Football Erosion of Big East Conference Basketball Begin 20 Years Ago

By Merlisa
Andrew Weber-USA Today Sports Images

The erosion of the Big East Conference basketball product started twenty years ago when then commissioner Mike Tranghese presided over the league’s failed transformation into a football conference.

What began with a big bang has turned into a bigger disappointment; a league splintered into pieces.

“Blame me,” Tranghese recently said.  Ok Mr. Tranghese,  I blame you.   You and your pursuit of football glory.

And I’m not alone.  While a guest on the Tony Kornheiser radio show, Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan expressed disgust at the league’s demise and pointed the finger at Tranghese’s push to add big-time football.

Ryan, a friend of the late Dave Gavitt, the first commissioner of the Big East, said “thank God he’s not around to watch this.”  Ryan added that he’s glad the Catholic schools decided to leave as a group.

“I have long resented football’s intrusion here, long resented the nation’s slavish devotion to that sport,” Ryan said.  “The fact that this is necessary disturbs me.  But I applaud what they’re doing and I’m really hoping they can pull it off.”

Ryan covered the league from its inception and said Tranghese “put the forces in motion to get them involved in football because he thought they had to.”

Once Tranghese opened the door to big time football, that door kept revolving.

Syracuse and Boston College, original member sof the Big East, were playing solid Division I football at the time.  Pittsburgh, added to the league in 1982 was also a serious football program.

But the league’s bread and butter was the basketball product.  The league captured major media markets from the the Mid-Atlantic to throughout the Northeast.  Its conference tournaments at Madison Square Garden were a perfect stage to showcase  some of the biggest coaching personalities in the country: Georgetown Hoya‘s John Thompson, Villanova‘s Rollie Massimino, St. John‘s Lou Carnesecca, Seton Hall‘s P.J. Carlesimo, Providence‘s Rick Pitino and Syracuse‘s Jim Boeheim.

But in 1991 there was a seismic shift in college conference alignment, not unlike today.  Long-time independent Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference.  South Carolina and Arkansas were invited into the SEC.  Perhaps fearing the Big East would be left out,  Tranghese seized the chance to turn the league into a major football conference and invited Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Temple.

A few years later, Miami, Virginia Tech and then Boston College, left the league to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.  That began the ongoing quest to shore up cracks in the Big East basketball foundation.  When Syracuse, a charter member, announced it was leaving, this left a gaping hole.  The hole grew larger after Notre Dame, Rutgers and then Louisville announced exits too.

When current commissioner Mike Aresco attempted to fill the void with the likes of Tulane and Eastern Carolina, the Catholic Schools had had enough. Football’s footprint on the league threatened to stomp the basketball product out.

Who knows what form the new Catholic league will take.  Who knows what teams will get invited.  But it’s a safe bet that unless it’s Notre Dame, football-focused schools need not apply.

Merlisa blogs about Big East basketball.  Follow her on Twitter: @merlisa


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