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Monday, March 5, 2012
Updated: March 7, 3:39 PM ET
Change in the air at Big East tourney

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

Editor's Note: For a preview of this year's Big East Championship, check out Dana O'Neil's tournament primer.

As Mount Rushmores go, this one would be a little scruffy, scraggly even. The countenances, while pensive, might appear more grouchy than stoic.

Still, what a collection it would be -- Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino, John Thompson, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun -- a coaching starting five with few peers in college basketball history.

But that Hoops Rushmore is becoming more artifact than living history. The first three have retired or, in the case of Massimino, semi-retired. The old Villanova coach is leading Northwood, the current No. 1 team in the nation in NAIA.

Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim
UConn's Jim Calhoun and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, seen here with former commissioner Mike Tranghese, have been Big East institutions.

In the near future, Boeheim will splinter off from his brotherhood, pulling up his Big East stakes for the ACC. And Calhoun, who just returned after an eight-game absence due to back surgery, is certainly closer to the end of his career than the middle.

The murky futures of the league's building blocks -- Rick Pitino has said he will retire after the 2017 season -- are just more evidence of the erosion of what was once the strongest basketball league in the country. Nowhere have the shifting sands of conference realignment changed the foundation more than the Big East.

This was once a league where the coaches were the stars, personifications of their teams' styles and synonymous with their university names.

This was once a league beholden to its Northeast roots. Yes, it stretched beyond its boundaries, but the regulars stayed, as familiar and comfortable as old bar stools, their commitment to Dave Gavitt's dream sacrosanct.

And always at its core stood the epicenter of the Big East -- Madison Square Garden, where the conference tournament became the sport's showcase, second only to the NCAA tournament itself.

Now as the 16 teams converge on MSG for the 30th year, we are in the era of the short-timer. Ties are made with twine instead of leather. Easier to break that way.

Coaches don't stay either by their own choice or their administrations'; and teams aren't beholden to either geographic logic or tradition. Not if the almighty dollar offers something better. Connecticut and Louisville are in the fold, but for how long? Both have flirted with other conferences.

So here we are, back in New York for the Big East tournament, wondering just what that will look like in the future and worried about just who will be left to carry the torch.

"It's just constant change," former St. John's coach Carnesecca said. "It's different every day so how do we know what it will be like? We don't. We don't know at all."


It's strange, really, how this season has unfolded. While the Big East has gone from life support to bloating, Boeheim and Calhoun, too, have had roller-coaster seasons.

In Syracuse, Boeheim has bookended a record-setting season with troubles -- first horrific allegations of child abuse against his former associate head coach and now, on the heels of the Big East tournament, allegations from a Yahoo! report that the Orange may have allowed former players to compete despite repeatedly failing drug tests.

And in Connecticut, Calhoun -- hot off an unexpected national championship -- missed three games due to NCAA suspension, missed eight more due to health issues, fought the NCAA (and lost) over his team's future postseason ban due to Academic Progress Report failure and watched a promising season crumble amid all the strife.

The two coaches are of the generation where they measure their age by battle scars. In a combined 60 years of coaching, there isn't much of anything, it would seem, that can knock them down.

Both head to New York to face a media firing squad, for certain. Boeheim will be asked repeatedly about the drug allegations and Calhoun will be forced to address both his own future and his team's failures.

Not that either will blink. They are unafraid to be combative, to spar verbally in response to questions they don't appreciate, and born to a generation that didn't mind using its power pulpit to disseminate only the information it felt obliged to share.

Patrick Ewing and John Thompson
In the 1980s, iconic coaches like John Thompson roamed the sidelines of the Big East.

It is not likely their type will come around again. After Calhoun and Boeheim, the next longest-tenured coach at one school in the Big East is Mike Brey. He's in his 12th season at Notre Dame.

And among the big six leagues, only three coaches have been at one place for 20 or more years: Boeheim (35), Calhoun (25) and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (32).

"It's really remarkable when people stay because usually familiarity breeds contempt," said Pitino, the next Big East elder statesman with 10 years at Louisville and two at Providence. "Especially now. Everybody wants change."

Yet the opposite used to be de rigueur in the Big East. Coaches stayed and were absorbed into the conference image.

Massimino spent 19 years at Villanova, Carnesecca 24 at St. John's and Thompson 27 at Georgetown. Mix in Gale Catlett at West Virginia (24) and Digger Phelps at Notre Dame (20) and even the bigger Big East was the place no one left.

It helped, of course, that they won and won big. Icons aren't made out of failures.

And it helped that their personalities were either writ large or in the case of some, writ acerbically.

"What [Calhoun and Boeheim] represent more than anything is stability," Carnesecca said. "I don't mean to sound like Peter and the church, but they are the rocks upon which this league has been built."

So what happens when they leave?

History tells us the league, like life, goes on. Others step into the void.

There certainly is no shortage of personality among the younger ranks. Buzz Williams made himself a forever-enemy to folks in West Virginia, dancing to John Denver in Morgantown after his Marquette team beat the Mountaineers. Mick Cronin's post-brawl news conference in Cincinnati showed deft leadership and savvy force. When he is healthy, Steve Lavin is the perfect man for the high-profile job that is St. John's.

"We've got tremendous, bright young coaches -- and they're combative," Pitino said. "And that's a good thing, a very good thing in this league. It will just take some getting used to."

Therein lies the rub. Will these coaches be afforded the amount of time needed for people to adjust? Can they become to the Big East what their predecessors were, or will they be no more than drive-thru coaches?

In the bygone era, people could build their Hall of Fame credentials over years, with administrations who chose big picture over immediate gains, who relied more on their gut instincts to make decisions than the catcalls of clamoring boosters.

Now? Now Pitt's Jamie Dixon and Villanova's Jay Wright are having lousy seasons after years of wild success and people wonder if they might eventually be in trouble.


Here are the key questions: Is the league built of the same hearty stuff as its coaches? Can it not just survive the gigantic changes but maintain its status among the nation's elite basketball conferences?

This isn't the first time the Big East has undergone significant change, of course. Boston College, along with nouveau league members Miami and Virginia Tech, headed to the ACC seven years ago, presciently arguing at the time it was getting ahead of the realignment posse.

Those departures begot the first seismic shift and the league stretched its boundaries to Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and Florida. People scoffed and wondered how this amassment of teams, one Pitino still refers to as a "corporation," would fare.

As it turned out, bigger got better. Buoyed by the influx of more good teams, the Big East snared 11 NCAA tournament bids a year ago, a record by one conference. One of those teams won the national championship.

John Marinatto
Big East commissioner John Marinatto has drawn mixed reviews for how he's handled realignment.

This, however, is not that.

Not even the staunchest Big East administrator could argue that swapping West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse for Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist is a fair trade in men's basketball. The 11th-hour grab of Memphis is good, bringing a bona fide hoops school into the fold, and if Temple jumps back in, that's another strong basketball team with the added bonus of East Coast roots.

But what exactly does all of that add up to?

"The last change, it really didn't affect basketball so much," Boeheim said. "In fact, it got better. With this one, I don't know. We'll have to see."

That's really the scary part.

These are moves designed to accommodate football, but the Big East has, more than any other major conference, been about basketball first. Now that very identity has been compromised.

Can the reputation be far behind?

Commissioner John Marinatto argued that the talent in the Big East tends to elevate the play of new members. But elevating a Cincinnati or Marquette or Louisville isn't hard when its successes aren't buried deep in the recesses of the history books.

Current players weren't alive when Houston's Phi Slama Jama owned the courts and Central Florida and SMU have little, if anything, in the way of basketball juice.

At some point adding more and more mediocrity to the league doesn't make the mediocre better; it merely dilutes the product.

"How will the league adjust to these other teams, in terms of integrating them into the branding of basketball?" Pitino asked. "What do they have in common with the rest of the teams? When I say to my players, you're going to play Notre Dame or Georgetown, there's a spark in their eye. Are those schools going to get that same reaction? There's no answer to that yet."


As if pilfering Syracuse and Pittsburgh wasn't bad enough, ACC commissioner John Swofford threw salt onto the wounded Big East when he said he'd entertain playing the ACC tournament in New York.

Sure, and why not see if you can paint some Tar Heel blue down Broadway, too.

In these unsettling times in the Big East, everyone can agree on one thing -- the league absolutely has to hold tight to New York.

"It's without question, critical," Pitino said. "That's what we're all about. That's what we've got to maintain. That's Dave's [Gavitt] legacy. That's memorializing your founder and most important, that's what distinguishes the Big East from everybody else."

This year marks the 30th time the conference will crown its champion at Madison Square Garden, and while the building needed some serious face-lift work in the past year to bring it up to standards, the address is what really matters.

The Garden is to the Big East as, well, there really is no other comparison to make. They are synonymous, a grand stage for a league that bills itself above the rest.

Other leagues shop their tournament around -- the Big 12 has played in Kansas City, Dallas and Oklahoma City; the Big Ten in Chicago and Indianapolis; the SEC in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Tampa and New Orleans; the ACC in Atlanta, Raleigh, Tampa and Greensboro; the Pac-12 has been steady in Los Angeles but there's plenty of talk the tourney might soon move to Las Vegas.

Madison Square Garden
For the 30th season, Madison Square Garden will be hosting the Big East Championship.

Not the Big East.

You could book your hotel and make flight arrangements today for the 2013 tourney.

"Madison Square Garden is stability," Carnesecca said. "If they move it, they lose it."

But can the league that cynics have joked ought to rename itself Manifest Destiny keep its East Coast tournament bias in a league only slightly East Coast-centric?

Think about it. When all is said and done, only seven members (and perhaps Temple) will really be East Coast schools.

Players from all over the country love to play in the Garden, but along with them, what makes the tournament so special in the Big Apple are the fans. Most of the member schools count huge alumni bases in the greater New York area.

The same can't be said for the schools being added. Houston, for example, doesn't even have an official alumni chapter in New York.

"College basketball fans like their teams," Boeheim said. "The pros are about the players. College is about your teams. That's why people go to see them play. That's why the Big East tournament is so good and the atmosphere is so good. It's the players, but it's really the fans."


Dave Gavitt had the audacity to dream big but the intelligence to temper those dreams with reality.

He was the one who decided that the schools in the Northeast, the ones who he believed were losing players to the ACC because they lacked national panache, would fare better if they joined forces instead of fought against one another. So they did just that in 1979.

And he was the one who believed such a newfangled alliance had enough glamour to move its tournament permanently to New York City. So it did just that in 1983.

He did not create Carnesecca, Thompson, Massimino, Calhoun or Boeheim. But he gave them a home, a place to work their magic and a spotlight to shine in.

And now here we are.

Gavitt died this past year, the league is in flux and Hoops Rushmore is crumbling.

Change is here. Change is coming.

But is it a change for the better?

"Realignment is part of history," Boeheim said. "If we all could have it the right way, we wouldn't have it. But it's the way it is. It's so much better when you play teams in your own area. Everyone knows that. Only nobody wants that."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.