Commentary

Big East needs vision, not a puppet

League's crucial mistake came in looking to the past for a vision of the future

Originally Published: May 7, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

It is worth noting that, on the November 2008 day that the Big East presidents and chancellors named John Marinatto as their new commissioner, it was a unanimous decision.

This was not a coup or a hostile takeover. He was chosen for the job, awarded like loyal foot soldiers often are. Or at least were back in the day when there were such things as loyal foot soldiers.

[+] EnlargeJohn Marinatto
AP Photo/Stew MilneJohn Marinatto spent much of his tenure as Big East commissioner trying to keep the league intact. His failure to do just that largely led to his resignation on Monday.

And that was the Big East's crucial mistake.

The presidents made a rearview mirror hire when the league desperately needed someone who could look into a crystal ball.

Now a once proud conference is in shambles because of it.

Marinatto is a good man. He is a nice man. He was then, and remained until his last day at work, the wrong man for this job.

Jim Delany is a lawyer. Ditto Mike Slive. Larry Scott arrived at the then-Pac-10 having resuscitated a flailing women's professional tennis league. Bob Bowlsby has more awards and accolades as a big-time sports administrator than the cash-flush Big 12 members he will preside over.

Marinatto was born in Providence, went to Providence College, worked at Providence and then took a job in the Big East, which is located in … Providence.

With the exception of the ghost of Dave Gavitt, the league could not have hired a more "Big East" guy.

But the league didn't need a man well versed in the past; it needed someone who could project for the future. Marinatto couldn't and now, while everyone else is in line waiting to cash in on whatever football playoff system the BCS configures, the Big East is trying to redefine its very identity on the fly.

What exactly is this league? And more, what does it want to be? Is it going to be directed by its roots and rely on its basketball branding? Or is it insistent on getting into the football game and finding some sort of pigskin perception?

Right now it is nothing but an amoebic blob. Big? Yes. East? No. Relevant? Not really.

What exactly is this league? And more, what does it want to be? Is it going to be directed by its roots and rely on its basketball branding? Or is it insistent on getting into the football game and finding some sort of pigskin perception?

The Big East sans West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse certainly isn't true to Gavitt's vision, and only someone with disturbed visions could conjure up the future behemoth that will partner SMU, Houston, Memphis and Central Florida on the basketball court alongside traditional powers such as Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall and St. John's.

Tim Burton's college conference, anyone?

This is nothing but a bastardization, a muck-up of what made the Big East special before with little to make the league look enticing down the road.

That, of course, is what prompted Marinatto's resignation -- a resignation that, CBSSports.com reported, was prompted by a less than gentle shove by the conference presidents -- but honestly, he did only what the presidents directed him to do. He was not an autonomous dictator or even a commissioner with veto power.

No, Marinatto was exactly what the presidents wanted. After spending years guided by two powerful and authoritative figures like Gavitt and Mike Tranghese, the presidents went for the man accustomed to taking orders, not giving them.

They got a puppet they could master.

One problem -- they failed to realize that, with so many self-interested puppeteers yanking on the strings, the puppet was destined to fail.

The interests between the football and non-football schools in the Big East always have been difficult to manage (the in-house squabbles reportedly hit the biggest of snafus last year when Georgetown led a charge to vote down a TV deal that Marinatto had in front of him, a decision that now can be defined as the beginning of his end). Everyone knows and even admits that football drives the bus, but it's asking an awful lot for someone like Jim Calhoun to ride along as a powerless passenger.

To manage the two, it takes diplomacy and delicacy. The Big East went for desperation. Following the lead of Marinatto, a man who previously was in charge of the league's administrative operations and never charged with formulating a vision, the conference went 11th-hour prom-date hunting, taking whoever would say yes instead of who might make the league attractive.

Consequently, the Big East is left with this mishmashed mess, an Ellis Island of football expats, their basketball carry-ons and signs it could get worse before it gets better. There are rumors that San Diego State and Boise State want to make like Texas State and UT-San Antonio and bag their new league before even playing a game in it; and that Connecticut still has eyes for the ACC and Louisville for the Big 12.

Right now, the Big East doesn't need a new commissioner.

It needs Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Of course it needed someone strong and inventive, bold and cunning three years ago as the college landscape shift began.

Instead, the presidents decided to dole out a lifelong service award, giving John Marinatto a commissioner's chair instead of a rocking chair.

He was never the right man for the job.

And now the Big East is a Big Mess.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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