Despite difficulty, the Big 5 rivalries live on

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
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They stopped throwing streamers after the first made basket years ago. The doubleheaders, too, are things of the past. And with the renovations to Saint Joseph’s on-campus arena, as of last season only Penn played its home games at Philadelphia's famed Palestra.

But they play.

Despite scheduling inconveniences and nonconference sacrifices every year, the five Philly schools still complete their Big 5 round robin.

“It’s not easy, but I think for all of us, it’s valuing and understanding the opportunity that was given to us so many years ago and not wanting that tradition to die,’’ Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “It’s such a unique thing about Philadelphia and we don’t want to jeopardize that, so for the greater good, for the good of tradition, we play each other.’’

[+] EnlargeDunphy
AP Photo/Michael PerezTemple coach Fran Dunphy is on board for keeping the yearly Big 5 games going.
That argument, of course, is dying a quick and painful death in most corners of college athletics, where tradition has been tossed by the wayside like a piece of trash.

But in Philly, the Big 5 -- begun in 1955 -- appears destined for an everlasting life.

“It’s just inbred -- this is how you do things,’’ Dunphy said. “If one of these jobs opened up, people at the institution would say, ‘Here’s part of our nonconference scheduling. This is what it is.’ There’s really not a lot of discussion.’’

Back when, there never needed to be discussion. The Big 5 was begun in a different era and rolled through its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when the five schools -- La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Temple, Villanova and Penn -- encompassing a mere 17-mile radius played raucous doubleheaders at the beloved Palestra.

Older fans will still wax poetic about the on-court talent they spied on the court or spin yarns about sneaking in through the creaking doors to watch.

Time has eroded plenty of it. They used to throw streamers on the court after the first made bucket. Now that will get you a technical.

One game is tough enough to schedule, so forget about double- or tripleheaders.

Over time, each school has built its own on-campus castle, so splitting the house at the Palestra has little appeal. The last holdout, St. Joe’s, moved its home games on campus this season after renovations to its new fieldhouse were completed.

And the games have lost some of their luster as the five teams have taken turns on hard times, but every year, a Big 5 champion is crowned and an all-Big 5 team is named at the annual banquet.

It still exists, which, in this time of flux, says a lot.

“Change is inevitable,’’ Dunphy said. “And it’s unfortunate that so many of us don’t hold on to our traditions. I really admire the presidents and athletic directors and coaches in Philadelphia who are saying that carrying on this tradition is important.’’

But there’s no doubt keeping the Big 5 tradition alive in the current nonconference scheduling world is at best an inconvenience and, at worst, a convoluted mess.

Consider: Villanova plays 18 Big East games, the SEC/Big East challenge, plus four Big 5 games annually. That’s 24 locked-in games before Jay Wright can even shop for national games.

Soon that will be Temple’s problem, too. The Owls join the Big East in 2013-14, and for a time, the conference might need to schedule 20 league games.

Three seasons ago, the year Nova went to the Final Four, the Wildcats beat Texas in a 9:30 game on Dec. 9 at Madison Square Garden, bused back to campus by around 4 a.m., played Saint Joseph’s on Dec. 11 and nearly lost. Plenty attributed that to "Big 5 magic." No doubt dead legs played a part, too.

“The scheduling is impossible because you always get caught with an opportunity for a national game that you can’t play because you agreed to a Big 5 game on that date,’’ Wright said. “And it’s not like these are easy games. These are really hard games. But you have to decide, you have to be all-in or you’re out. We decided we would be all-in.’’

At one time, of course, the Wildcats decided they were out. From 1991 to 1999, the Big 5 disappeared. Villanova was now more of a national program and with TV deals set up with individual -- not conference -- paydays at the time, the Big 5 was costing the university big bucks.

That’s the official and logical story.

Ask anyone in Philadelphia what happened and they will tell you a succinct, but different, story: Former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino killed the Big 5.

That’s neither fair nor accurate, but in Philly, where native son Kobe Bryant ranks among the city’s most disliked athletes because he’s a Laker, grudges are taken seriously.

“[Rollie] was vilified,’’ said Wright, who was an assistant on the staff at the time. “I’m sure if you dropped an outsider in here, they’d look at the schedule and say, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Why are you doing this?’ But if you’re from here -- and more, if you count on living here after you’re done coaching -- it’s a no-brainer. Everybody saw what it was like to be without the Big 5 and I don’t think anyone wants to go there again.’’

Dana O'Neil | email

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