- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the fall of 2011, after Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intentions to leave the Big East and join the ACC, commissioner John Swofford held a conference call. On this call, the ACC commish revealed his league's interest in moving the ACC tournament from its traditional mid-southern location -- since 1954, the tournament has typically been played in North Carolina, in either Raleigh or Greensboro, with occasional stops in Maryland, D.C. and Georgia -- into the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
Purists blanched, and so did then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who appeared on Mike Francesca's popular WFAN sports talk show long enough to describe the unpleasant digestive reflexes Swofford's idea induced.
Tranghese: "You know, Gene DeFillippo of Boston College and John Swofford of the ACC -- I don't think it was their intent, but I found it highly objectionable and I found it disrespectful that on the day Dave Gavitt died they're talking about bringing southern-based teams to Madison Square Garden. Like we're going to go to the Clemson-NC State game. Trust me, Mike, I wanted to throw up when I heard that."
Francesca was equally annoyed.
"They're not bringing the ACC tournament to Madison Square Garden. That is never happening."
Of course, the world looks much different now. Tranghese's replacement, John Marinatto "resigned" and was replaced by former CBS executive Mike Aresco. The Big East's Catholic institutions split to form their own basketball league, and took the old Big East name with them; Aresco was forced to settle on the entirely generic "American Athletic Conference." The Big East as we knew it now looks much more like the old C-USA, and that's before Louisville jumps ship for the ACC in 2014. The Big East as we knew it is dead.
And oh by the way? As ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported Thursday, the ACC is still determined to get its conference tournament in the Garden:
Sources on Wednesday said the conference is "thoroughly investigating" playing its tournament at the Garden, with one source adamant that it eventually would be held in the World's Most Famous Arena, which would take it out of traditional ACC country for the first time.
"We'll be playing there," a source said. "It's just a matter of getting all the legal ramifications worked out."
After all, who is going to stop them? The new Catholic 7-infused Big East has a deal with the building through 2026, but MSG can get out of the deal if the league doesn't meet "certain benchmarks." The ACC is locked in to Greensboro through 2015, but is free to explore its options after that.
Does that mean the ACC should move its tournament to Madison Square Garden? Not exactly. As Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, a proponent of the move, has said, it's going to be "difficult to overcome the tournament's Tobacco Road roots." That's a pretty fair appraisal. Even with Pitt and Syracuse and Notre Dame, unlike the AAC, the ACC still feels like the ACC. It has expanded outward, but its roots are still firmly affixed to the Triangle.
Even so, you can see the appeal. For years, the Big East tournament was the pre-eminent non-NCAA March college hoops event. That had to do with the quality of the league, sure, but it also had to do with the special atmosphere in the Garden, which Dana O'Neil and Conor Nevins captured so brilliantly in this spring's oral history of the tournament. The ACC tournament has never come close to that sort of cachet, atmosphere or coverage, and it's not hard to figure out why Swofford & Co. would be interested in filling what they must see as a rather large hole where the old Big East used to be.
In any case, Francesca's "that is never happening" prediction is looking less and less viable every day. The Big East had a milkshake, but Swofford's straw stretched across the room. You know how that one ends.