30 For 30: Requiem For The Big East
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30 For 30: Requiem For The Big East

The rise and fall of the Northeast Basketball Empire

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30 For 30

Requiem For The Big East

Season 2, Episode 17

Requiem For The Big East is a bloated, sugary love letter to a conference that dominated men’s college basketball for stretches of the past 35 years, held the highest-profile conference tournament at New York’s preeminent decrepit crown jewel basketball arena, only to fall by the wayside due to circumstances its success helped create. It’s too saccharine and nostalgic in long stretches, continually returning to the final Syracuse/Georgetown conference matchup in the semifinal of the 2013 Big East tournament. Talking heads wax poetic about white coaches with northeast immigrant backgrounds keeping traditions alive. Others beam with regional pride for teams playing “our way.” And those who still harbor bitterness over the conference disintegration still propagate a tall-tale, overstating the concentrated success of its early years that didn’t translate into the utter historical dominance over the lifetime of the conference.

But the film has a point. Big conferences like the Pac-12, the Big Ten, and ACC that have had relatively equal success in football and basketball are still standing. And its sad that the Big East, the haven for the northeast basketball schools that often didn’t have the sweeping, picturesque campuses of state universities elsewhere in the country, was forced to participate in an athletic revenue arms race. It works on many levels. It’s a vital historical document for a conference that will only exist in history books in its original form. It’s a template for how sports and television joined together to create a massive business that continues to dominate the airwaves today. And it’s a warning to all for how greed has infected institutions of higher learning to the point where money means everything, shutting out tradition and regional identity in favor of bigger television contracts.

Requiem sets forth a series of simple arguments. The Big East rose because the Northeast was a vacuum of independent basketball schools without a conference. The schools came together with the help of one enigmatic basketball coach destined to do something more as a conference commissioner: Dave Gavitt of Providence. It experienced a meteoric rise to prominence in the 1980s and remained a consistent heavyweight conference in men’s basketball. It died for many reasons: egocentric coaches, football’s economic and cultural superiority in the country at large, escalating television partnerships, and conference expansion. But mostly, Charlie Pierce hits the nail on the head: “Ultimately, capitalism killed the Big East.”

The first phase of Requiem starts with Dave Gavitt, the basketball coach and athletic director at Providence College in Rhode Island, who became the de facto “Godfather” of the Big East, convincing a loose network of northeast schools to forgo athletic independence and band together as a conference. At the time Gavitt was coaching, the power conferences (Pac 10, Big Ten, ACC, and SEC) had a stranglehold on the NCAA tournament berths, leaving close to 40 northeast schools scrambling for something like three at-large bids. But that’s not the only reason for how Gavitt sold athletic directors and coaches at BC, UConn, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Syracuse on the prospects of starting a collective of northeast universities as a basketball conference. They linked up with a fledgling four-letter cable network based in Bristol, Connecticut, promised to self-produce the games in order to make them available across the country on ESPN.

That’s the key combination: a network of schools with like-minded cultural attitudes about basketball based on similar regional identity, and the business acumen to land an initial television deal to get the product out to the masses for consumption. The attitude of going after markets—metropolitan areas with large numbers of television viewers—has influenced most of the major conference realignment decisions since this moment. In that regard, as a businessman, Dave Gavitt was a genius, and his gamble paid off more quickly than anyone anticipated.

The effect of the conference unity was almost immediate. In the years that followed the inception of the Big East, and the addition of Villanova and Pittsburgh, the promise of high-profile college basketball that aired on national television helped do one thing: keep home-grown talent in the northeast. Specifically, Requiem focuses on Chris Mullin at St. John’s, Ed Pinckney at Villanova, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington at Syracuse, and most prominently Patrick Ewing at Georgetown. Those players remaining in the northeast at schools close to home immediately boosted the high degree of talent, and made it possible for the Big East’s astronomical rise to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the tournament.

That significance is important, but at times probably overstated, lost in the syrupy, over-romanticized vision of a time when northeast college basketball teams finally lived up to the east coast bias of sports media outlets. That mythologizing is aided by another Gavitt masterstroke: holding a conference tournament in New York City’s Madison Square Garden—which largely didn’t affect regular season press and boosted records before the start of the NCAA tournament.

Most of the time in this middle section of Requiem is dedicated to the big name programs that achieved national success in the early years: Georgetown, Syracuse, Mullin’s St. John’s teams, and Villanova’s Cinderella run in the 1985 tournament. At this point, there’s a huge emphasis on the culture created and cultivated by the colorful coaches at each of the schools, including Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, John Thompson at Georgetown, Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s, Rollie Massimino at Villanova, and many others. Their competitive spirit, and at times mutual hatred that continues to fester decades later, is part of what made the Big East so compelling to watch. The Georgetown/Syracuse rivalry is the focal point of this, and a prickly Boeheim offers up plenty of information from his vantage point throughout the big years. (He notes that he won 75 games in three seasons before the Big East, but nobody cared because they weren’t on television.)

But John Thompson is the biggest personality and the most important for his recruiting, his on-court demeanor, and his vehement insistence that he not be pigeonholed as the “first black” anything. The funniest incident in the film is his recreation of Carnesecca’s ugly sweater before “The Sweater Game” in 1985. Thompson’s Georgetown teams during the Ewing era were fast, physical, and extremely talented, their success garnering a reputation for dirty play. The most salient point get made without needing to press too hard: The team that had a black coach and tough players that had people coming up to them admiring the way they carried themselves with confidence and pride, justified through winning a championship and making it to two other title games, willingly had to take ownership of the villain label as though they were the Oakland Raiders of college basketball.

Requiem suffers from focusing too heavily on these glory years, wanting to remember them fondly and sear them into the retinas of anyone in danger of forgetting the Big East’s impact on the college basketball landscape. But that means that the years that followed, and especially the years after Gavitt left as commissioner to join the Boston Celtics’ front office, don’t get as much time.

This is arguably the most important segment of the documentary, because it picks apart the business end of a college athletic conference at the point when basketball dominance and multimillion-dollar television deals are not enough in comparison to football. Andrew Zimbalist’s data is extremely compelling: The top 30 basketball schools pull in about a third of the revenue that the top 30 football programs do. So in response, the Big East chased the money, looking to placate schools like Boston College and Syracuse by becoming a big-time football conference as well. Adding Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and others was the step toward achieving that, but it came at the cost of regional identity. That started the slippery slope to a massively expanded conference that dipped south, extended to the Midwest, and diluted the brand that the colorful coaches and home-grown talent established in the Big East’s halcyon days.

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Requiem notes the sponsorship deals that coaches were able to make, how that income supplemented and often superseded what the coaches made in salary from their university. And the ballooning television deals with various networks garnered these schools so much money that they kept going after more and more, to the point where the dollar signs in administrators eyes got tempted by football, which signaled the death knell of the conference. But nowhere does the documentary address the current hot-button issue of properly compensating athletes for their part in perpetuating the popularity of the marquee programs.

Requiem makes the case that what made the conference popular was the cast of compelling personalities in suits and ties on the sidelines. Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Dwayne Washington would probably object to that assessment as the main reason for tuning in. When the Big East rose to prominence, this issue wasn’t as clearly at the forefront, because college athletics wasn’t the giant business that it is today. But it’s telling that nowhere during this financial boom recollection does anybody take a moment to talk about the role the players had in establishing that brand and whether or not they should have been, or should be today, fairly compensated for their part.

Though it extended over many years, the breakup of the Big East still feels like a gaping wound across college athletics. The dominos began dropping with Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, but then spread to West Virginia, Pitt, and others. Former commissioner Mike Tranghese looks especially beleaguered, knowing that when he took over for Gavitt that he didn’t have the same skillset. He couldn’t keep the conference together in light of the changing economic approach to college athletics, and the evidence Requiem dredges up makes it look like he took a disproportionate share of the blame.  Syracuse’s departure hit the hardest, offending many, though Boeheim makes the legitimate pushback that the league roster when the school departed for the ACC was not the same as the tight-knit, like-minded group that founded the league in 1979.

Ultimately, Requiem For The Big East is fascinating time-capsule fodder for a sport historian, the go-to introduction to what made the league popular and the ravenous greed that tore it apart. The Big East is a case study in sports economics at the college level, and yet more evidence for how much football overshadows everything else in that landscape. But the film has enough funny memories and uplifting underdog tales to tell that it’s not all bad. The Big East burned out instead of fading away, and it left behind a series of unforgettable moments, in the shiny new gyms on college campuses across the northeast, in Madison Square Garden (where the reconstituted conference still holds its tournament), and in the arenas that will continue to hold the NCAA tournament into the future.

Stray observations:

  • Yes, that’s Giancarlo Esposito serving as narrator throughout the film. How has there not been a Friday Night Lights-style series about a high-school basketball team somewhere in Indiana or the blue-collar northeast? Mr. Esposito, I have a spec script with a part for a fastidious head basketball coach that you might be interested in.
  • Director Ezra Edelman previously helmed the Peabody-winning Magic & Bird: A Courtship Of Rivals, and Emmy-winning Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts Of Flatbush.
  • A few teams exempt from realignment decisions based predominantly on television market size: Texas A&M and Missouri, who wanted a part of the giant revenue and reputation boost that comes from being a part of SEC football. (Texas A&M was also tired of playing second fiddle to Texas in-state and decided to bolt from the Big 12 to a place where collective standoffish success trumped one school’s arrogance.) And then Notre Dame, which still maintains its own much-envied independent television deal, deigned to flee to an arrangement with the ACC, so it can continue to beat up on inferior football competition to boost win totals like it has been doing for decades. Just join the Big Ten and actually compete with the biggest Midwestern teams (and some eastern also-rans) on an annual basis.
  • Michael Rapaport will take up the baton for waxing poetic on the NBA side of Madison Square Garden theatrics when his 1970s New York Knicks-centric When The Garden Was Eden opens this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in April.
  • Jim Calhoun is the major coach who gets short shrift in comparison to his Big East accomplishments (three NCAA titles in 12 years from 1999-2011), which adds insult to injury, since UConn is the biggest basketball program from the conference to get left out in the cold due to all the football realignment, relegated to the American Athletic Conference. (Rick Pitino is a major coach, but his tenure at Providence wasn’t that long, and Louisville wasn’t in the conference long enough to count.)

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