Sadly for college basketball, John Marinatto's tenure as Big East commissioner will be remembered more for what could have been than for improvements that were obscured by conference realignment. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)
Half a decade ago, the Big East as we know it was transformed thanks in large part to an aggressive expansion that not only brought in five schools from Conference USA that strengthened the conference's basketball reputation, but also; and more importantly, revolutionized the league's standing as a football powerhouse.
Just five years later, what had become the first true "super" conference is seemingly nothing more than a mere bandage stopping the bleeding within, caused indirectly by a commissioner who this morning resigned from the post he has held since 2009.
When John Marinatto assumed the commissioner position in the league many regard to be the best basketball conference in America after working his way through the ranks as a disciple to Big East founding fathers Dave Gavitt and Mike Tranghese while at Providence College, Marinatto inherited the long-term security of a stable conference with an upcoming television broadcast rights renegotiation. Today, what had been a strong and powerful group of institutions is without one of its most consistent two-sport stars; and two more pillars of the group are also on the way out, and in their places stand an octet of mid-majors in uncharted territory, making the jump to their highest level of competition in program history in a AAA baseball prospect fashion.
When Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced their intent to bolt the Big East after over three decades of membership in favor of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the impending exodus had an effect on both basketball and football, and left Marinatto at the helm of a ship with virtually no destination and no course to follow. What ensued was a series of events so chaotic and random that they made Brett Favre's retirement drama seem normal by comparison. From the commitment and subsequent departure of Texas Christian, who joins West Virginia in the Big 12; to the additions of Temple, Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist for all sports next year, and Memphis in 2014, as well as welcoming San Diego State, Boise State and Navy for football only in a move that was made primarily to retain the league's coveted BCS automatic qualifying bid, Marinatto's legacy will be defined by his failed attempt to replace quality with quantity.
Marinatto's resignation was a hot topic among the presidents of the fifteen Big East institutions, the same men and women responsible for helping elect him to this post after his mentor Tranghese retired from it three years ago. Rather than make the bold and visionary move of bringing a fresh face into the fold to take an already reputable brand to newer and greater heights, the conference ultimately decided to protect their investment and maintain continuity. This decision, coupled with the realignment fiasco and the rejected broadcast contract that further illustrated the seismic shift between basketball and football, proved to be the commissioner's undoing.
The Big East needed a firm yet flexible authority to mitigate the differences between basketball and football in this conference the way Gavitt and Tranghese had somehow managed to do, and quite effectively at that, for the three decades prior to Marinatto's tenure. Someone who would bend, but not break. Marinatto did neither by and large, instead opting to stand pat until the last possible moment, and the manner in which he attempted to maintain the integrity of his league can best be described as placing suction cups on a waterfall.
Marinatto was ultimately a nice guy, but; as Big East coaches past and present have stated, he was in over his head while in charge of a group of people who may have never felt so powerless in their lives as they had when it came to realignment, which dominated last season's basketball media day.
For whomever replaces him, be it interim commissioner and former Miami Dolphins executive Joe Bailey, or even a short list of candidates that include former NCAA Tournament administrator Greg Shaheen, as well as associate commissioners Nick Carparelli and Dan Gavitt; the latter being Dave's son, who was also the athletic director at Bryant University prior to joining the Big East, the individual who takes command will need to not only bridge the gap, but fill it with something longer and stronger than a stick of gum.
The Big East is still regarded as one of the better conferences in the nation, but its reputation and stability are; to use an NCAA Tournament analogy, on the bubble, a bubble that will surely burst quickly and leave a profound impact on everyone within it unless order can be restored.