Big East basketball returns to Providence in full swing this month, as new PC head coach Ed Cooley leads his Friars into conference play. While fans are enjoying the on-court action, the real action will be happening behind the scenes in the conference’s Providence office, where major changes are afoot. Though the Big East still maintains a high profile presence in our fair city – both on and off the court – it’s evident that in practice, the conference has long since abandoned its birthplace.
What was once a collection of small, Northeastern, largely Catholic universities that played gritty, physical basketball has now become a sprawling behemoth that’s undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. The Big East has always been a basketball conference, but the real money in college athletics is in football. What is Commissioner John Marinatto to do?
The answer, beginning back in his predecessor Mike Tranghese’s time, has been aggressive expansion into football by reeling in big names like Miami, Rutgers, West Virginia and Virginia Tech. Marinatto carried on that tradition by luring Texas Christian University eastward from the football-heavy Mountain West Conference. No question, the Big East is serious about football.
The question remains, however, is football serious about the Big East? Of the five above-mentioned schools, only Rutgers will still be a member past 2014. Miami and Virginia Tech both departed for the more football-centric Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004. West Virginia will break for the football powerhouse Big 12 in 2014. TCU reversed its decision to join the Big East, also opting for the Big 12.
Indeed, Commissioner Marinatto’s dreams of becoming a major player in the multi-billion dollar industry that is college football may never materialize. Boston College, a founding member of the Big East, followed Virginia Tech and Miami to the ACC in 2005. Earlier this year, the ACC poached Syracuse and Pittsburgh, a founding member and a member since 1982 respectively. UConn, another charter member and the defending national champion in basketball, has been pursuing membership in the ACC, and there have been reports that Rutgers could defect as well. Meanwhile, no Big East football team finished among the top 30 in the final Associated Press poll last season.
So what is the Big East? Is it the basketball powerhouse it always was, home to six championships and 16 Final Four teams, the record holder for most teams sent to the NCAA Tournament last season when 11 of 16 made it? Or is it a flailing, also-ran football conference constantly chasing after big name schools and success that continues to elude it? Is it better to be the elite basketball conference or a mediocre football conference?
Unfortunately, it’s probably more lucrative to be a mediocre football conference. But college football is also a dirty business. The Bowl Championship Series, the convoluted, incomprehensible, often unfair, yet wildly profitable system through which an NCAA champion emerges every year, is loathed by fans and the bane of sports commentators. And the sport suffered to major blows to its reputation this year. First, Miami football booster extraordinaire Nevin Shapiro was convicted and imprisoned for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme; a subsequent investigation revealed – and Shapiro was all to happy to corroborate – a culture of greed, corruption and immorality within the Miami football program that caused Sports Illustrated to call for its total dissolution. Then the still-ongoing Penn State sex abuse scandal erupted, trouncing the reputation of one of the sport’s standard bearers for excellence and moral rectitude, and forcing the untimely firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno, whose name had become synonymous over the course of his legendary career with both Penn State and NCAA football.
Lost in the shuffle of all this are schools like Georgetown and Villanova, that continue to make the Big East the envy of other basketball conferences, and smaller programs like St. John’s, Seton Hall and our humble Providence College, founding members who are now lost in a sea of big money schools that sprawls as far Chicago, Louisville and Cincinatti, struggling to regain some semblance of their ‘80s and ‘90s glories. How can they hope to compete in a conference that is all too eager to put basketball, its very foundation, on the backburner in favor of chasing fleeting football success? Maybe it’s time for the Big East to abandon its gridiron aspirations and come on home to the hardwoods of Providence, where it belongs.