beyond that, in terms of building an identity, the Big East is becoming a conference that holds onto its players for multiple years. Unlike the other power six conferences that see most of the top teams’ recruit players for one season, the conference stationed out of the Big Apple is experiencing genuine rivalries develop among the players of all teams.
Before someone says anything about “power six,” no one seemed to have a problem with the term in the aforementioned era, when the Big East sent 11 schools to the NCAA Tournament.
St. John’s, at the time winless in conference play, made a resounding statement with its upset over then-No. 4 Duke, and followed that up with a win over then-No. 1 Villanova, that the Big East is greater than mid-major. While even entertaining such a critique is a waste of time, it is time for the national discussion to include the conference that has both the best of yesterday and today.
James Justice is a broadcast and visual media major from Caldwell, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.