- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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So they had a little coaching tiff just for old times' sake, almost out of muscle memory or homage to what the Big East used to be, at the league's media day last month, and you could just imagine the old, old guard guys who first made the league the best damn college basketball conference on the planet once upon a time -- "Looie" and Rollie, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson Jr. -- being amused at the sight of Jim Boeheim, the last of them to leave, mixing it up with Louisville's Rick Pitino. Boeheim himself is so old -- all right, so he's only 68, but that still makes him the dean of Big East coaches -- Pitino was an assistant on Boeheim's first Syracuse coaching staff 36 years ago.
Knowing Boeheim's sardonic nature, it is a stone-cold lead pipe lock that way back then, same as now, Boeheim called Pitino "full of [expletive]." But Pitino didn't yet have the coaching chops to send the same charge right back at Boeheim, like he did when they exchanged the pleasantry last month. All with smiles on their faces, of course.
Temple coach Fran Dunphy just doesn't know how he got pulled into it.
"What is Pitino trying to do to me?" Dunphy joked Wednesday when reminded how Pitino riled Boeheim up by suggesting the Big East won't miss Syracuse or Pitt that much, because "Anybody who looks at where [incoming member] Memphis has been in the last 10-12 years, anybody who looks at the tradition of Temple and knows Franny Dunphy, would know I'm not full of [expletive].
"If Temple played Syracuse 10 times right now, one's gonna win six and the other's gonna win four."
"I'll have to remember to ask Pitino if he's trying to set me up -- especially since we play Syracuse this season," Dunphy added.
Welcome to the Big East's lame-duck year. The league that used to epitomize the claim that hoops is the city game, and brag that its postseason tournament was a huge reason Madison Square Garden still lived up to its claim as basketball's mecca -- that league now faces a season of upheaval and strained acquaintances and eulogies.
The league is known for famous games and bigger-than-life personalities and next-door-neighbor rivalries. The annual Georgetown-Syracuse showdowns still feel like little holy wars as much as basketball games, and no matter what else ever happens at Villanova, the Cats will always have that monumental upset of the Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA title game, the one in which Eddie Pinckney played out of his mind. Some folks' ears are still ringing from having to play West Virginia down in Morgantown year after year. But now the Mountaineers are goners too. They bolted for the Big 12.
The Big East's present looks like a mashup of odd pieces. All this happened because of some shaky management decisions and the reluctance of some of the basketball-only schools to resign themselves to the fact that BCS football, not basketball, drives the Brink's truck in college sports nowadays.
The Big East was too indecisive, riven with competing agendas, and ultimately left without a chair because it moved too slowly when conference realignments started tumbling like dominoes in 2011 and a lot of football powers started going here and there. Even some second-rung BCS schools that put a little lipstick on discovered that they had a lot of invites to choose from when they shopped themselves around.
But look at what it did to the Big East. With the basketball season about to kick off, Kevin Ollie is working on a one-year deal as Calhoun's replacement at UConn, and two of the league's other basketball pillars, Pitt and Syracuse, are headed to the ACC next year. Notre Dame is eventually jumping there, too.
Temple is among the five schools that are taking their places. And there was Dunphy, minding his own business and getting ready for his own lame-duck season in the Atlantic 10 a few weeks back, when Pitino hoisted up Temple as a worthy replacement for Syracuse (albeit with a vastly smaller gym that can't compare to the Orange's Carrier Dome, another venue that made the East unique). That provoked Boeheim -- who has spent his entire adult life at Syracuse, while Pitino bounced from Boston University to an assistant job with the Knicks to Providence to the head-coaching job with the Knicks to Kentucky to the Celtics to Louisville -- to tweak Pitino, of all people, for having the gall to question a decision Syracuse made out of self-interest.
"When they start talking about Syracuse, I'm going to start talking about them. Rick's full of [expletive] if that's what he really said," Boeheim shot back -- with another smile, of course. Boeheim explained that he was tired of Pitino banging the Orange for bolting the Big East when "everybody knows" Louisville would've gladly run into the Big 12's arms, too, if only it had been asked.
"If he was in the Big 12 right now like he wanted to be, he'd be saying the Big 12 is the best," Boeheim said.
Fran -- or do you prefer "Franny"? -- your thoughts?
"I know Pitino a little -- we've broken bread a few times, we say hello, that kind of thing," Dunphy said in a phone interview Wednesday. "It's nice of him to say he believes in my coaching like that. But I still don't know where it came from."
So you won't be sending him a thank-you note for suggesting you would beat Syracuse six times out of 10?
"Uh. No, I will not," Dunphy said with a dry laugh.
Boeheim has correctly pointed out that the Big East's demise has been predicted before when the league shuffled its members (in the early 1990s and the early 2000s), and it did just fine. It is also indeed hard to argue that adding Memphis and Josh Pastner to the league, or SMU's Larry Brown, or a tradition-rich hoops school like Temple means doom. "I think we have the sixth-most wins in college basketball all-time," Dunphy points out, rattling off how Hall of Fame coaching icons Harry Litwack and John Chaney preceded him with the Owls.
But there's no certainty that the league's planned roster of teams is even the one it will have in another few years.
Sad as it is to say, the Big East is the best/worst example of how jerry-rigged conference realignments have scrambled the college sports picture and given us leagues in which the math is just one of many things that don't add up. Look at the goofy geographical makeups. Behold the strained "rivalries" we're asked to get behind now. What should the average Providence fan get mad at Central Florida for? Having tan lines?
Trying to make sense of it all is like the old "Who's on first?" routine: So wait. The Big Ten has 12 teams, and the Big 12 has only 10? The Southeastern Conference added Texas A&M, which is as Wild West as you can get, while the Big East sought to add football members from as far south as Florida and as far west as San Diego and Boise? And -- get this -- some of them will field teams that play all sports in the Big East all of the time, while still others are playing basketball but not bringing their football teams, and oh, never mind.
Do we really have to memorize this? I just want to soak my head.
You try making sense of the blow-by-blow in the Big East's Wikipedia entry.
It used to be an Amtrak pass was all you needed to travel the Big East.
Now you need a charter jet share.
Faced with an obvious branding dilemma now, along with everything else, the Big East did what big business and higher education folks often do when confronted with a big decision. They put on their serious faces and convened meetings, hired an expensive consultant and punted the league's name problem down the road. But if you've got a suggestion, what the hell? Send it to new commissioner Mike Aresco, who succeeded interim commissioner Joseph Bailey, who replaced John Marinatto, a casualty of the Big East's slow move to react.
It's been a turbulent time, to say the least. Dunphy isn't the only one who is happy but a bit disoriented about having one foot in and one foot out of the league. When Notre Dame coach Mike Brey arrived for Big East media day in mid-October, just a month had passed since the Irish announced they, too, were leaving for the ACC. Brey looked around the room at the New York Athletic Club and told a reporter, "I thought we would be put in a closet."
Nostalgia gripped Brey as much as anything when he went on to admit, "I've had mixed emotions [about leaving the Big East]. I grew up in the ACC, so this is going back home, but I also came up as a coach in this league. This is home and I'm going to miss it." And -- what do you know? -- neither Boeheim nor Pitino publicly called him "full of [expletive]."
They know exactly what Brey means when he says, "In the Big East, it was always a show, man. It was always a show. I'll always be a Big East man."
"People in other parts of the country really don't understand the electricity of the Big East tournament at the Garden -- it's the best," Brey explained Thursday. "I think a lot about all the coaching personalities we've had too. Remember, Notre Dame only joined in 1995 and at first our fans were still learning about the Big East, you know? They'd say, 'Oh. I can't wait for this Calhoun man to come in here. Oh man, I can't wait to watch his act. And Boeheim -- you know he's going to whine at the officials.' Then Georgetown would come in with all they bring. The big personality coaches in our league set it aside from all the other leagues. It just did. Nowadays, leagues like the ACC are jealous of us too because we're knocking out eight, nine, 10, 11 NCAA bids a year.
"Honestly, I think I'm having buyer's remorse about this ACC thing. And whenever we move, I'll adjust. But I am going to savor this last go-round this year. I am."
Boeheim so far refuses to be sentimental. Pitino refuses to be glum about waving goodbye. John Thompson III (and so many others of the current generation) are free to coach on their merits thanks to the groundbreaking stands his father took. And Dunphy says he hopes Temple can be an important part of building its new conference's new traditions.
It's going to be the same but different, see?
So RIP, Big East. It was fun. Long may the new Big East-or-whatever-they're-gonna-call-it wave.