Not everyone was on board in the beginning, not with the idea of the conference and certainly not with a tournament in New York City.
When Dave Gavitt first pitched the idea of banding together the East Coast basketball-centric schools into one conference, he was the only true believer.
Everyone else simply believed in him, trusting his vision and intelligence to chart a path they weren't sure would lead anywhere but a dead end.
But naturally, Gavitt was right.
The Big East was formed on May 31, 1979 with Boston College, Georgetown, Connecticut, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Syracuse as its founding members. Villanova would join a year later.
The league grew into a beautiful monster, evolving through continual change brought about by football-fueled expansion, but all the while staying true to its basketball roots.
It grew because of the people, the larger-than-life characters who prowled the sidelines and the generation-defining players who dominated on the court.
They were high theater, every bit as entertaining as the top draw on Broadway. Where better, then, for these reality show actors to star than New York City? What better stage than Madison Square Garden, the biggest and brightest sporting stage in the world?
Nothing, however, is immune to change these days, and as the league embarks on its annual celebration in New York, the shifting landscape of conference realignment has gobbled up, spit out and now reformed the Big East.
The Catholic 7 -- with Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova among its ranks -- will officially break away and form a new Big East on June 30.
It will continue with the same name and same commitment to basketball, but it won't be the same, not ever again, after this year.
So as the Big East tournament gets under way, the people who made the league what it was -- the coaches, players, administrators, officials and insiders -- remember what it once used to be.
This, then, is the story of Dave Gavitt's crazily brilliant idea, the Big East conference, and its annual postseason extravaganza in New York City.
Michael Tranghese (Big East commissioner from 1990-2009)1
The Big East began in May 1979 at the Providence Civic Center, and I remember at that time, Dave caught everybody off guard, saying, "We're going to play at Madison Square Garden."
We didn't know what he was talking about.
And he didn't talk about it again. He never did.
Dave Duffy (founder of Duffy & Shanley, Inc., a marketing firm in Providence)2
Dave had a meeting in early July in 1979 on the Cape with the athletic directors to get them to decide to buy in and there was a little bit of reluctance.
The name came out of that meeting and [the Big East] was our first recommendation. It sounds easy now, but it wasn't. We had a bunch of names: The North Atlantic Alliance, the Colonial League; for laughs, we had The Mayflower Compact.
[Gavitt] was his own muse. He just had some great vision of where this could go.
Jim Boeheim (head coach at Syracuse University since 1976)
We were fortunate in the Big East. Certain decisions were made in the beginning: TV, number one, and playing in the Big East tournament in New York, number two. Those are big-picture decisions that are what really made the league into what it became.
It's probably a miracle it lasted 34 years. It lasted longer than anyone suspected and was bigger and better than anyone could have expected.
John Thompson (head coach at Georgetown University from 1972-99)
I don't think coaches joined enthusiastically. I know I sure in the beginning was very skeptical about it. I said to myself, "We are in the ECAC and the program is turning around and doing real well."
I like to tell people, "The Big East didn't take us to make good. They took us because we were good."
“It's probably a miracle it lasted 34 years. It lasted longer than anyone suspected and was bigger and better than anyone could have expected.”- Jim Boeheim
Lou Carnesecca (head coach at St. John's University from 1965-92)
You're talking to one of those guys who wasn't in favor from the beginning. I thought we had a good situation. We played most of those teams for many years, but we only played them once. Selfishly, I thought it would be tougher.
Dave Gavitt, thank god, had better sense and it was an amazing thing.
The concept was we really had great markets. Between New England and New York, Philadelphia and Washington, we just had more TV heads than almost anybody at that time. We thought we could do something. It wasn't easy.
The idea was "Monday Night Football" was really rocking in those days with [Howard] Cosell. It was thought that maybe we could mimic that and have Monday night college basketball: Big East. It really worked.
When Dave formed the Big East, the model that he copied was the ACC.
I remember talking to Dave before he passed away [in 2011] and saying, "Can you believe how much better our tournament is than any other in the country? We not only have great teams but this venue is so great."
The ACC was getting a lot of attention. [Gavitt] was saying, collectively, we could get on TV.
And then it took off. We had our petty arguments but there was a lot of collective pride. When the other teams went out and played or we had coaches' meetings, we'd talk about how we did as a league. It was hard sometimes, rooting for Syracuse, but I knew that their winning impacted the prestige of our league and therefore our team.
The Big East tournament was hosted by member schools for the first three years of its existence: at the Providence Civic Center in 1980, Syracuse's Carrier Dome in 1981 and the Hartford Civic Center in 1982. In 1983, the league moved the tournament to Madison Square Garden, where it has been ever since.
It had to be New York. It's the greatest place to be. There's nothing like it. It's the stage. New York is two swords -- if you're great, they treat you like a king and if you're lousy, they treat you like you're Satan.
You have to understand and accept that.
“New York is two swords -- if you're great, they treat you like a king and if you're lousy, they treat you like you're Satan.”- Mike Tranghese
Michael Burke, who ran Madison Square Garden, he saw something good here. After three years, there was enough legs, enough proof with TV success. We convinced him to put the cumulative moneys together and we blew up a big check, a million dollar check and said the Garden and the Big East have entered into a million dollar deal.
When we made the announcement, it really wasn't a big deal. I remember the Garden made this big check, this $1 million check and it was a dog-and-pony show. We'd already paid them the money.
They had to have a little bit of vision with this too. They're in the business of renting an arena. They saw the natural rivalries and the success. The dates were good. [Burke] was a good businessman; he wouldn't have done it otherwise.
You have the meeting and Dave would say, "It's going to be great. We're going to the city. We'll get all the publicity."
Oh, I believed him. I believed anything Dave said. He was smart as hell. He could get people to do stuff. I don't care how mad I ever got, and I'm an emotional person at times, he had the ability to approach me and do what he needed me to do.
I remember talking about how great it would be in New York City and he was right.
You know, folks who don't even like basketball like the city. There are theaters, restaurants. New York is New York. The non-fans would go for the experience.
Dick Weiss (New York Daily News columnist)
The Big East was made by two things: It was made by the partnership with ESPN, which turned it into the ultimate television league; and then the move to the Garden. A lot of [these schools] didn't have football. This was their bowl week.
Gerry McNamara (Syracuse guard from 2002-06; currently an assistant at SU)
There's nothing like the Garden. You walk on the floor there and it's so dark and you're on this stage; this big, big stage. The only thing you can see is the court. Everything else is dark and you're the center of attention. You just can't help but think of the storied history of the building, the people who played there, Michael Jordan scoring 55 points there. You're on the same court. You're on the same stage.
"How do I leave my mark? How do I leave my legacy?"
Any player who played a game in Madison Square Garden will never forget that.
John Celestand (Villanova guard from 1995-99)
I also remember there was this elevator, this cage. It was the freight elevator. You'd take it down after the game. If you won, you'd get in there and joke and it was fun. But if you lost and you were going home, those 30 seconds or whatever in that elevator, it felt like you were making the ride to hell or something.
I mean, that door slammed hard.
I grew up thinking the Garden is the Mecca. I remember Red Auerbach3 chewing me out one time. I was young and said something about playing in the Mecca.
He said "Mecca? What Mecca?" I said, "New York City." He said, "That ain't no goddamned Mecca."
Hell, I didn't even know what Mecca meant. That was the place to play.
Kemba Walker (Connecticut guard from 2008-11)
Being from New York, you always dreamed of playing for the Knicks, dreamed of playing at Madison Square Garden. I wasn't playing for the Knicks, but I was playing at Madison Square Garden for my dream school.
It's the best place you could play a tournament game. You just can't play in a better place because when teams drop out, there are always people coming in, to get the tickets [departing fans leave behind]. In other places, that doesn't always happen.
We were always worried when teams lost about the reselling of the tickets, but what we found was if we just leave it alone and let it happen, it happened. Schools talked to one another. They'd play one another and make a deal. Then you had the New Yorkers who wanted tickets.
Rollie Massimino (Villanova head coach from 1973-92)
New York that was my dream. I grew up in New Jersey and I'd go to Madison Square Garden to watch the Knicks play. That's when St. Bonaventure was good. I'd go see them play.
Once the competition became more and more severe, the best New York kids went to the Big East. The best New Jersey kids went to the Big East. We once played Rutgers with five New Jersey kids.
We all knew we wanted to promote the league because at the time the ACC was the best. That was really a good competitive league. They had their tournament in North Carolina but Madison Square Garden was the premier venue, more so than any other in the world, really.
Dave Gavitt did not want to move the tournament to the Garden until he thought it was ready. After 1981, Georgetown signed Patrick Ewing.
Bill Stein (Georgetown assistant from 1972-82)
I said, "John, you gotta come see this 7-footer. We gotta see this kid, Ewing. So we go up [to Boston] and end up going to this state tournament at the [Boston] Garden. The game's going on and a kid goes up for a layup. Pat blocks it. OK, down the other end, a kid missed a layup and he dunked it.
John looked at me and said, "Get him."
John Thompson called and said Patrick [Ewing] had signed his letter of intent. I saw Dave later that day and he said, "It's time, Michael. We're going to New York."
Gavitt saw the best player in the country in his league. This was a once-in-a-generation player and Dave was from New England so he'd heard about it. And he knew it was good timing.
Patrick had an enormous impact on our program and the league.
Providence [in 1980] was good; not sold out, but good. Syracuse [in 1981] was basically a Syracuse crowd. Hartford [in 1982] was wild because Patrick was a freshman.
He's the most important player in the history of the league -- period -- nothing close to him.
Hartford was a hard ticket. Everybody hated Georgetown, or most everyone. They became the New York Yankees of the Big East conference.
Michael Wilbon (ESPN analyst, former columnist at the Washington Post)
Georgetown was the face of the Big East and then St. John's and everybody else fell in line happily and quickly, but it was Big John and people hated it.
“He's the most important player in the history of the league -- period -- nothing close to him.”- Mike Tranghese on Patrick Ewing
They hated the way they played. They tipped balls out of bounds, there were lots of steals and dives on the floor and balls hitting the press table and they had stoppages of play all the time and the blue bloods didn't like that.
Well, I didn't like [being the evil empire], but I marketed it. I used to tell the kids, "You know what? If you had an empty room and you told everybody don't go in, it immediately gives that room value." So when we started to say, "We're not going to do this or do that," -- hell, nobody was writing about us before.
Patrick Ewing (Georgetown center from 1981-85)
We loved it, being the team that everybody hated. It was us against the world. It kept us close, kept us together and we went out and kicked butt and took names.
The first year the Big East tournament was played at Madison Square Garden, St. John's beat Boston College in the championship game and Chris Mullin earned MVP honors.
Louie owned New York.
The one thing that St. John's did that made them so palatable, their team was always filled with New York kids. We're [New York], a big little town. We are so much more parochial than we'd like to pretend. The fact that they had those kids, that group got to the Final Four [in 1985], made that team so popular.
New Yorkers loved them. When they were good, the Garden was all about them. It was all New Yorkers at the tournament.
Television, Ewing and Mullin.
How do you get better than that?
They overtook Ralph Sampson. People forget, Ralph was the biggest thing in the world.
Everything came together at the right time, there's no question. There have never been players in the league since like those guys. Iverson was a little bit. Coleman a little bit. Carmelo. There have been a lot of good players, but there haven't been any players like that. And there have been a lot of good coaches, but not coaches like that.
Everything came together.
Chris Mullin (St. John's guard from 1981-85)
My freshman year we actually played in Hartford because it was still rotating around at that point and in '83 when it first moved to the Garden you could really feel the difference of that big stage.
I think at the time, I'm not quite sure what the plan was, but from a players' standpoint we thought it was just going to be a one-time chance so on our home court we really wanted to take advantage of it because we didn't know it was going to wind up staying there.
So in '83 we wind up playing Boston College in the finals, won it, and just being at the Garden, it gave it a little more notoriety I think.
“Television, Ewing and Mullin. How do you get better than that? They overtook Ralph Sampson. People forget, Ralph was the biggest thing in the world.”- Michael Wilbon
Well, I think there was some thought that St. John's is going to have an advantage but we knew we could get fans to New York.
We felt that way. Early on, I think it was because we played a lot of games there, but as the tournament developed, I think the alumni -- all those schools have strong alumni in New York, so I think the home court wasn't as prominent because other schools, it became such an event.
And if you're playing, you just took the Garden over for that session. So I think it evened out nicely for all the teams.
I think all the teams became comfortable. Initially I think everyone thought St. John's would have a huge advantage but, as we all know, the best advantage is having the best team.
Ed Pinckney (Villanova forward from 1981-85)
It was always funny to me, while I was coaching at Villanova4, Pittsburgh called Madison Square Garden their home. They felt as though, because they had a large number of New York City kids, that was their home.
Syracuse thought, out of New York, with that fan base, MSG was always their home.
Georgetown won the championships.
Everyone tried to lay claim to what was technically St. John's home court.
Georgetown's win over Syracuse in the finals of the 1984 Big East tournament was not without controversy. The Orange were leading late in the second half when Hoyas forward Michael Graham appeared to throw a punch at Andre Hawkins after battling for a rebound. After much deliberation, Graham was ruled to have committed an intentional foul, resulting in two Syracuse foul shots, instead of a flagrant foul which would have resulted in his ejection and four foul shots. The Hoyas went on to win in overtime 82-71.
It is still what I consider the best game ever played. Syracuse had the game won -- this was Patrick [Ewing] and Michael Graham -- and there were some controversial officiating calls in the game.
Georgetown was the best team in the country. They won the national championship that year by killing people. It was the greatest defensive team that ever played in this league and maybe any other league.
Pearl [Washington] was in another world5. It was the greatest game I've ever seen a player play. He just took Georgetown on by himself. We didn't have one of our better teams; we were OK. They were the best team in the country and he took them on.
It came down to the referee changed his call. Sometimes that happens but rarely when a guy calls a foul and then he calls a technical and takes it all back. It was a game-changer. It should have been four shots and the ball out of bounds and the game would have been over.
It was a great game. Sometimes you're on the wrong end of a great game.
At that time the book on Pearl was he couldn't shoot the outside shot. Off the dribble he was dominant, he'd break your press single-handedly and just kind of carve you up off the dribble and Georgetown was sitting in their zone and he was still dribbling through the thing.
They were giving him the open shot and they still couldn't keep him out of the paint. He just put on an incredible show for the hometown crowd, not only for Syracuse but for all the people from Brooklyn, he really took the whole tournament over.
The game ends, Georgetown wins, and it's a great game and I'm going to go over to see Jimmy [Boeheim]. You don't know what to say. He is so enraged about the officiating that he butted me in the head. I cut myself. I just walked away.
A week later, Jim is in the NCAA tournament, and I walk up to him and he says, "Hey, come here. What are you telling Dave [Gavitt] I head-butted you in the head for?" I said, "Jim, you did." He didn't believe me. There's only one person who saw it, thankfully. If the media ever saw it, that would have been the end.
The one person who saw it and never said a word was Billy Packer.
It wasn't intentional but he was so enraged. There had been an officiating call where Michael Graham just wrapped somebody and Larry Lembo was there and didn't blow the whistle and it turned the game around.
There were maybe two minutes to go in the game and the phone rings and I pick it up and it's Dave [Gavitt]. He's the chair of the basketball committee, out in Kansas City. He said, "How are things going?" "How are things going? Dave, we're on the verge of a brawl, the game is unbelievable. I can't talk."
So he says, "Call me as soon as the game is over."
So he said, "How did it go?" Well I just got head-butted in the head by Jim Boeheim.
He said, "What are you talking about?"
It was all part of New York, which made it so great.
Oh, I don't remember that. It's possible. I wasn't happy. It's possible.
Art Hyland (Big East coordinator of men's basketball officiating since 1984)
Syracuse and Georgetown was a very hot rivalry then. John and Jimmy are good friends now. There's a lot of water under the dam. Those days, they were both young, spirited and wanted to win.
You hate to have anything end in a controversial way. I did not [talk to Boeheim] right after the game. I did later on.
Young blood boils a lot more quickly than older blood. At that time, he was not in the mood to speak to anybody.
You wait 'til people calm down. Get over the things, talk again.
Jimmy and I early on had a little tension and Dave made us sit up in the stands and talk. I remember sitting in the stands and talking. Jimmy was in the [NCAA] tournament and we got knocked out. Then they were questioning whether he was a good coach or not. A guy came to me and he thought I was going to jump into that.
He said, "Why is it that people say Boeheim is not a good coach?" I told him, "I never heard anybody say that who knew what they were talking about."
I think we protected each other in a lot of ways.
It might be someone you appeared you didn't like because you went head-to-head with them, but there is competitive dislike that is separate from personal dislike.
Some people, no matter what, you're going to like them. But that wasn't the case with these people.
I got angry at them. We said some things, but I never didn't have respect for them. Never. When we weren't dealing with competitive things, we were friends.
People thought we really hated each other.
It was that way [with Thompson] for maybe the first 10 to 12 years. It was very contentious and there was no love lost. Then I think it began to thaw. He had me as a court coach in the Olympics when he coached, so we had started to get along.
In the beginning, we were young and competitive. The games, the magnitude of the games, built on. It really mellowed the last few years and we're really good friends now.
In 1985, the Big East placed three teams in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament: No. 1 seeds St. John's and Georgetown and No. 8 seed Villanova. The Wildcats defeated the Hoyas 66-64 in the national championship game. Chris Mullin was the Wooden Award winner and Ewing was named the MVP of the Big East tournament for the second straight year after leading the Hoyas to their third title in four years.
We brought the league to a different level but I think everybody played a significant role. It was great. We had Lou at St. John's, we had Rollie and Villanova, Coach Thompson [at Georgetown] -- had some great coaches, players and teams. You had three teams in the Final Four. It was just amazing. When we were there, the Big East was the premier league, not the ACC, not any of those.
You needed two or three things to make it work and we got it -- the players that came in. Number two, the character of coaches. Each one had a flair.
The best example of how tough the Big East was at that point in time. My senior year , we played against Pittsburgh. They beat us in a 30-point game6 on their home floor and a week later, we beat them in Madison Square Garden.
If we didn't win that first game in 1985, we weren't going to the [NCAA] tournament. That was 11 losses. We had to play Pitt again, beat Pitt and then play the Johnnies. We were up pretty good in the first half and then they killed us.
The best team is Georgetown. They were the best. They were probably the most talented, they had the most depth, I don't know this, but I'd say they probably had the most NBA players the four years I was in school. They were physical, they were tough. There was a mean streak there.
I wouldn't say that when I was playing against them, but 30 years later that's easier for me to say they were the best team while I was in school.
John Thompson cast a big shadow because his team was so good.
John Thompson invented modern college defense. Nobody played defense like that. If you look at film two years earlier, you didn't see anybody doing that.
[Ewing] was dominant. He was mean. He was tough. And he was the ultimate team player. I think in college he probably only averaged like 16 points a game. But he dominated from a defensive standpoint, he intimidated on the defensive end. You had to always know where he was. You prepared for him, we used to try and put two or three guys on him to keep him off the offensive glass. When we played them the whole game plan was how to try and control him and do anything we can to lessen his impact on the game.
Lo and behold, probably eight years after we left school, we became very good friends. While we were in school, not too much. When we played it was a vicious competition.
I saw Chris Mullin, who I thought was one of the finest players to play in the Big East, he was getting some kind of an award and I was doing radio. I always liked Chris. He gave a speech about these people who were important and showed him affection and love, so when he was coming off the floor, I waved him over.
I said, "We always showed you affection. Every time you cut over to the baseline, baby, we hugged you. We did everything we could to get close to you."
“When you go through something like that it's nice because years later, I think that respect is still there and you can put the guard down and actually talk about it and laugh about it. But that developed through deep competition and intensity. ”- Chris Mullin
Those were some games though.
We knew we were going to bang heads at some point and we were going to need to get through each other to make that next step. They were loaded; they were deep; they played hard; they were very unselfish.
There were some good battles. When you go through something like that it's nice because years later, I think that respect is still there and you can put the guard down and actually talk about it and laugh about it.
But that developed through deep competition and intensity.
We had our battles, our love-hate relationship. We respected each other. We share a common bond.
In 1986, St. John's and Syracuse produced one the most memorable finals in Big East tournament history, as Walter Berry blocked Pearl Washington's shot to clinch a St. John's win. Berry was that season's Wooden Award winner while Washington was named the MVP of the Big East tournament despite Syracuse's title game loss.
We had the whole game. They caught us at the end. Pearl took it and had a good lane to the basket. Walter [Berry] made a good play on it, one of the few defensive plays he made in history. Pearl usually makes that shot.
I didn't know if he could ever get it. He came from the opposite side. It was an amazing basketball feat. But he had those long arms and he got it.Tranghese
The tournament is over and we're going through the awards things. I told the Syracuse people, "You have to bring the Pearl out."
It was the first time we were going to give the MVP award to a losing player7.
I remember Pearl came out and he was devastated. I said, "I'm sorry I have to bring you out for this but we got to do this."
When we announced the Pearl as the MVP, I remember Walter Berry and Mark Jackson and all those kids from St. John's, they did not have one iota of envy. They all ran out and embraced the Pearl. That was one of the most iconic moments.
This was New York versus New York, city kids, Walter versus the Pearl, all from the high schools of New York.
All of the New Yorkers respected [Washington]. I saw him play in high school. I mean, you talk about going and watching a great actor on Broadway? It was the same with him. It was no different.
He's so humble, it's a joke. He says, "Oh, you know, my brother, I was home, wanted to play at home." It's so humble. It's sickening. If I were home, what he did unbelievable.
Patrick and Chris were very professional in the way they played. Methodical.
This guy, he had fun with the game.
Someone asked me, "Who was the most difficult player to guard?" And I said Pearl Washington. We were known for defense and if we pressured Pearl, he went by us. And if we came to him, he still went by us.
Pearl was one of a kind. He was a special player. He could do things that nobody else could really do. He had a flair for the game and an ability with the ball that people didn't have.
He wasn't a great shooter, and that hurt him in the long run, but he was the most exciting player.
The only guy I'd compare him to was Calvin Murphy. Calvin was pretty exciting but in Big East history [Pearl] still stands out.
He was so charismatic. He did things that got people out of their seat. Dave and I were lucky enough to be at Providence with Ernie D [DiGregorio]. He was that kind of player but then Pearl took The Show to New York.
I still remember the '84 game. He made a crossover move, pulled up and hit the jump shot and it's the loudest I've ever heard the Garden.
All these kids growing up saw Pearl Washington play. He and Patrick and Chris, to an extent, made this league and as I look back on the history of the league, those are still to me the three players who made this league over everybody.
Even if you think somebody is better than them, I'd still be hard-pressed not to pick Patrick, Chris and Pearl. Some might say not Pearl because he didn't go on [to have success in the NBA], but in college, those three were special.
When the Big East was formed, there was one great coaching personality after the other along the sidelines for every game. The banter that went on between coaches and officials, you would not believe today. It was so different. They yelled at each other. It was what made the theater.
When Dave created this thing, he wanted to make a splash. They did partially because of great players but because of the personality of the coaches. They did crazy things. They got technical fouls. But that was nothing in those days. Technical fouls were commonplace. Now it's like you took someone's first born.
In those days, it was part of the game. The line, we'll say it was quite liberal.
It was the players, but as much it was a coach's league because the coaches stayed for a while in the beginning. Louie, Rollie, John and myself there were other great coaches who were in and out: Gary [Williams], Rick [Pitino], P.J. [Carlesimo]. Then [Jim] Calhoun came in, so that's four or five guys that stayed.
Jim Calhoun (Connecticut head coach from 1986-2012)
The first time I walked into a room for the first meeting after I had been hired at UConn -- this is like four days after I was hired -- I walked in and looked around that room with a good friend, Jimmy O'Brien, who just came to BC to take the BC job.
We walked into that room and to see the six of them sitting around -- that being John Thompson, Rollie Massimino, Rick Pitino, Jimmy Boeheim, Louie Carnesecca and, of course, P.J. Carlesimo -- that's the cast of characters.
The coaches' meetings were the most fun. If you could have taped those and sold those you would have made some money. They were a great show, R-rated. The language wasn't good. There were clashes in there. They were fun. It was great theater.
We are sworn to secrecy. We don't divulge. I don't know if they were informative, but they were lively.
So much s--- happened, but it was good theater.
“We were naturally good theater. We didn't have to fake it. Rollie's personality was Rollie's personality. Louie's was Louie's.”- John Thompson
The pity of it is -- you remember that old song, "Folks are dumb where we come from. They ain't had learning yet. They go from doing A to doing what comes naturally?" [from "Annie Get Your Gun"]
We were naturally good theater. We didn't have to fake it. Rollie's personality was Rollie's personality. Louie's was Louie's.
Louie was great. He was the best. Every time we'd play, we'd shake hands and he'd say some expletive that I can't repeat and then we'd go play. He never made an excuse, never said anything but "great game." Never blamed anybody. In many ways, he was the best to compete against. It was never about any of that bulls---. I have tremendous respect for him, probably the most I have for any coach that I've coached against.
Louie was great. He was just wonderful. Now, he's a little hard of hearing. I am now too. I used to kid him. There's an [profane] Italian expression called "stroons." He'd call me "stroonsie" and I'd go back with him and mouth words so he couldn't hear me. He'd want to punch me. Now, God punished me because the same thing happened to me because I'm hard of hearing.
It was quite a group, the wise guys we were.
I'll never forget when Rick came in [to Providence]6. I didn't go to a helluva lot of those coaching meetings but I was there when Pitino came into the league; he was the young kid. Most of us had tried to recruit him or saw him when he was a player and he and Rollie got into it. He didn't want Rollie to talk to him the way he was talking to him. Rollie was trying to explain to him that all of us had to pay some dues, that when we all came in, the old-timers got on us, too.
Oh yeah, they went at it. Rollie called him a young pipsqueak or something like that and [Pitino] said, "I'm not a young pipsqueak, I can compete just like you."
That was a great moment.
You had to stand up for yourself in that room.
Rick Pitino (Providence head coach from 1985-87; Louisville head coach since 2001)
I remember it like it was yesterday because P.J. [Carlesimo] and [Jim] Boeheim set me up. We were in Bermuda and there was going to be this ball deal. Villanova had just won the national championship and he wanted to set it up so Villanova, St. John's, Syracuse and one other -- not Georgetown because they had their own deal -- would get $12,500 and the rest of us would get $3,500.
So P.J. and Boeheim take me aside and they tell me he's going to say this but that I should speak up. I was just coming from the pros with Hubie Brown and they said Rollie had a lot of respect for the pro game and Hubie.
I'm a little bit of a Doubting Thomas, but I figure, all right.
So Rollie gets up at the meeting and says McGregor wants the four of us and doesn't want to give the rest of you the same. They wanted to give you $2,500 but I got it up to $3,500.
So I raise my hand and I said, "Coach, I know you just won a national championship and had an outstanding year but, with all due respect, you don't know who is going to win next year, so I think it's only fair that we all get the same cut."
Well, he goes off on me like you wouldn't believe. He's calling me a f---ing whippersnapper, saying you came here like some hotshot from the pros. Exactly the opposite of what they've told me.
John Thompson is sitting there laughing and Boeheim and P.J. have their heads down.
At that point I knew I was set up and not only that, but everyone knew but me and Rollie. He was legitimately mad.
Well then he says something that set me off and I go back at him. "Who do you think you are? F--- you. You've won one f---ing national championship." And it's tense.
John Thompson loved it.
I don't think Rollie was being disrespectful but when I saw that, I knew Pitino was going to be good. I'm sitting there, "Yeah, kid, don't take this s---- off him." It never got to be ignorant, but Rick balked. He wanted us to know, us old-timers, "You're not going to push me around."
And I always respected him for that.
The next day, Dave Gavitt, being the consummate politician, sets us up to play golf. He's got me in a foursome with P.J., Boeheim and Rollie and I'm in the same cart as Rollie. I refuse to get in the cart. I walked the entire 18.
Boeheim and P.J. are just laughing hysterically.
No one had a chance to have a big-time ego because they were all successful guys. We screamed and yelled at each other but we liked each other. There were a lot of curse words flying from bench to bench and in our meetings.
From 1980 through 1989, Syracuse, St. John's and Georgetown won every Big East tournament. There would be five different champions from 1990-95, the first of which was UConn. The Huskies were in their fourth season under Jim Calhoun and their most significant achievement since joining the Big East to that point was an NIT championship in 1988.
Really, nobody wanted Connecticut. Dave said, "We're talking Connecticut. This is a state school with state resources and when stars align, they can be really good."
It was Dave genius. He felt strongly about Connecticut.
The Big East gave Connecticut a forum, but Jimmy really ran with it. What he did, that's just remarkable, the most remarkable story. Go back and look at the entire Big East -- what Jim did at Connecticut is mind-boggling.
You know, that weekend will never be forgotten here in the state of Connecticut. A lot of years later, 23 years later, it's still called "The Dream Season."
We had the great sweep. We beat Seton Hall and then beat Georgetown, Syracuse and it was probably as good a 24 hours as I ever had in basketball -- I had a great one in 2011 but that was as good and special.
And I think what we did for the Big East, we became another player, which is what they needed because we were a small league, really, and we had dominant teams and the bottom had finally risen, which was very important to all of us.
And for Connecticut, I'll be very honest with you -- and I'm saying this with great respect for what's going to happen with Kevin [Ollie] in the future and all of us -- we never looked back.
Quite frankly, that was a significant point to win our neighborhood battle, to beat the guys in your own neighborhood.
“Quite frankly, that was a significant point to win our neighborhood battle, to beat the guys in your own neighborhood.”- Jim Calhoun on 1990 Big East title
I think one of the biggest decisions we ever made, we played our tournament in the '80s but we had a Saturday night final. But that's when we only had eight teams. Then we got bigger and we went to the Sunday finals.
It was at a time when we started to lose coaches. Rollie left. Louie retired. P.J. left. And we weren't getting the same kind of players, and as it got bigger, I went to our presidents and said, "Our TV contract is up. I think we need to do something and none of you are going to like it but I'm going to fight you on this."
Our tournament was being televised by CBS -- our semifinals and finals -- and that was a big deal. Our other games were regional. I said, "We need to play our finals at night again. This is wrong. There's nothing like New York on prime time on Saturday night."
Biggest fight I ever had. "We can't go off CBS." I was such a jerk. I went to our coaches, to Jimmy Boeheim and Calhoun: "I need for you to support this. I know what I'm doing." They didn't get it.
What they did get was I won't move it unless we can get all our games on ESPN. All of a sudden, the whole thing was on ESPN. The instant we went on prime time it all reignited again.
That was 1996 and we had Allen versus Allen and there you go.
Ray Allen (Connecticut guard from 1993-96)
A couple of things stand out.
One, going to the Garden that day, I just remember seeing my name up in the lights and it saying, "UConn."
I did an interview before the game for TV in one of those rooms off to the side. I remember the enormity of the situation because we were playing and all of these great players in college were playing and carrying their teams at the time.
I felt the weight of the situation because it wasn't just for Connecticut. It wasn't just Connecticut versus Georgetown, and only those people in that part of the country watching. It was everybody in the country watching.
I didn't realize that until later on when I got to the league and everybody were like, "Man we were watching that. We couldn't turn it off."
The buildup was incredible.
When we threw the ball up that night, the atmosphere in the building was more than electric.
What I do remember most was Ricky Moore and Kirk King carrying us, because everything that I was throwing up there, it just seemed like it wasn't going in. And they played good defense on me too. Georgetown was a great team.
I remember going into that final huddle, I don't remember how many shots I made in the second half. I was thinking to myself, "Hey, this is where I had to make a shot."
Somebody had to make a shot.
I had faith that coach was going to put us in a good situation to make a play and get a good shot.
The guy who was supposed to get the ball, Rudy Johnson, looked away, got bumped away. Ray's coming down -- John [Thompson] argues to this day his foot actually hit -- made the shot.
I got the ball and I came off, and Iverson chumped me and then I kind of went to the basket. Then I saw Jerome Williams, who was guarding Rudy Johnson in the corner, but he slid in toward the lane. And right as he slid in, I turned the corner and looked to pass it to Rudy. But Jerome went right back, so I had to go up in the air in one motion.
I faked the pass over there and then I threw it in the air. I guess I had enough touch on it where it hit the basket the right way.
People ask me all the time did I touch the ground. No, I didn't. I know I got it off in time.
“I'll remember that one more than anything, because I think it came at a time of innocence in my career when you just play hard. You're playing in college and everybody is playing hard, and it's the Big East tournament. It's the pinnacle of basketball. We watch that tournament our whole lives growing up.”- Ray Allen
Then you say, "Well, it's the end of the game." No it wasn't. Allen [Iverson] had a shot to end the game.
Iverson took the first shot that could have won it. Jerome Williams then got the rebound and threw it over the basket. Probably for my first three or four years in the NBA, I would see Jerome Williams, and I'd tell him, "Hey man, thanks for missing that shot." Because he still had an opportunity to put the ball in and win that game.
That's one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. I should have left Victor Page in the game. Allen [Iverson] got in foul trouble. Victor was the MVP at that game until Ray hit that shot. Ray was going one way and he shot it that way.
Allen got in foul trouble and Victor was playing extremely well and, of course, Allen was the better player. So I followed the philosophy of Red Auerbach, that regardless of who you put in, and how bad the best players were playing, when it came down to the end you put the best players back in the game.
I put the best player back in the game and it stopped some of Victor's momentum.
That will be the single most shot that I'll remember. I'll remember that one more than anything, because I think it came at a time of innocence in my career when you just play hard. You're playing in college and everybody is playing hard, and it's the Big East tournament. It's the pinnacle of basketball. We watch that tournament our whole lives growing up.
Being in the NBA, it might look like I've been so groomed and mature about knowing what to do and how to play. But then, in college, you're just playing and having fun. The complete euphoria I had after the shot went down; when they missed, I took off and ran down the floor. I remember that it was the most excited I've ever been.
Coach Calhoun ran out there to hug me, but I ran right by him. My enthusiasm was just so over the top, that I just ran right by him. Our student manager was right behind him, and see didn't see me coming, but I leveled her. It cut the whole inside of her mouth.
She took one for the team, obviously. But she's like, "Man, you just ran me over." And I was like, "I didn't see you."
The picture of Ray Allen sprinting, as the horn went off, to the bench -- he knocks a manager over he's sprinting so hard -- and the elation was an incredible thing.
In 2006, Syracuse became the first team in win four games in four days to win the championship. Gerry McNamara hit a game-winning 3-pointer against Cincinnati in the first round; his 3 forced overtime against No. 1 UConn in a quarterfinal win; he assisted Eric Devendorf for the go-ahead basket in the semifinals against Georgetown before beating Pitt in the championship game.
Gerry's tournament to me was the most surreal because we should have really lost four games. If those were four games we had just played as regular games -- against Cincinnati he throws it in from halfcourt; we should have lost to Georgetown with a 15-point lead; Connecticut was better than we were.
He made every key shot and the key pass. So really we should have lost all four games and we won all four games. It's not like we had four close games; we had four games we should have lost. That's why it was crazy.
In the Cincinnati game, I knew I was going to take the last shot regardless of how I was going to get the opportunity to take it. That was going to be the hard part.
I remember in the Connecticut game, Coach Boeheim was drawing up a play, and we come out of a timeout and I turn back -- and if you look at the footage you can probably see it -- I turn back to [Mike Hopkins] and say, "Mike, you want me shooting this?" And he says, "Yeah, I want you shooting it."
So it was the same thing as the Cincinnati game. I knew I was going to shoot it; it was getting to the spot to shoot it. And I was going to get an opportunity and I was lucky I got it in full-speed transition. I had it going downhill and all it took was one move to free me up and to get a shot off and I got a clean look.
Any time a shooter knows he has a clean look going straight downhill it's the best shot you can get.
He owned the city for a week. They might as well have given him a key to the city.
It's hard for one player to figure in game-winning plays. Sometimes, in the course of a year, a player might win one game, maybe two. But to win four in a row? In New York City?
It was crazy, the media attention, but I stayed pretty cocooned. I'm sitting in a hotel room or I'm sitting in an ice bath in my hotel room. I was dealing with a stress fracture. I lived with the trainer and I lived in the ice bath. We spent a lot of time together that week. He told me we got a little too close that week.
The bell boy would come up and fill the tub with ice and I'd put the cold water in it and sit in it for 15 minutes, two or three times a day. It was awful.
I was just more in the excitement of my own moment, regardless of the attention. I was happy we were winning because we had been struggling.
I was really in my own world.
It took years to reflect. My career ended a week later and I was pretty much ineffective. I could barely move. I had put so much into the week before. You lose in the NCAA tournament and it's over. So it was years, because you're trying to cope with the fact that it's all said and done.
In 2009, Syracuse and UConn need six overtimes in their quarterfinal matchup. The 127-117 Orange win lasted 3 hours and 46 minutes.
My wife and one of my closest friends arranged for a surprise retirement party for me that night. They told the restaurant we'd be there at midnight. And then we had the six-overtime game and Susan is trying to get my attention at the end of regulation across the court. I went over to see her. I could see something was up. I come over and she says, "Michael, I have to tell you this."
We didn't get there 'tll 3 o'clock in the morning. The restaurant stayed open and we stayed until 6.
Bill Raftery (ESPN analyst, former Seton Hall head coach)
Somewhere around the fourth or fifth overtime, Mike Tranghese came over and wrote a note: "To my favorite trio, this is my final gift to you." It was his last year.
Now, I never keep anything, but I had Jay [Bilas] and Sean [McDonough] sign that and I signed it and I had that note and the final box score framed and hung it in my house.
My wife and I went to that six-overtime game anticipating staying for a night and driving back to Scranton. Well, we stayed for the entire week, right up until Louisville.
We didn't leave. Matter of fact, after that game, instead of going back to the hotel and going back to sleep, I met up with Coach [Mike] Hopkins and helped them get ready for the scout against West Virginia. It was very late; or should I say, very early.
It was the best sporting event I've ever been in attendance for. Hands down.
It was a so-so game. The end of the game was pretty good. We thought we might have made that shot [in regulation] but I wasn't sure we did. Then we were so far out of it in each overtime, I don't even know how we won.
Jonny [Flynn] made 16 straight free throws, and if he had missed one, we would have lost. They had shots two or three times to win. Really, each overtime, "Well, we got this far. It was a good game, but we're not winning this game."
That happened, really, five times. I thought we were going to lose.
In the sixth one, I think it was the first time we got the tip and got ahead. It was the first time we got ahead in six overtimes.
Everybody says I shouldn't say that and I should smile and Jim Boeheim has gotten on me about that. "Well, I should appreciate the moment."
I was exhausted and we had five times to win the game and in the sixth [OT] they won it. So it was hard for me to put in perspective. Years later, it was clearly two teams that wouldn't give in and there's no other greater tribute to those kids who played in those six overtimes. No one would give in -- and I mean that, honestly.
We had enough chances to win, they had a couple chances to win, but it was just an amazing, amazing thing, years ahead to look back on.
At the time, everybody just wanted me to be happy in this historic moment. Well, we just got knocked out of the Big East tournament and I wasn't quite that happy about it, historic or not, I wasn't happy.
I later was proud to coach my team in that game and coach against Syracuse, when I saw two teams play 30 minutes of basketball, another game almost, and not give up. That was pretty special.
Jim Calhoun doesn't talk about it because he was on the wrong end of that game. You don't necessarily want to be on the wrong end of history. If you're in enough of them, you're going to be on the right side of some and the wrong side of some.
I was happy to be a part of history, but I was exhausted, man. I played about 52 minutes. And that was a tough game for me because I didn't really shoot the ball well and then I had to play against that tough Syracuse zone. And then I had to guard Jonny Flynn throughout the whole game so it was a really tough and exhausting night for me.
If we could, today, have the audio tape, of the huddles, it went from exhilaration of "We're gonna win this, gonna win this, gonna win this, gonna win this, shoulda won this," to finding a way, just hang on one more minute or one more timeout or whatever the case may be because I think by the end both teams were almost out of players and out of energy.
It was just a great relief at 1:20 in the morning to get it over with. I was really happy to win, because to me, everybody says it wasn't a championship. That's irrelevant. I've been in a lot of great games, probably better games, but they didn't go to six overtimes. There's not a game like that you can look back on. You don't have those games.
It was a classic.
In 2011, McNamara's 2006 run was bested, as Kemba Walker led UConn to five wins in five nights. The Huskies started the tournament on Tuesday as the No. 9 seed against DePaul. They'd go on to beat Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse and eventually Louisville on Saturday for the title. The run didn't end there as Walker continued his remarkable streak into the NCAA tournament, leading the Huskies to a national championship, Jim Calhoun's third.
I always tell people it was like a movie. It was like nothing can go wrong for us. It was an unbelievable moment. Me and my teammates, and everyone played well, everyone played their part.
We were kind of unstoppable. We just had it in our minds that we wanted to win. As the days went on and after each and every game we won our confidence and motivation grew bigger.
I could tell by our energy level that we were in pretty good shape. Our matchup against DePaul was perfect. They pressed, we ran, we had good guards led by Kemba and Jeremy Lamb and company and I felt good about that.
The next day, when we beat Georgetown -- a good Georgetown team, not a great one, but a good one -- and beat them by the most I think that we've ever beaten Georgetown, by the way; 16, 17 points, it was a 20-something point lead at one point. We kind of knew that it was getting special.
But then we you got to the Pittsburgh game and Kemba makes the shake, the bake and his deliver at the end, I turned to George Blaney after the game and said, "We're gonna do this." And he said, "Win the tournament?" I said, "No, maybe win the national championship."
I knew I would be able to get a pick-and-roll and get a switch. I got the switch with Gary [McGhee]. I really wanted to attack the basket. I figured because he was such a bigger guy he couldn't stay with me. I hit him with one move to see what he was going to do. He kind of played me back for the jump shot, so I made another move and went towards the basket, then had a step back and then all I see was the basket. I didn't even know he fell until I watched the replays later.
Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh head coach since 2003)
Gary was our best defender and he did pretty good job on that. If you look at his stats, Kemba hadn't hit a jump shot but he'd been getting to the basket. The previous two plays he got in the lane. He was beating us off penetration.
I felt something magical right there because it just seemed whatever we needed was falling in place.
When we drove back to Connecticut [after beating Louisville], and obviously with my coaches that night celebrating, there was a special feeling that more was coming and that isn't always the case, because a lot of teams who win that tournament have given it all there. It wasn't that feeling.
Just last week, the Catholic 7 announced that, beginning next season, it would begin play in a new conference. It will retain the Big East name and will play its league tournament at Madison Square Garden
So the essence of the league remains, if not in its entirety. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame will leave for the ACC. Louisville and Rutgers will depart in 2014 for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively.
Connecticut, in the meantime, remains behind with what will be a 10-team conference comprised of the UConn, Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Rutgers, USF, SMU, Temple and UCF.
With all this stuff going on now, you have to accept it because the world changes, but the most discouraging thing is that you knew you were part of a foundation of something, that you identified with the region, the fact that it was the Northeast schools and a different kind of school, collectively.
We were basketball schools.
None of it bothered me until Syracuse left. When Syracuse left, I said, "Et tu, Brute?"
That got me.
I got to know the Dome Ranger. I cussed him when he ran around. Toward the end, we'd be sitting on the bench talking. I got to know the ushers, the fans. I fussed, but it was fun.
Two reasons it stayed together was Dave Gavitt and Mike Tranghese. When they were gone, that was the signal of the end of the Big East, in my mind. They got things done. They didn't let presidents make stupid decisions, which is what presidents do when they get in charge of things they don't know anything about.
I think there were mixed emotions about getting into the league and mixed emotions about playing the tournament; where are you going to play the tournament? When you look back at things, you see how things developed the way they did. When you're going through it, you don't see it.
That's why you have people with big-picture ideas to run things. When you have good people in those positions, you end up in a good place. When you have the wrong people, which we seem to have a lot of, you end up in the wrong place.
Brandin Knight (Pittsburgh guard from 1999-2003; current Panthers assistant)
I grew up watching [the Big East], studying it, my entire life. My dad was a coach under Bill Raftery at Seton Hall. So I've been around to see how the league has developed and where it has come from.
I can remember Lou Carnesecca as a kid. I used to always want to check to see what sweater he was going to have on. That's something I remember as a kid. I remember Syracuse, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas -- that was the era I grew up in. So for me to get an opportunity to play at a high level in that conference and ultimately win some championships, for me it's definitely going to be a nostalgic feeling going back for the last time and knowing that this is pretty much the end of the Big East as we know it, or as I know it.
I think I always had an appreciation for things. I remember in high school at the end of my career, sitting and thinking how lucky I was to play on a great team. In college, I remember watching [Dave] Bing play and thinking how lucky I was to play with one of the greatest college players to play and coaching through those games, there's a lot of contemplation that went on this time.
I've thought about it a lot.
You know, really, I remember the start of the league. You hoped you could last a few years and that I'm the only one still here, that's enough to be proud of right there.
I'm just caught up in the season. I really am not nostalgic. You get caught up in the season. To me, this could be the first or 10th season, it doesn't matter. I have the same exact feelings every year.
It will hit me. When I walk away, whenever that may be. It's been a great run, I'm glad I was able to be in the Big East from beginning to the end.
It took a little time for my hate to build against Syracuse. It took a little time for my hate to build against St. John's and you cherish that. You pass that on.
My son [current Georgetown coach John Thompson III] will come off the floor in certain games and say, "I don't want to let them beat me." I say, "You got that right."
I would be places and you'd see Syracuse people or Villanova people and they'd say, "Hey coach, how you doing? We want you to know, we root for you sometimes, but we're from Syracuse."
If those things aren't important to you in life, what is?
ESPN.com's Andy Katz and Michael Wallace contributed reporting.