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Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Updated: September 22, 10:51 AM ET
Football kills Big East hoops tradition

By Michael Wilbon
ESPN.com

You wonder how a recruiter from Syracuse, just to pick the latest scoundrel, can look a football or basketball recruit in the eye in the coming months and tell him with a straight face to not sell his game-worn jersey for $500, or not to take a free dinner from an alumnus who owns the pizza parlor at the edge of campus, or to decline the $250 handshake from a booster who knows the kid has no means by which to pay his cell phone bill. You wonder how the presidents of universities, right now the biggest hypocrites on the planet, could have the gumption to lecture anybody on the concepts of honoring commitment and having integrity when as a group these days they have precious little, if any.

Patrick Ewing and John Thompson
Patrick Ewing and John Thompson loom over Big East history.

You wonder if Big East co-founder and first commissioner David Gavitt, rest his soul, was also suffering from a broken heart when he died Friday, as the conference he so brilliantly positioned and led was becoming the latest college conference to embarrass itself in the blatantly greedy pursuit of more money. When Gavitt's protégé, former commissioner Mike Tranghese, lamented to ESPN's Bob Ley the lack of honor and lack of trust throughout college athletics right now, he was talking about the state of the industry from sea (New York coast) to shining sea (California coast). But it hurt even more because specifically he was talking about defection of Syracuse, a charter member of the Big East, to the Atlantic Coast Conference, with Pitt in tow and the University of Connecticut apparently on deck.

When the Big East turned down a reported $1.2 billion deal from ESPN in the spring, it essentially became every man for himself, with the football schools -- and we say that loosely given the relative impotence of Big East football since the defection of Miami in 2004 -- ready to bail as soon as they found Sugar Daddies. College basketball is essentially slinking to the side door these days as football programs from Texas to Notre Dame to Syracuse look around with their hands out to make the best deal, and to hell with any existing commitment or concerns about the other athletic programs at the school. Multiple sources tell me that if Notre Dame, whose other sports already compete in the Big East, had agreed to play football in the Big East, then Syracuse, Pitt and UConn would have decided to stay.

But the Irish didn't and, as a result, a conference that in 30 years produced some of greatest basketball teams (the John Thompson/Patrick Ewing Georgetown teams, '85 Villanova, Carmelo Anthony's Syracuse team, Jim Calhoun's UConn team featuring Richard Hamilton), some of the greatest games ever (Villanova over Georgetown, North Carolina over Georgetown, Georgetown over Kentucky, Michigan over Seton Hall) and a slew of current and future Hall of Famers could be on the extinction list because college football doesn't give a damn about anything other than itself.

The remaining Big East schools with football programs of consequence (Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida, Louisville, West Virginia and, for the moment, UConn) will bail as quickly as Syracuse did on the Big East members that are primarily basketball schools, which is to say St. John's, Providence, Marquette, Seton Hall, DePaul, Villanova and Georgetown. As soon as the Big East let football, not basketball, begin to set the agenda, the league as we knew it was in trouble.

The rearrangement of college athletics is entirely, 100 percent about football and the money it generates, primarily from the games being on television. Syracuse, even though Jim Boeheim's basketball program is light years ahead of a football program that really hasn't been worth a damn more than a few times since Jim Brown graduated in 1956, clearly thinks the football program is more important, and that drove its move to the ACC.

Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim has been there for the entire history of the Big East. He expects the schools left will continue to be successful in basketball.

You know why Notre Dame might prefer the ACC, even though it lives amongst like Big Ten institutions? You think Notre Dame would rather face Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin year after year, or Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and NC State? Notre Dame would be looking at a whole lot of sixth-place finishes in the Big Ten, not so in the rearranged ACC, which has always been a weak sister as a football league. Translation: Notre Dame football is a whole lot more valuable as a television property playing in a lesser football conference, but one with more high-profile schools, than the little basketball-oriented Catholic-school driven league in the northeast where football is more an afterthought.

Boeheim told us on "PTI" Tuesday that he believes those basketball schools will continue to have terrific programs, and he points to the league adding teams and thriving after the Boston College/Miami/Virginia Tech defection to the ACC. But none of those programs were as important to the Big East as Syracuse, a founding member which, with Georgetown and St. John's, changed not just the brand recognition of those schools and the new league it played in but the very nature of sports on TV in the mid-1980s as college basketball became a much bigger deal to the culture.

And yes, whatever lies the university presidents might tell, the defections, the commitment breaking, the backstabbing and grabbing for more bucks is all about football. As Boeheim told ESPN on Tuesday, "When the Big East voted against the new TV deal, that was a huge part of the reason a couple of schools voted on that. One of 'em doesn't even have anything to do with football in the Big East. (Notre Dame, you think?) When that package failed … all the football schools started to get restless."

Or as Tranghese said, "College football has taken control of everything that's going on. All of these moves are about football and money and greed. I'm embarrassed about the whole thing, and not just because it's affected the Big East. It just seems that things such as integrity, loyalty and congeniality are gone."

Boeheim told us on PTI that while he is sad about leaving the Big East, which he personally helped start, and specifically the Big East tournament played in New York's Madison Square Garden for an ACC tournament usually played in North Carolina (a place hundreds of miles from Syracuse folks), that Syracuse made the best possible decision for the university. Boeheim, pointing out how different the conference is now than the one started in 1979, makes a good point when he says, "We're not leaving the Big East that we founded."

Hamilton
Richard Hamilton and UConn won a national title in 1999, one of many highlights for Big East basketball teams.

But one of Boeheim's former players, Etan Thomas, had a different take, and told me last night in an email exchange that he and his wife, also a Syracuse alum, "respectfully disagree with Coach Boeheim. It's bad enough that the Big East now has 17 or so teams, but now you take away the heart of the Big East, which has always been Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John's, UConn, Providence, Seton Hall, Rutgers, Boston College, Pitt, Villanova, West Virginia and Miami.

"The Big East Conference has historical significance that shouldn't be discarded for a few extra bucks. The universities already have budgets that are through the roof and everyone associated with the athletic programs are getting compensated very well, except the players, but that's another issue. Greed is the sole determining factor in these mega conferences forming and it's just another example of what is wrong with college sports. In my humble opinion."

Those favoring the Syracuse move point to the school joining a "more stable" conference. In fact, the easy and familiar refrain for every school looking for a better deal is some alleged "instability" in the conference left behind. But what goes unsaid is that the presidents, in their shameless and continual search for one new and better TV deal after another, are the ones who created the instability in the first place. If Texas A&M, Nebraska and Colorado don't leave the Big 12, where's the instability?

Of course, there's nobody inside the industry to really point this out since the presidents have the final say because the NCAA has no power to tell the conferences or the schools what to do. "Our problem is simple," Tranghese told Bob Ley. "We have no one in charge. You always need someone in charge who can make tough decisions for the so-called greater good of the game. There is no one in charge. We're living in a society … it's almost like greed is good."

Tranghese, who has favored the traditional scholarship package for student-athletes and not pay-for-play, has been forced to look at this issue a bit differently, what with schools and conferences making their unrepentant money grabs. Asked if he could tell a young athlete, in light of these latest developments, he should not be paid and should settle for simply a scholarship, the former commissioner said, "I couldn't tell a kid that … I don't know how you face anybody with what's going on."

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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