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Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Big East ignores its roots ... and for what?

By Dana O'Neil

One time not too terribly long ago, men of vision ruled college athletics -- people like Dave Gavitt, who formed the Big East on little more than a notion that a conference comprised of East Coast schools could be something special.

Today, we are left with Mr. Magoo and myopic decisions based on a knee-jerk future rather than a long-term solution.

John Marinatto
Big East commish John Marinatto has added three full-time and two football-only members.
The Big East announced on Wednesday that it would increase its membership, adding San Diego State and Boise State on the football side, and Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida in all sports.

Commissioner John Marinatto defined the expansion as the league "reinventing itself," yet again.

In reality, this is nothing shy of a wholesale trade-in on the very foundation of the conference. In both Gavitt’s vision and the conference’s 32-year execution, the Big East was and has always been a basketball league.

Yes, it added football along the way, but it’s branding as well as its successes came on the hardwood, not the gridiron.

Now the league has tossed that all on the trash heap to fall in lockstep with the legion of Magoos, watering down its basketball product to hitch its wagon to the almighty football dollar.

And it’s not even a good-looking wagon. It’s a listing wagon with a broken wheel.

Last season, Connecticut brought approximately 11 people to the Fiesta Bowl. This season, no Big East team cracked the top 30 in the Sagarin ratings. West Virginia, rated 33rd, would have been the seventh-best team in the SEC.

And in the future, wrap your arms around this heated pigskin rivalry: South Florida versus Central Florida. For a logo, may we suggest a Red Hat Society retiree using a cane to beat on Mickey Mouse?

Yet in exchange for all that muted luster, basketball takes it on the chin.

The Big East says goodbye to Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia, winners of a combined 4,901 games (101 in the NCAA tournament) and welcomes UCF, Houston and SMU, winners of a combined 2,628 games (zero in the NCAA tournament since 1988).

(And let’s not forget the league also now throws open its arms to one school -- Central Florida -- that is under NCAA investigation, in part, for trying to lure recruits from another Big East member school, Louisville. Ah, the sweet smell of collegiality).

Marinatto argued that the three new members wouldn’t lower the league’s basketball standards. On the contrary, he said, the conference would make those three programs better.

“Our schools, as we’ve expanded throughout time, have not necessarily come in with great basketball programs,’’ he said. “We have a history of elevating teams because of the assets we’re able to provide.’’

Desmond Wade, Derek Williams
If you didn't watch those past Houston-SMU C-USA battles, don't worry -- they'll be at Madison Square Garden soon enough.
Tell that to DePaul and South Florida.

To be fair, the Big East didn’t boot Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia. Those three opted to pack up their toys and go elsewhere, putting Marinatto in a pickle.

But this Westward Ho! Conference -- or Manifest Destiny, as was cleverly tweeted -- didn’t have to be the solution. Naysayers will argue that the league had no choice, that in order to remain viable in today’s economy you must have football.

Except three months ago, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese told me that a hoops-centric league could not only survive, it could thrive.

“If you have schools playing basketball at a high level you can have success,’’ he said. “Can you make money? Yes. Can you be competitive? Absolutely.’’

Marinatto admitted that such a notion never crossed his league’s mind.

“I don’t think we even had that conversation with the membership,’’ he said.

No, it was abundantly clear that basketball entered into few, if any, conversations on Wednesday’s teleconference. It took a full 15 minutes before anyone even mentioned the sport that defines the Big East, and even then it was merely a passing reference from SMU president Dr. Gerald Turner, who mentioned "football and other sports."

That has been the reality of this realignment fiasco. Basketball is about as relevant in the decision-making process as fencing.

In introducing his new members, Marinatto labeled the Big East’s expansion as "bold."

You know what would've really been bold?

Following the league’s roots to secure its future and finding a way to make basketball a priority instead of an afterthought.

Bold is a hard look in the mirror -- one that brings honest answers not easy ones.

Bold is admitting who you are and what your strengths are, not who you wish you could be.

The Big East’s strength, its very fabric, is basketball. And yet somehow no one could see through the myopic haze to figure that out.

Instead they all followed Mr. Magoo.