I became a fan of Syracuse basketball in 1988, at pretty much the exact moment I became a fan of college basketball, at pretty much the exact moment that ESPN's Big Monday started to captivate the nation and the Big East became the greatest basketball conference in the nation, a crown it would hold pretty much without doubt through today (ACC and Big Ten fans might argue but...). With the announcement that the seven remaining basketball-only Big East schools would be breaking free and forming their own separate Catholic school conference, the Big East has finally, mercifully been killed. And sadly, very sadly, it all ends with a whimper. I'm not exactly sure why I became a Syracuse fan. I went to Rutgers for college, which is decidedly not all that close physically to Syracuse, NY, and wasn't in 1989 in the same conference. I grew up near Philadelphia, where basketball powerhouses like Villanova and Temple play and I was definitely a Villanova fan -- like the rest of South Jersey -- during their magical run to the NCAA title in 1985. But for some reason I became captivated with the Orange and learned to hate with a passion the evil John Thompson and all of his Georgetown thugs and the even more evil Jim Calhoun and all his UConn fucks and then when Pitt got good and we weren't so good and we could never beat them I hated them. Even Villanova, which went through a long stretch of suckiness only to be resurrected under Jay Wright in the last decade and I learned to hate them too. And don't get me started on Louisville. F Rick Pitino. But now it's over. All the rivalries are dead or dying and there's no one left to hate. Well yeah, I'll fucking hate the shit out of UNC and Duke but will it ever be the same as Georgetown or UConn? I don't know. And the question is how did this happen.
The Big East began with 7 teams for basketball who agreed to play together in 1979-80: Syracuse, Providence, St. John's, UConn, Boston College, Georgetown, and Seton Hall. Villanova joined a year later and Pitt in 1982. Many say the beginning of the end of the league happened back in 1982 -- when Penn State asked to join and were voted down. They needed 6 votes to get in but only got 5, with 3 Catholic schools who are leaving today casting votes against -- Georgetown, Villanova, and St. John's. Penn State of course was a football power without much of a basketball program and this was a basketball league. Eventually the greatest basketball league. But college football ended up making a lot of money. Hindsight is 20/20 but in the late '80s, the basketball-only schools still had not figured out the value of big-time college football to the future of their league and took forever to form Big East football, missing out on not only Penn State (again) but Florida State as well. In 1991, the Big East football league formed, with Miami, Virginia Tech, Temple, West Virginia, and Rutgers joining Syracuse, BC, and Pitt for the inaugural season. But only Miami was allowed in as a full member. In 1994, when the football schools were signing a $65M deal with ESPN and threatening to break free unless they became full members, the league voted Rutgers and West Virginia in as full-fledged all-sports schools, bringing the Big East basketball league up to 12 members. Voting against that? Seton Hall, Georgetown, and Providence. Yes, the Catholic schools again. At this point it's not so much hindsight as lack of sight. Sort of common for Catholicism I guess but still. Virginia Tech didn't become a full member until 2000. Notre Dame got an invite for all sports except football in 1995 (they chose to remain independent in football and still are today). It was an unwieldy arrangement at best -- some schools football only, one basketball only, and many didn't play Division I football. It was a mess. Temple never became a full member and eventually got kicked out in 2004 because their football team sucked so much. We'll get back to them later.
In the meantime, the Big East basketball league remained a power, with UConn winning a national championship in 1999 and West Virginia and Pitt joining Syracuse and Georgetown as perennial powers. UConn was at the top though, and even as a Syracuse fan I still remember the magical Allen Iverson / Ray Allen duel in the Big East tournament circa mid-90s and all these great teams. Of course, big money was coming into college football, and the powerhouses in Big East football -- Miami and Virginia Tech -- were not quite so happy with the basketball-first focus of the league. Miami had sent a formal letter to Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as far back as 1999, expressing their dissatisfaction with the basketball-heavy league tilt. Conference championships were about to become big-money events for college football and you needed 12 teams to have a championship. Big East football was still at its original 8 and should have been looking to expand. They didn't. The ACC, on the other hand, did, announcing formally its plans to expand from 9 teams to 12 in 2003. Miami was the obvious target and they were eager to comply. Boston College and Syracuse were also in talks to move. Things got really ugly when Connecticut's Attorney General (now Senator) Rick Blumenthal sued the ACC (which may have kept UConn out of the league through today) and Virginia's governor Mark Warner forced ACC member Virginia to push for Virginia Tech instead of Syracuse. NC State then voted against Boston College at the last minute and invitations for only Miami and Virginia Tech went out. They both agreed. When Notre Dame wouldn't agree to become the 12th member of the ACC, Boston College went in one year later, in 2005. The first original Big East member to leave. And the beginning of the end of the conference.
There were huge debates after the ACC raid about whether or not the league should split into 2 -- a football conference and basketball conference, but eventually they all stayed together and invited 5 schools from Conference USA to join -- Louisville, Cincinatti, South Florida for all sports and Marquette and DePaul for all but football. UConn also agreed to move up to Division I, which meant the 4 new schools to replace the departed 3 + Temple allowed the league to keep its BCS bid for football. Meanwhile the basketball league now had a massive and likely oversized 16 teams starting in 2005. Oddly, though, that league sort of became the golden age of Big East basketball, rivaling the great '80s glory days and perhaps even surpassing it. Because despite the presence of perennial cellar-dwellers South Florida, DePaul, and Rutgers, the additions of Louisville (with new coach Rick Pitino) and Cincy (a perennial basketball power) and Marquette boosted the league's profile even higher. Plus, Villanova and Georgetown returned to excellence after some down years. Syracuse rejoined UConn as a perennial top 10 team and Pitt was a national championship contender (although never quite making the Final Four). The league got 11 bids for the NCAA tournament just 2 years ago (out of 16 teams). Unwieldy? Yes. Excellent basketball? Abso-freaking-lutely. No other league could come close. Unfortunately, basketball didn't make near the amount of money as football. And when Texas A&M bolted the Big 12 for the SEC in 2011, it set off another round of conference realignment that spelled the end of the Big East once and for all.
Without a big-money TV contract (they turned down an ESPN deal, hoping for bigger riches despite being by far the weakest of the Big 6 power conferences in football), the football schools in the conference started looking at other options. West Virginia was first to go, to the SEC, and while the Big East managed to secure TCU as a replacement, it wasn't enough when the ACC came calling again. Syracuse and Pitt were offered membership and accepted immediately, leaving the Big East floundering and with really no good options to replace them. TCU reneged on its joining as well, and the Big East had no choice but to expand all the way to the west coast to get anyone good to join its dwindling football conference -- in this case Boise State and San Diego State as football only members. Figuring out way too late that bigger was better but without having anyone decent to offer -- they eventually asked Conference USA members Houston, SMU, and Central Florida to join -- not exactly college football powerhouses -- and even decided to let Temple back in. Navy was to come in as football only in 2015. And Memphis in all sports in 2013. Notre Dame decided to follow Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC (for all sports but football of course). Then last month, Rutgers and Louisville took off for the Big Ten and ACC respectively. Their replacements? Tulane and East Carolina. Yes, the Big East was now Conference USA.
The split that should have happened years ago is finally happening and the 7 remaining basketball-only Catholic schools decided to leave this mess that they themselves created and go it alone. They will likely try to grab some mid-major powers (who also happen to be Catholic institutions) like Xavier and Butler and Creighton, because to be honest, only Georgetown, Marquette, and Villanova boast anything close to top-tier basketball programs of the 7 who are leaving. But that could be a strong conference for basketball, just not nearly as strong as the ACC -- who will have Syracuse, Pitt, and Louisville (and Notre Dame) joining UNC, Duke, and Wake (?), um... yeah, they were very top-heavy before this and now will be very very strong. So who's left in the "Big East"? Only UConn, really, and as a Syracuse fan I have to laugh. They are left alone. The only original member still in the league and only one of three remaining football members from the league just last year (along with South Florida and Cincy). If Boise State doesn't back out (and at this point, I don't know why they wouldn't), this Big East could continue as a sort of glorified Conference USA, but it's likely that one of the Big 5 will poach UConn and/or Cincy and the final nail on the coffin will be made. For now, though, it's a sad day in the history of a really great basketball conference and a middling football conference done in by a lack of foresight and a lack of understanding that as great as the basketball conference was, it was football that determined all of their futures.