Profit from Providence: Dave Gavitt’s Creation of the Big East

Madison Square Garden. March 11, 2010. The Big East Basketball Tournament.

3.1 seconds left. West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks inbounds the ball along the far sideline following a Cincinnati turnover.

“They get it into (Da’Sean) Butler. For the win!” Buzzer goes off “Banked in at the Buzzer! The Butler did it! And West Virginia wins!” ­– Sean McDunnah, ESPN broadcaster.

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Da’Sean Butler (1) celebrates with his teammates Devin Ebanks (41) and Kevin Jones (top) following his game-winning shot against Cincinnati

That’s my lasting memory of what was the Big East. Even though there were still two more games to be played, and won, by West Virginia in that year’s Big East Basketball tournament, and even though there would be two more years of WVU playing basketball in the Big East, that’s what I remember about it. That was the Big East everyone knew and loved. Since that time, though, things have changed.

For starters, West Virginia is no longer in the Big East; neither are founding members Connecticut (UConn) and Syracuse, or other schools like Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers. It was a different Big East in 2010 than it is now. That was the Big East that I grew up watching, and loving every second of. That was the Big East everyone loved watching. But, as former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said in the ESPN 30 for 30 Requiem for the Big East, “I saw it coming,” when asked about the inevitable demise and destruction of the Big East.

But so was its inception. A conference like the Big East was inevitable. And at its peak, it was a beautiful thing.

It officially started in 1979 – 31 years before Butler banked in his game winning shot, and 12 years before WVU even joined the conference. Dave Gavitt, then the Athletic Director and head coach of the men’s basketball team at Providence University, wanted to, as Dave Duffy, President of Duffy & Shanley P.R. – the company that gave the Big East it’s name –, said in the 30 for 30, “Try to put together a league that had more television eyes than anyone else in the country.”

That wasn’t his only hope.

Gavitt envisioned a time when major basketball colleges in the East would draw on big-city television and marketing opportunities to create a high-profile league, bringing enhanced revenue and the recruitment of star high school players. Gavitt evidently broached the idea of a Big East Conference with Lou Carnesecca, the St. John’s basketball coach, at the conclusion of coaching clinics they gave in Italy in the late 1970s. Carnesecca was skeptical, but Gavitt persuaded him to come on board, and then came the meetings creating the league.

Recruiting was another place of motivation for Gavitt.

“We were always recruiting not just against a school, but against an entire region. I don’t know how many times in my coaching career I had a high school coach tell me a kid was eliminating us because he wanted to play in the Big 10 or the ACC. He didn’t say he wanted to play at Duke or Carolina. He said he wanted to play in the ACC. After a few of those, I began to realize that we had to build a league that would keep the great players from the East right here.” – Dave Gavitt, 1989

Gavitt wanted to create the best basketball conference in North America.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 8.49.39 PMDave Gavitt

So, Gavitt got top basketball programs such as Georgetown, St. John’s and Syracuse to join from the onset, and then Boston College, Seton Hall, and UConn came along, as well, after receiving invitations. ’79 was the first season of Big East basketball. A year later, Villanova jumped conferences to the Big East, and in 1981, Pittsburgh was added to Gavitt’s conference, too.

Timing couldn’t have been more on Gavitt’s side. Just three years prior to the conference’s first season, the Eastern Eight Conference was founded, in part for some of the same reasons that Gavitt put the Big East together. The difference was Gavitt went after schools that had more basketball tradition, as well as being in big media markets. Also, two years after the Eastern Eight was put together, the NCAA ruled that member schools of the East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC) would have to play each other twice on the hard court. That meant teams like Georgetown and Syracuse would have to play two games against the likes of St. Francis. The bigger schools didn’t like it, and this told Gavitt that it was time.

1979 was also the first year of another soon-to-be booming giant called ESPN. With Gavitt’s keen eye for opportunity, the two formed a partnership that same year. “That ESPN came along as we did was very fortunate for us, and how we worked together benefited both tremendously,” Gavitt said. And why wouldn’t have the newly formed sports broadcasting company have signed a deal with Gavitt? The Big East conference consisted of schools in major media markets such as Philadelphia (Villanova), Washington D.C. (Georgetown), Boston (Boston College), and the biggest of them all in New York City (St. John’s and Seton Hall). Top basketball programs in top media markets; it was a win-win. The conference had the largest built-in audience of any league in the nation.

“TV made the Big East,” said former ESPN commentator Mike Gorman, who covered the ESPN “Big Monday” Big East Game of the Week during the 1980’s.

TV may have made the Big East, but the Big East made collegiate-athletics TV what it is today. Gavitt made television serve him, not vice versa. For starters, Gavitt got corporate America involved. He and the Big East were the first to have in-game advertising like, “the Dodge player of the week and the Ebel replay at games.” He also knew how to get his product on multiple platforms. On top of its deal with ESPN, the Big East was the first conference to do a deal with CBS. By 1986 the Big East had five separate TV contracts going on at once, and was reaching a bigger audience than ever before. Just in the Big East’s territory alone was 25-percent of the nation’s televisions.

“Not only did the creation of the Big East generate interest among fans, but when those games were televised, it turned major advertisers on to the sport as well. … Because the new conference resulted in greater television coverage of the sport, the intense interest it created here in the East spilled over to the rest of the nation. Not that there wasn’t great basketball being played elsewhere at the time. It’s just that when something gets hot in New York, it has a heck of a lot more clout than when something gets hot in Durham, North Carolina.” – Mike Soltys, 1989, ESPN’s manager of programing information

With the added attention to basketball in the Northeast, college basketball changed forever at the national level. No longer were the big-time high school recruits, especially the ones from the Northeast region of the country, only eyeing traditional powerhouses like Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and UCLA. Instead, they were staying close to home. In 1981 Brooklyn native Chris Mullin signed with St. John’s, Bronx native Ed Pinckney took his talents to Villanova, and the No. 1 high school player in the country, Patrick Ewing, agreed to play his collegiate career at Georgetown. Two years later Dwayne “Pearl” Washington signed with Syracuse. All four players are regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in their respective programs’ histories.

“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.” – Jim Boeheim

The players themselves were part of what made the Big East great, but the coaches took on a persona all their own. Carnesecca said it best: “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.” Most notably, St. John’s and Villanova squads were coached by older Italians in Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, where as Syracuse and Georgetown were coached by young spirits in Boeheim and John Thompson. Young or old, the spirit went from coach to coach, and, in turn, player to player. At times opposing coaches were in each other’s faces just as much as their players. The conference gained popularity quickly, not just because fans wanted to see the players maybe (probably) fight, but they wanted to see the coaches, too. It wasn’t just the home or regional fans that wanted to watch the coaches coach either, they were quickly gaining national reputations.

The best example of this was during the Big East Tournament in 1985. During the ’85 season, Carnesecca rode the good-luck superstition he had about a particular sweater he wore at the beginning of what became a 19-game win streak, and wore that sweater the rest of the season. Thompson and the No. 2 Hoyas were playing top-ranked St. John’s in the Big East Tournament. Thompson, attempting to partially deflate an amped up crowd at Madison Square Garden, revealed prior to the start of the game that he, too, was wearing the sweater. It, in reality, was a t-shirt with the same design as the sweater. Nonetheless, the tactic worked, Georgetown won 85-69.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 8.52.00 PMGeorgetown head coach John Thompson embraces star center Patrick Ewing

Georgetown may have been the most polarizing team during the Big East’s prime. From the start Thompson and the Hoyas were successful. In just its fourth season under Gavitt’s reign the Big East put a team in the National Championship game, as Ewing and the Hoyas played against Michael Jordan and No. 1 North Carolina. The Hoyas had a chance to win at the end of the game, but a turnover with six seconds remaining cost them the title.

The Hoyas were popular for multiple reasons. Their head coach was as charismatic as any coach in the country. He was an African American, a former NBA player that stood 6’10” tall, and a coach that preached hard-nosed defense. Not only that, but he was very protective of his players. Multiple times he halted the game if he felt his players were unsafe, mainly due to racial tension and discrimination. Both he and his players only spent the mandatory time with the media, and even that was much more than Thompson wanted.

“What black man in the ‘40’s or before in this country wasn’t paranoid when he was working in the environment John was working in? Paranoid? Okay sure. There were some people out to get him, and he was paranoid. What, more than one thing can’t be true? He didn’t give a dam about what people – and let’s not sugarcoat this – what white folks thought of the way he was going about this.” – Michael Wilbon, former Georgetown beat writer at The Washington Post.

Georgetown was transcending on and off the court. On the court, the Hoyas played a tough and stingy defense that no one else in the country was playing. They got under the opposing team’s skin, and were probably involved in more fights than any team in the Big East, although the conference as a whole was accustomed to the occasional dustup. That toughness extended off the hard wood and into pop culture. Rappers and others in the music industry wore Georgetown apparel, and the Hoyas logo could be found throughout major cities all over the Northeast.

“Everybody in black America loved us,” Ewing said. “I remember grandmas and grandpas coming up and saying that we admired the things you guys are doing, admired the way that we carried ourselves.”

Pinckney, even though he played at rival Villanova, admitted in the 30 for 30 that he owned some Georgetown apparel. “Wearing Georgetown gear said something about your consciousness and what you were about. It represented the way we all felt.”

With Georgetown leading the way, the Big East’s popularity soared.

“Two years ago, there were 10 games out of the approximately 1,300 televised that attracted a rating of 5.0 or better. Six of them were Big East games. – Len De Luca, CBS director of program acquisitions, 1989

When the Big East was created, the majority of the schools played in small gyms or arenas. At the time, Georgetown was playing in the McDonough Gym, which seated 2,400 people, and at times was struggling to reach capacity. Syracuse played at Manley Field House, but, was in the process of building the Carrier Dome, which seats over 35,000 spectators for basketball games. Gavitt knew that in order for the conference to be successful the universities were going to have to build bigger and better gyms and arenas to play their games in like Syracuse was doing. He forced the other conference members to upgrade. In return, Gavitt went out and got the best arena in North America – Madison Square Garden – to be the home of the Big East Tournament. The first Big East Tournament to be played in MSG took place in 1983. However, it was the following season’s Big East Tournament title game that is remembered in infamy. Georgetown won in overtime over Syracuse due to a controversial non-ejection of Michael Graham in the second half to the complete dismay of Boeheim.

Not only did Georgetown win the Big East title that year, but the Hoyas, led by their star center in Ewing, won the NCAA Championship, as well, becoming the first Big East team to win a National Championship just five years after the conference’s inception. “Nobody had won the National Championship in the Northeast in 30 years,” Thompson said in the 30 for 30. “You felt that regionalism. You felt that togetherness.” With the victory, Thompson became the first African American coach to win the NCAA Championship.

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Patrick Ewing (33) takes a shot against St. John’s

And if the ending to the 1983-1984 season didn’t fully bring the Big East to the forefront of the national spotlight, the entire ’84-‘85 season did. Georgetown, St. John’s and Syracuse all finished the season ranked in the Top 20. Not only that, but three out of the final four teams left standing in that season’s NCAA Tournament were from the Big East. No. 1 seeds Georgetown and St. John’s, and surprise Cinderella-story Villanova, an eight seed, all made it to the Final Four. The Hoyas easily got past the Red Storm, and the Wildcats beat Memphis State, setting up an entirely Big East National Championship game. In what is regarded as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, Villanova beat Georgetown 66-64, playing, by all accounts, a near-perfect game, shooting 78-percent from the floor for the game.

The Big East had fully arrived.

By the end of the 1980’s schools were bringing in more than 30 times more money than what they were at the beginning of the decade, making nearly $600,000. “You couldn’t duplicate what we did in the 80’s,” Tranghese said. “It was this little family operation who had climbed the mountain.”

With basketball a complete success, the conference could turn its attention to football. Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh wanted better competition in football. That opened the door for expansion in the early 90’s, allowing Miami, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia to join the conference in 1991 for football only. Virginia Tech and WVU joined the conference in all sports later.

“It’s crucial to understand the significance that football plays in the American Inter-Collegiate Athletics landscape. No matter how important basketball is in any university community, if they play football, that is of incommensurable more importance.” – Jack DeGioia, President of Georgetown University

Like it was from the beginning of the conference, you could say timing was on Gavitt’s side at the end of it, as well. West Virginia was the first domino to fall, agreeing to leave the Big East in 2010 to join the Big 12 Conference in 2012. Gavitt passed away on September 16, 2011 due to congestive heart failure. On September 18, just two days later, Syracuse – one of the founding members of the Big East – and Pittsburgh – which was also added in the early days of the conference – agreed to leave the Big East to join the ACC.

“I thank God that Dave didn’t see it, because it would’ve cut through his heart,” Tranghese said.

Big East Members Louisville and Notre Dame also agreed to leave for the ACC around the same time, while Rutgers left to join the Big Ten.

The Big East was done.

When the original Big East officially ended at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season, not only did the nation officially lose possibly the best basketball conference in college basketball history, we also lost some of the best rivalries the sport has ever known, some of which were brought to full attention during the best conference tournament. The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh was over, not scheduled to be played again in either football or basketball until the year 2022. Georgetown vs. Syracuse also went away. There will be no more proverbial chess matches Jim Boeheim vs John Thompson. There will be no more tightly contested Big East showdowns between the Orange and the Hoyas. Syracuse and UConn, gone as well. There is no chance of having another 6OT game in the Big East Tournament between Syracuse and the Huskies.

Gavitt’s creation may be gone, but the moments and the memories will last forever. The Big East was great. The Big East was college basketball.


One comment

  1. The Big East got 60% of their teams in the NCAA’s last year. They had an RPI of three out of thirty two, two years ago. And last year an RPI ranking of TWO out of thirty two. Dead? I think not. ESPN and CBS Sports would have you believe that because they no longer hold Big East contracts.


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