Commentary

A truly sad weekend for the Big East

Greed and hypocrisy are leading to the downfall of the league Dave Gavitt created

Originally Published: September 18, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

We should be immune by now, invulnerable to surprise and numb to shock. The conference shuffle has trampled geographic boundaries, turned league names into oxymorons and destroyed age-old rivalries. So Syracuse and Pittsburgh now want to abandon the Big East? What's the big deal?

Except this one is different.

This is not Colorado and Utah slithering off to the Pac-10 or even Texas A&M jumping ship to the SEC.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/G. Paul BurnettJim Boeheim and Syracuse have been at the center of so many iconic Big East moments over the years.

This is Syracuse, a founding member of the Big East, slinking off to the greener-for-now fields of the ACC.

In 1979, Syracuse -- following the vision of founder and first commissioner Dave Gavitt -- joined forces with six other schools and formed the Big East. Along the way, the Orange came to define the league as much as any conference member.

Outside of Madison Square Garden, no building represented the magnitude of the Big East better than the Carrier Dome.

From Derrick Coleman to Billy Owens to Carmelo Anthony to Hakim Warrick to Gerry McNamara, only a handful of schools can match the college star-power wattage of the Orange. And in the Mount Rushmore of coaches who have personified the league, the chin-in-his-hand image of Jim Boeheim stands alongside John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca and Jim Calhoun.

Now, on the same weekend Gavitt died of congestive heart failure at the age of 73, Syracuse has helped bury the league he so adored.

Because this is the end of the Big East. Let's not kid ourselves here.

When ACC commissioner John Swofford says he is comfortable with 14 members but is not "philosophically opposed" to 16, you can bet Rutgers and Connecticut are among the schools he is not "philosophically opposed" to filching. A source at UConn says that school is aggressively pursuing a spot in the ACC.

This is happening, folks.

Sure, the Big East may continue in some bastardized form. Plenty of desperate programs already are reaching out, frantic to abandon their own Titanic and jump aboard the merely listing Big East.

But you don't replace an iconic school like Syracuse and a competitive, big-market powerhouse like Pittsburgh with, say, Iowa State and Baylor and call it an even swap.

You don't remove two basketball programs whose brash and sometimes brute style have epitomized the league, and say it is business as usual.

And you don't sit back and listen as Swofford brashly talks about perhaps one day moving his basketball tournament to New York -- as he did in response to colleague Andy Katz's question on Sunday's conference call -- and not realize it is a one-two slap to the face and punch to the gut of the now-powerless Big East.

In a can't-shock-me news cycle, this is simply stunning.

For years, Mike Tranghese opened Big East media day with remarks about the robustness of his conference. No one argued. The Big East was a Big Beast, a glutton of 16 teams that swallowed everything around it whole. Tranghese effortlessly guided the league from its traditional power base to one of even larger proportions by shoring up its football with the additions of Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida -- but somehow never sacrificing the sanctity of basketball.

Now? Now it's all gone. Football is blown to smithereens and basketball, while surviving, loses two of its strongest members. The once-powerful Big East meekly goes down as just another casualty in the money-grubbing, protection-of-assets war that has overtaken college athletics.

It is easy to place the blame for this calamity at the feet of John Marinatto, and the Big East commish is plenty culpable here. It is impossible to fathom any of this happening on Trangehese's watch. Other conference commissioners respected him too much, and more important, his own league members trusted him to keep the Big East on the proper path.

[+] EnlargeJohn Marinatto
AP Photo/Stew MilneBig East commissioner John Marinatto is taking some heat for the loss of two longtime league members.

As he starts Year 3 on the job, Marinatto has inspired neither. Swofford said during the conference call that he alerted Marinatto to Syracuse's and Pitt's applications early Saturday morning. By Friday night, The New York Times already had reported the story.

No chance Tranghese is treated with such disregard.

The bulk of the blame, though, goes to the people who are making the decisions. No one likes to talk about integrity more than university presidents, right? Yet no one fails to walk the walk quite as well, either.

In defense of her university's move, Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor explained that leaving the Big East was in the university's best interest "as conference realignment gives some instability to the landscape." What she -- and everyone else who has taken their bag of toys and run -- failed to acknowledge is that by leaving, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are the ones creating the instability.

Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg, meanwhile, said, "We did make it clear within the Big East, we were willing to improve the conference in any way we were asked. At the same time, we made it very clear that if other opportunities did arise, we would feel obligated to seriously assess them and look at the long-term future of the University of Pittsburgh."

Not only is that a 400-level class of doublespeak, it is steeped in irony eight years old. In 2003, Boston College bolted the Big East for the ACC. Pittsburgh and four other schools sued BC with none other than Nordenberg explaining the decision.

"This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition," he said at the time.

That's all true.

Unless, of course, breaking commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, misappropriating conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition are to your own betterment.

Which is why none of this should be so surprising.

It's emblematic of the me-first world we live in, of cash valued far more than moral integrity, and of panic rewarded and loyalty trampled.

Still, somehow this one is a jaw-dropper.

Syracuse is out of the Big East. Pitt is, too.

Maybe it's a blessing that Dave Gavitt didn't live to see it.

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

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball