by John Furgele
March Madness is here and America again takes notice. For most, the first four days remains a part of Americana as people who never watch a second of college basketball fill out a bracket—or two—and see if they can be the big winner in the office or online or to Warren Buffet and his billion dollar bracket challenge. Even President Obama gets involved and truth to be told shows that he actually follows the game a little bit.
Last week, ESPN showed perhaps its best 30 for 30 in a fine series when it debuted Requiem for the Big East. The Big East was a league that transformed college basketball and just as importantly, made ESPN the four letter monster that sports fans love and cable companies hate. Devoid of quality programming in its beginning, college basketball, specifically the Big East, gave the fledging network what they call inventory, and by 1982 when Georgetown started winning in its own unique way, both the league and the network were well on their way to stardom. Soon, Big Monday, the ESPN tripleheader that featured the Big East, Big Ten and Big West (UNLV) was must see television, especially the Big East game. It looked like the Big East and college basketball was here to stay, a 100 year force, but as we know, change is inevitable and one game changed the fate of college basketball, the Big East and college football. It might have taken 30 years for the change to surface, but it did change.
The day that changed college sports forever was January 2, 1987, the night that Miami faced Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl for the “national championship.” With 80 million viewers, it remains the most watched college football game of all time. Why? Because both teams were independent, undefeated and because they were, didn’t have to go to a pre-destined bowl game like the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl, which prior to 1987 was played either December 25 or December 26, moved to New Year’s Day (in this case, January 2) and upped the payout to entice both the Lions and the Canes. It was a risk, but it provided a huge reward and payout.
The American viewing audience loved it. The rugged demeanor of Miami, the renegade and cocky coach in Jimmy Johnson versus Middle America and buttoned up, conservative Joe Paterno. The week long build up proved to college presidents and athletic directors that college football, not college basketball was going to drive the revenue bus in the future, despite a riveting stretch of NCAA basketball finals from 1982-1986 that were second to none.
That game killed the Big East even though it took 20 plus more years for that to actually happen. The Big East knew right then, that they had to do something for the football schools or eventually the football schools would have to leave. Penn State had been courted and rejected for Big East membership because they “weren’t a very good basketball program,” and because they weren’t in an accessible metro area, ala Pittsburgh. But, eventually, the Big East went to Blacksburg, VA and Miami to try to protect all members, the Villanovas and the Syracuses by balancing football and basketball.
The game sent shockwaves to the leaders of universities because they saw how popular college football was going to be. Most hung onto the bowl games the way Kodak held onto film. Why not? The bowl games, like the film, provided financial security and retirement packages for so many people. But, hanging on too long can prove to be fatal, and in the case of the Big East, that’s exactly what happened.
In the end, the Big East, with 16 schools—all with varying agendas and missions—became too bloated to survive. On one hand, you had Pittsburgh, with Division I football and basketball, on the other; you had Seton Hall with just basketball and a much smaller athletic budget. And, you had Georgetown a Division I basketball power with a 1-AA Patriot League football team that gets pounded by Bucknell every year? The differences became too much to overcome, too much to deal with. Syracuse didn’t want to share football money with St. John’s and St. John’s no longer wanted to feel inferior because they didn’t have a football program. Villanova was caught in the middle. They have a top notch Division 1-AA program, one that has won a national championship, but were they really that interested in spending millions of dollars to upgrade to Division 1 to save the Big East conference? The answer: no.
Even though it was only 1987, the league knew it would be in trouble long term because its leaders were visionaries. Dave Gavitt had the original vision and it was he that convinced seven other schools to join Providence College and form a league that transcended college basketball. Mike Tranghese also had a vision; in fact, he had three of them. When the members rejected Penn State in 1982, he knew that the league would rue that decision. He also knew that when the league decided to have football only members like Temple, that it would have repercussions. Thirdly, when the league expanded to Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida to get to eight and eventually nine football members, the divide between basketball only and football/basketball schools would grow and become as wide as the Grand Canyon.
As the 2000s progressed, the league was perceived as weak in football and bloated in basketball. Though the Big East held its own in the BCS bowl games, the conference was never regarded as strong enough to produce a BCS champion. In basketball, the conference remained one of the best and toughest in the land and produced national champions with Syracuse (2003), Connecticut (1999, 2004, 2011) and Louisville (2013). But, the coziness of the league was gone. With 16 schools, they never really knew how to handle the conference tournament. Should they invite everybody? Should they invite just 14? Should they have everybody play? Should they give byes to the first four seeds? It was tough to sell the 5/16 game, but the 8/9 game was kind of fun. In the end, bigger is not always better.
Football will continue to drive the revenue bus because simply, it is more popular than college basketball. People watch regular season college football games; college basketball, not so much. When all the major football conferences go to 16 schools, that will be tough for college basketball because a 10 team league is ideal with its 7/10 and 8/9 opening round, followed by the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, but money will win out because it always does.