Commentary

The Catholic 7 take a calculated risk

Originally Published: December 13, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

There is a perverse irony here now that the Big East is essentially defunct.

The league founded in 1979 on the strength of East Coast basketball essentially had to kill itself in order to save East Coast basketball.

And so in the completely dysfunctional process of conference realignment, we have now come full circle. The Catholic 7 (a name that Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown would appreciate) essentially is forging ahead much like Dave Gavitt once did, cautiously optimistic that there is both a television and marketing value in the roundball.

It is perhaps even more uncharted territory now than it was then, what with the glut of programming and the almighty power of the pigskin clogging the television guide already. But there also are more options now than there were before, thanks to, as Bruce Springsteen once complained, 57 channels and nothing on.

[+] EnlargeOtto Porter
AP Photo/Nick WassGeorgetown and Villanova are two of the seven Catholic, non-FBS football schools looking to leave.

So it is a risk, but a calculated one. That much no one can argue.

If there is a lesson to learn in all of this -- aside from the fact that, in college athletics, grown-ups are never held to the same standards of collegiality, ethics, morals and decency as student-athletes -- it is to know who you are.

Or better, know who you are not.

Pardon the pun, but the Catholic 7 have finally had their come-to-Jesus moment. Like the old "Saturday Night Live" skit starring Stuart Smalley, they finally have looked in the mirror and repeated, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me."

They are basketball schools. And not only are they OK with it, they're willing to entrust their athletic survival to established hoops programs instead of nouveau football teams.

There is a meaning and a resonance in Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence and, yes, even DePaul.

Feel free to point out that with the exception of the first three, their last truly great moments came during the 1980s.

Fair enough. But there is still a word association. When I say Providence, you don't say football and you never will. You say 1987 Final Four. You say Rick Pitino. You say Ernie D.

Look around at the roadkill along the side of the road in this latest iteration of As The Conferences Turn. Who stands as the epic losers in this greedy power struggle? Temple and Connecticut, two schools who forgot who they were.

Neither of them have ever been so-called football schools, yet each sold their souls to the gridiron devil, hoping to pocket some of the big money.

Temple once was so bad at football the Big East booted it from the conference.

So what did the Owls do? By golly, they spent gobs of money to build facilities in depressed North Philadelphia, figuring that would somehow miraculously convert Eagles fans into college sports fans.

It didn't. Temple got better, thanks mostly to some expert coaching from Al Golden, but it became a walk-on-coals coaching layover -- if you get good, you get out or risk getting burned by the sure-to-come mediocrity. Steve Addazio lasted all of two seasons before hightailing it out of town.

Meanwhile, Fran Dunphy, whose pores ooze loyalty and continuity, inherited a name-brand hoops program from John Chaney, changed the defense, changed the image and continued the success.

But basketball wasn't good enough for Temple. It had to have big-time football, and so the Owls abandoned the solid Atlantic 10 in exchange for what now is essentially Conference USA.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Bob Donnan/US PresswireJust 20 months removed from winning its third national title in men's basketball, Connecticut is not exactly in an enviable position at the moment.

Then there's UConn. The Huskies built a football stadium on the side of I-84, won enough games to get to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010 and then attracted approximately 11 people to Arizona for the game. Randy Edsall promptly left for Maryland and, since then, Connecticut has been below .500 and desperate to get to another conference.

Saddled now with an FBS football program to find a residence for, UConn basketball -- the real flagship sport in the Nutmeg State -- is no longer part of the hoop-centric equation and consequently living on athletics' Skid Row.

The Catholic 7 never tried to become something that they weren't. Among those that even have football teams at all, their contented FCS programs piggyback on the backs of basketball, a nice little fall diversion until November. The money isn't great -- and in fact can be a fiscal black hole, thanks to the number of scholarships -- but there's always been enough in the coffers to keep the basketball teams not just viable, but competitive.

To be certain, they aren't wide-eyed innocents here. If the breakaway becomes official (hey, nothing is ever certain in the realignment era), the Catholic 7 likely will do to the Atlantic 10 exactly what the Big East did to them: They will steal other schools to pretty themselves up at the expense of others. But if anyone still has the energy to get angry at the mercenary world of college sports, God bless them.

That barn is in Wyoming. The horse in Cabo.

Basically we are back where we started. Thirty-three years ago, Gavitt banked on the inherent appeal of like-minded institutions in geographically companionable regions, convinced that basketball mattered enough to sustain itself.

And now all these years later, a group of brazen schools has killed Gavitt's model to essentially rebuild and duplicate it.

As he was in 1979, they are convinced they are good enough, that they are smart enough.

Now they just have to hope that people really do like them.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball