There was once a time when the topic would be up for debate every week on "College Sports Live," the college sports talk show that Reginald Bazile and I hosted on WSJU back in 2007 and 2008. Which conference was the best? In football, it was between the Big 12 and SEC; and in college basketball, it always came down to the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conferences. Having been exposed to the world of Big East media members long before I was, Reggie had backed the 16-team league to no end; but speaking as a North Carolina fan while also acknowledging the success of conference brethren Duke and Maryland among others, I was the defender of the ACC on the show and even long before that. Needless to say, it only took me less than twelve months to come around to the other side when I got to cover my second season of St. John's men's and women's basketball. Throw in the fact that eleven teams made the NCAA Tournament this past season in a league where "there's no lock at the top and there's no lock at the bottom," as Louisville coach Rick Pitino told me last October at the conference's annual media day; and there really is no denying that the Big East truly is the best conference in college basketball.
However, all good things must unfortunately come to an end; and if what transpired this past weekend is any indication, the end may be in the immediate future for the Big East Conference. Not in title, as the name will almost certainly live on; but in quality and member institutions after it was announced Sunday that Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two pillars of the Big East seemingly since its 1979 inception, (Syracuse was an original member, while Pittsburgh came aboard three years later) had received and subsequently accepted formal invitations to join the aforementioned ACC as the thirteenth and fourteenth members of that conference. Recent revelations have informed us that due to the Big East's "27-month rule" stated in its bylaws, the Panthers and Orange will not be permitted to leave the Big East until January 2014. This will give the two schools ACC membership in spring sports the likes of baseball and lacrosse initially, but they will have to wait until September 2014 for football and November 2014 (the 2014-15 season) for basketball.
If you're anything like me, you're probably asking yourself how something like this could happen; and why the Big East's front office would let something like this happen. Commissioner John Marinatto may insist that he did not know about the offers extended to Pitt and Syracuse on Friday, hence his complete obliviousness to the issue when approached about it the following day; but that does not exonerate him here. Marinatto had multiple chances to be proactive and preserve the future of his league, yet chose not to. Even after the addition of Texas Christian as the seventeenth (for the moment) Big East institution, Marinatto could have renegotiated his conference's contract with ESPN wherein the "Worldwide Leader" padded the Big East's bottom line for years to come in exchange for exclusive football and basketball broadcast rights; but ultimately stood pat thinking he would have greater leverage by letting the deal expire before renegotiating. Another chance to maintain the Big East's image as the superior league in Division I athletics came up when the commissioner had the opportunity to entice other mid-majors such as the University of Memphis to expand the league to eighteen schools. The school turned down the offer, but everyone has a price. Marinatto could have been more aggressive in his dealings with prospective invitees the way his predecessor was in 2006 when the Big East reached into Conference USA to bring in Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, DePaul and Marquette after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left for, you guessed it, the ACC. I'm not the world's biggest Mike Tranghese supporter, especially since Tranghese is essentially the man that gave birth to the most polarizing and universally abhorred concept in sports known as the Bowl Championship Series; but even with the BCS on his resume, Tranghese would never allow this to happen, much less behind his back. The commissioner and his predecessor, Dave Gavitt, (who unfortunately passed away on Saturday while the fire was just beginning to burn) would have taken a stand long ago against a measure like this. Yet here is Marinatto going on record saying his league is "well positioned for the future" even after the defections of two of his biggest revenue producers, especially for basketball; and maybe even before two more schools join the exodus, as reports have indicated Villanova and Connecticut to be on the ACC's wish list in a move that would surely sink the Big East battleship.
Call me old-fashioned, but there is absolutely no reason to sacrifice tradition and history simply for the sake of your bottom line when your basketball programs generate as much revenue as your football programs, as Pittsburgh and Syracuse do. When you think Syracuse, you don't think football. At least not primarily and not since Donovan McNabb quarterbacked the Orange in the late 1990s. When you think Syracuse, you think Jim Boeheim and the Hall of Fame career he has carved out in central New York; the 2003 national championship, the Who's Who of great players, the 856 career wins, the 33 seasons of 20 or more wins, and the world-famous 2-3 zone defense. When you think of Pittsburgh, some football players do come to mind, greats such as Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett and Larry Fitzgerald; but just like Syracuse, the lasting image in the minds of most sports fans is that of Pitt Panthers basketball: The pipeline to New York with players such as Carl Krauser, Chris Taft and Ronald Ramon, the continued success under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon despite only making it past the Sweet 16 just once in the last ten years, the raucous atmosphere in the "Oakland Zoo" generated by the student section, and of course, the perennial dominance at their home court of the Petersen Center, where the Panthers lose about as often as Hulk Hogan lost wrestling matches in the 1980s.
The ACC has also expressed an interest in playing its conference tournament inside the hallowed ground of Madison Square Garden, home to the Big East since before I was born in 1986; a move that is a kick in the gut to not just Big East basketball, but college hoops tradition as well. The Garden and the Big East are as New York as the Yankees and the Apollo. When George Steinbrenner threatened to move the Bronx Bombers to New Jersey many times in the 1990s when he couldn't get a new stadium, the proposal was met with massive outrage. Even as much of an ACC fan as I was and still am to some degree, you don't come into New York and take an AK-47 to the decades of tradition and epic games written into New York's college basketball history. St. John's in 2000. Gerry McNamara. Syracuse and Pittsburgh (ironically enough) winning four games in as many days against the odds. Six overtimes. Kemba Walker. UConn winning five games in five days as the No. 9 seed and starting their miracle run to a national championship. All of these memorable moments were made under the bright lights of the World's Most Famous Arena in the Big East tournament. You can't just rewrite history without consequence. It is totally and completely unacceptable.
The next move on this Big East chess board may still be up for debate; and while Villanova and Connecticut, and to a lesser extent Rutgers as well, are still Big East member institutions, John Marinatto needs to make an impact. When he first got into the business of college athletics, Marinatto was told by his mentor Mike Tranghese to "make himself invaluable." Nearly four decades later, Tranghese's advice must again be heeded by the current Big East commissioner. Otherwise, the future of college basketball as we know it will be changed even further than it already has been. The title of "best conference" in college basketball could once again be taken by the Atlantic Coast Conference if the Big East does not make some kind of solid effort to preserve what they have left, and I'm close to reaffirming the declaration I boldly made throughout my youth and on the air at WSJU if the ACC does manage to swoop in and take two more from the Big East.
Maybe this time, my old colleague and co-host Reginald Bazile might just come around to the other side; and if that happens, it will be a dark day for the Big East Conference, or what remains of it.