The death of the Big East Conference has been prolonged and painful, a slow petering out of both its performance and its relevance over the years that sped up earlier in 2012 when Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia announced they’d be leaving for the greener pastures of bigger conferences.
But on two consecutive days this week came the final one-two punch that showed the Big East’s death knell was finally upon us. First, on Wednesday, Notre Dame announced it would be leaving the Big East for the ACC in every sport but football and hockey. And then on Thursday legendary Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, the dean of Big East coaches and the man who turned UConn from a backwater sports school into a consistent basketball power, announced his retirement.
So only now, after all these years of declining relevance and performance for the Big East, after the conference became less mobile and then bed-ridden and then finally gasped its last breaths this week, can we finally write it: the obituary for Big East basketball, the place where the best hoops in the country once were played.
And by extension, it is an overdue obituary for the glory days of college hoops, days we may never see again.
Notre Dame’s announcement came at the height of college football season, so it was natural for initial reactions to be seen through the lens of football. It’s a sweetheart deal and a win-win: Notre Dame keeps its football independence and holds onto its national football brand, yet the Fighting Irish get to play five ACC teams a year in football. It bolsters the conference’s exposure while allowing Notre Dame to supplement its traditional series (Southern Cal, Michigan, Purdue, etc.) with ACC teams that are relevant nationally. In today’s constantly realigning world of college sports, every story is a football story.
Except that when Notre Dame’s leaving the Big East is coupled with the three-time national champion Calhoun’s retirement, this ceases to be a football story. This is a basketball story, and a very sad one.
Because the rise of the Big East as a basketball power paralleled the rise of college basketball as one of America’s most popular sports. And sadly, the recent unraveling of the Big East, with Pitt, Syracuse and now Notre Dame going to the ACC and West Virginia going to the Big 12, has mirrored the recent decline in the level of play in college basketball, not to mention the interest in and influence of it as well.
Consider: The Big East was founded in 1979 as a basketball conference. In 1982, Georgetown became the first Big East team to make the NCAA final; the Hoyas won it in 1984. The next year three Big East teams, Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s, reached the Final Four, with Villanova upsetting Georgetown in the final. Two Big East teams made the Final Four in 1987, with Syracuse losing in the final, then Seton Hall losing in the 1989 final. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the place you went for bruising basketball with blood-boiling rivalries was the Big East.
As the Big East rose, so did college basketball. The NCAA tournament expanded four times in the 1980s, increasing from 40 teams to 64. The term “March Madness” was coined and was later trademarked by the NCAA. Television rights for the tournament went from NBC, which often didn’t show early-round games, to CBS and ESPN, where early-round games provided some of the best television excitement of the sporting year.
Since then, a few things have happened — bad things for both the Big East and for college hoops as a whole.
First and foremost, Kevin Garnett bypassed the college basketball system altogether in 1995 and went straight to the NBA. That began the trend of the best players either heading straight to the NBA or playing one year in college before leaving. The one-and-done (or done-before-they-ever-started) trend in college basketball weakened the overall product and didn’t allow universities to build a brand on a star player as UNC built its brand on Michael Jordan, or Georgetown on Patrick Ewing, or St. John’s on Chris Mullin.
The best talents bypassing the college system has led to parity that may seem exciting in March, when a team like Butler can reach the NCAA final two years in a row, but hurts college basketball the other 11 months of the year. For casual fans, the regular season is relatively ignored. It’s all preparation for conference tournaments, which are, in turn, preparations for the Big Dance, which is really college basketball’s Big Moneymaker, as evidenced by the 14-year, $10 billion-plus television deal signed in 2010.
And even in the Big Dance, casual fans are more excited about their brackets than exciting matchups. The best barometer of the success of college basketball? Attendance, which had been dipping for several years in Division I before a slight uptick last year and which in 2011 saw the lowest attendance (measured by percentage of capacity) at NCAA tournament regionals since numbers were kept in 1989.
Meanwhile, Big East basketball has tailed off. Never mind that it seemed awfully strong as recently as 2011, when the conference netted the national champion (Connecticut) and a record 11 NCAA Tournament bids. That was just the Big East as Paper Tiger. Since the 1980s, when schools like Villanova, Georgetown and Seton Hall were national powers, the only Big East schools annually in the national title discussion have been Syracuse and Calhoun’s Connecticut.
And now it’s bye-bye to Syracuse, Pitt (a perennial top-25 program), Notre Dame (five NCAAs in six years) and West Virginia (four straight, including a Final Four in 2009-10), not to mention 26-year Big East coach Calhoun, whose team wouldn’t have been a national force this season anyway, as it’s ineligible for the postseason because of substandard academic progress rates. Replacing them are Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist — not exactly basketball powers — and Memphis, the only bright spot that conference realignment has brought the Big East.
Indeed, if there are two things we’ve learned from the upheaval of the recent years’ conference realignment, they are these: Football is unquestionably king and will dictate all terms. And a conference like the Big East, built entirely on the strength of hoops, is not really a conference at all in this football-centric environment.
Notre Dame moving from the Big East to the ACC doesn’t really move the basketball needle. Even though it won’t join the ACC as a football school, Notre Dame’s move was a football decision, as are all decisions in today’s college sports. But the Big East’s loss and ACC’s gain do emphasize the dwindling influence of the Big East, not to mention the dwindling relevance of college hoops. These changes in the college sports landscape over the past quarter-century might have been very, very profitable for the football powers, but they haven’t necessarily been good for the overall health of college sports.