Sports

How the New Big East Came to Be

The origin story of the realigned conference in which PC came out on top

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This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Providence Monthly.

Dave Gavitt would be proud. After all, back in 1979, when he created the Big East Conference, this is what he had in mind: a conference made up of schools where basketball was king. And it was headquartered right here in downtown Providence. In fact, the very first Big East Tournament was held at the Providence Civic Center, now the Dunk. Unfortunately, that dream, although immensely successful, took a hiatus for a while. ESPN had burst onto the cable network stage, bringing with it its insatiable appetite for sports programming in general, and college football, in particular. At the time there were only four Division 1 football schools in the conference. If the Big East was going to get a piece of that huge pie of money, it needed to add schools with a strong football cache.

Thus began the unraveling of Dave Gavitt’s dream. Football powers like Miami, Virginia Tech and West Virginia were added to enhance the conference’s football stature. So what if they didn’t fit geographically? They were “football schools.” More were to come. Soon seven northeastern basketball-playing schools became 16 geographically, scholastically and athletically diverse partners, with the football-dominant schools calling the shots. But as the lure of bigger bowl-appearance payouts came into play, the best of the football schools began to bail out, headed for stronger football conferences that promised more money. Virginia Tech, Miami and West Virginia were the first to go, followed by Boston College, who went to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Those schools were replaced with the likes of Houston, Southern Methodist, Tulane and East Carolina, schools with weak football programs and even weaker basketball teams. Finally, seven non-football playing Catholic schools said “enough.” They became known as the “Catholic 7.”

The idea of separating from this hodge-podge of institutions had actually been percolating for several months, according to the Reverend Brian Shanley, President of Providence College. “People had been whispering in our ears that we should break away and form our own conference,” he explains. When Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two of the conference’s stronger basketball programs, left for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), there was still the hope of holding things together. But when Rutgers announced it was leaving for the Big Ten Conference, shock waves rippled through the Big East. Everyone knew that there would be more defections. Connecticut, Cincinnati and Louisville were all vying for the next call from the ACC. When Louisville was chosen, it became obvious that trying to keep the status quo was not going to work.

But the seminal event in the decision of the Catholic schools to break away was the creation of a new all-sports network by Fox, Fox Sports 1. Like ESPN 30 years before, Fox Sports was hungry for basketball programming. “I don’t know who contacted who first, but talks started, and Fox said, ‘If you guys do this, we’d be interested,’” recalls Father Shanley. The decision was made.

Having been pushed around and bullied by the football schools long enough, the presidents of Providence College, St. John’s, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova, Marquette and DePaul renounced their membership in the Big East and struck out on their own, forming a new, basketball-centric conference. And when the opportunity to buy the Big East name from the remaining schools (now to be called the American Athletic Conference) was offered, they jumped at it. They also were able to keep Madison Square Garden, basketball’s mecca, as the site of its conference tournament, as it had been for three decades. Those two events were major factors in the formation of the “new Big East.”

The second order of business, after solidifying the new membership, was to consummate the television deal with Fox. The network insisted on 12 teams, but the presidents of the seven members felt that ten was the perfect number initially. Butler, having been to the national championship games in 2010 and 2011, and Xavier, a school with a perennially powerful basketball program, were lured away from the Atlantic 10. Creighton, from Conference USA, completed the initial ten.

The original plan was to begin play in the 2014-15 sports year, but that was pushed up to 2013-14, creating a sizeable problem for the sports whose seasons began in the fall. Nevertheless, it was full speed ahead. The new Big East is here: ten schools where basketball is king, just like it was back in 1979.

So what are the prospects for this new conference, and what does it mean for Providence and our local team, the PC Friars? The new Big East will not be headquartered here in Providence, but rather in New York City. (The American Athletic Conference will, however, remain here, at least until the lease on its downtown office space runs out.) It was felt that the new conference needed to be close by to Fox Sports. “I couldn’t vote for that,” said Father Shanley. “This is my home town.” But the decision was made to make the conference headquarters in New York City.

There is a new commissioner, Val Ackerman. There were plenty of candidates for the job, but the presidents were looking for someone who had worked extensively in basketball, had taken a start-up operation to success and could relate to college athletes. Val had a long history with basketball, having worked for the NBA as an attorney. When the NBA sought someone to get the new WNBA off the ground, Val got the call. Having played basketball at Virginia, she understood college athletes. And, as if she needed more cache, she was a devotee of Dave Gavitt. “One of the reasons I took this job was to carry on Dave’s legacy,” Ackerman says. In addition, she has some lofty goals. “We want to see a national champion in basketball, and we want to see the women’s programs be competitive on a national level. And maybe develop new programs, combine the heritage of the old Big East with a spirit of innovation. We have added several schools as associate members: Rutgers, Temple, Old Dominion and Connecticut for field hockey only, for instance.”

The conference schools reside in many of the major media markets, such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. And there is the Fox Sports 1 contract; additionally, the conference will air some of its games on CBS and maybe even ESPN. The national exposure should be as strong as ever, which will be invaluable when it comes to recruiting top-flight talent.

Although the marquee sport will be basketball, the conference will host other sports. According to Bob Driscoll, Associate Vice-President for Athletics at Providence College, the conference should be a national power in soccer, and schools like Denver and Navy may be added as associate members for lacrosse only, giving the conference a national status in that sport. As for Providence College, with the exception of hockey (the hockey Friars play in Hockey East), “every sport that PC fields will participate in the Big East,” says Driscoll.

The question remains, how will Providence College’s basketball program fare in the new conference? The answer is very well. It did not enjoy much success over the last two decades in the old Big East, winning one conference tournament championship and for the most part dwelling in the bottom tier of what was considered one of the two or three best basketball conferences in the nation. But head coach Ed Cooley, a Providence native who played ball at Central High School, has infused new life into the program in his two years here. Last year’s recruiting class was considered one of the best in the country and this year’s looks to be another strong one. He’s already received verbal commitments from three top-flight recruits. And two transfers who sat out last season are now eligible. Combine those with All Big East selection Bryce Cotton and the conference’s most improved player, Kadeem Batts, and the Dunk should be rocking this winter.

So what does the coach think about this new situation, and what are the pluses and minuses as they pertain to his program? Will his recruiting be helped or hindered? “Fox Sports 1 is a game changer. All of our conference games will be nationally televised. Parents will be able to see their kids play,” says Cooley. “If anything, the new conference will help recruiting. I think the ACC is considered the best basketball conference in the country, and we’re right there with them.” How about the loss of national powers like UConn, Louisville and Syracuse? “I don’t see any impact at all,” he says.

Combine the turn-around in the talent level with a new, basketball-oriented conference – in which the Friars will be much more compatible with their fellow schools – and a visionary commissioner, the future of both the PC basketball program and the new Big East Conference looks bright. Dave Gavitt passed away a couple of years ago, possibly from a broken heart as he watched the dream he had created morph into something unrecognizable. It’s a good bet he’s looking down and smiling now.