Big East: How the conference reincarnated itself 10 years on from ‘death’ of original

The original Big East Conference is dead, but it will never die. 

Ten years ago this week, the ‘old’ Big East Conference played its final tournament with all its founding members (minus UConn). It was the last time fans of basketball would see some of the most storied programs in the Northeastern United States duke it out in the World’s Most Famous Arena: Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of College Basketball. 

Born out of necessity, the Big East Conference unified some of the top college basketball programs in America into one supergroup that embodied flashiness, brutality, and beauty all into one kettle that was constantly on the verge of boiling over. In 2013, someone turned down the heat when the conference broke up.

The following year, in 2014, filmmaker Ezra Edelman made a documentary as part of ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ series. It was entitled ‘Requiem for the Big East’ and remains some of the series’ best work. 

But since that ‘Requiem’, the Big East Conference has become reborn. Schools that departed for greener grasses have surely pocketed more money, but lost their identities in the process. 

While the old Big East ‘died’ 10 years ago, the new incarnation of the conference is a beast of its own – and is set for a top-notch final between Marquette and Xavier on Saturday night

The basketball product at schools like Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Boston College, and Pittsburgh have all shown flashes of hope, but never enough to sustain their legacies. 

The Big East has remained a power in the years following its ‘Requiem’. There were troubling signs at the start, but one university’s dominance on the national stage, coupled with another school’s return has brought the conference back into the national conversation. 

This week, the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden has shown signs of the brilliance of old. Packed crowds of people skipping work filled the Mecca on Thursday afternoon like no other tournament could. 

It’s proof that this iteration of the Big East’s resilience through its dedication to basketball has paid off, and will pay off for years to come.

As previously mentioned, the Big East was established out of need. In the late 1970s, the NCAA began to assign more and more spots in its annual basketball tournament (commonly referred to as March Madness) to schools that played in conferences.

Providence College athletic director Dave Gavitt convinced a number of private universities in the Northeast that unifying to form one mighty basketball conference was needed for survival.

Slowly but surely, schools became interested and in 1979, the Big East was born with seven colleges in major media markets: Boston College in Massachusetts, Georgetown in Washington, DC, Providence in Rhode Island, St. John’s in Queens, New York City, Seton Hall in the Newark, New Jersey-area, Syracuse in upstate New York, and the University of Connecticut (UConn).

These days the Big East Tournament is still must-watch basketball for fans across the nation

These days the Big East Tournament is still must-watch basketball for fans across the nation

Soon after, Villanova (outside Philadelphia) was added and two years on from that, their brothers from across the Keystone State joined up when the University of Pittsburgh was brought in.

The conference was met with skepticism, but quickly proved to be a powerhouse.

Big East basketball became priority viewing for sports fans, who watched on thanks to the conference’s key partnership with a then-little-known media company located in Bristol, Connecticut: the Entertainment Sports Programming Network – ESPN.

The Big East and ESPN fed each other. The more games aired on the network, the more popular both the network and the conference became. That attracted talent to the schools in the Northeast – selling them on the pride of fighting kids they’d been playing at high school tournaments all these years. 

Soon players in the Northeast began shunning schools like Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, and UCLA. Now, they were staying home and playing in big arenas like the civic centers of Hartford and Providence, the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

Players became icons at their respective schools. Patrick Ewing’s move to Georgetown was a defining moment in the conference’s history. Others included St. John’s convincing local boy Chris Mullin to stay in New York City and Syracuse’s rise to immediate stardom through the dazzling play of the late Dwayne ‘Pearl’ Washington. 

The Big East was the brainchild of former PC athletic director Dave Gavitt (yellow tie)

The Big East was the brainchild of former PC athletic director Dave Gavitt (yellow tie)

Georgetown's Patrick Ewing

St. John's' Chris Mullin

Patrick Ewing (left) and Chris Mullin (right) were two of the greatest to ever play in the Big East

The mystifying moves of Pearl Washington (31) put Syracuse basketball on the map

The mystifying moves of Pearl Washington (31) put Syracuse basketball on the map

Villanova's Rollie Massimino

St. John's' Lou Carnesecca

Coaches like John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Rollie Massimino and Lou Carnesecca showed off their personalities on television each game – giving color to contests and attracting players

Coaches began to take on a life of their own as well. There was the stoic, yet charismatic John Thompson at Georgetown – known lovingly as ‘Big John’. The flamboyant Rollie Massimino at Villanova. The calculated, but whiny Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. The passionate and loveable Louie Carnesecca at St. John’s. They all became nationally known as their faces and personalities were shown all season long.

But there may not be a more defining symbol of the Big East Conference than where they held their conference tournament each year since 1983: Madison Square Garden. The Garden was Mecca. 

It was the center of not only the Big East, but the college basketball universe – and only one conference could ever imagine to match the intensity that the building demanded of whoever played there.

Tournament games became must-watch television and the Garden was the best place in the world to showcase what players were made of. Often, games became physical: taking on the rough and tumble characteristics of the cities players came from. Games would set the arena ablaze with passion.

Within three years of its founding, a Big East team was playing in the national championship. In 1982, the Hoyas of Georgetown were just seconds away from winning their first title, only to fall to the hands of a North Carolina sophomore guard by the name of Michael Jordan.

But Georgetown would be back: winning it all in 1984, becoming the first team from the Northeast to win the title since La Salle in 1954. Thompson also became the first Black head coach to win it all. The following year, in 1985, the Big East had three teams in the Final Four and had an all-conference national championship where underdogs Villanova upset the Hoyas to win its first title. 

By the close of the 1980s, Providence, Seton Hall, and Syracuse all made runs to the Final Four – with Syracuse and Seton Hall falling in national championship games. Additionally, by the end of the decade, UConn and St. John’s had won college basketball’s version of the Europa League: the NIT.

Ewing and Georgetown won the Big East's first ever national championship back in 1984

Ewing and Georgetown won the Big East’s first ever national championship back in 1984

A year later in 1985, Massimino and Villanova upset Georgetown to win another national crown

A year later in 1985, Massimino and Villanova upset Georgetown to win another national crown

The 1980s also saw teams like Connecticut win titles in the postseason via the NIT

The 1980s also saw teams like Connecticut win titles in the postseason via the NIT

The Big East was rolling in money by the 1990s, which invited them to expand, but also to consider bringing in football to the conference. 

This was a crucial issue to schools, who for the most part didn’t have top football programs – with the exception of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Boston College. 

A debate in the 1980s to bring in Penn State failed to materialize an invitation, leading future Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese to say they would ‘rue the day’ they failed to bring in the Nittany Lions.

By the end of the decade, Miami, Rutgers, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame had all joined up. While Notre Dame retained its status as a football independent, the acquisitions of Miami, VT, West Virginia and Rutgers were all brought on to be ‘glue schools’ for those football-strong Big East schools. 

There was a lot of money to be made in college football, and the fear was that those schools with strong football traditions could all leave. It de-valued the basketball product ever so slightly, but kept those established schools around for the next 20 years.

The nineties saw new players became crucial to the image of the conference: Georgetown featured Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson. Villanova had Kerry Kittles. Syracuse had John Wallace and Lawrence Moten.

But no school defined the Big East in the 1990s like UConn did. Under the direction of the tough, grizzled, Boston-born-and-bred Jim Calhoun, the Huskies won four conference titles in that time with names like Ray Allen and Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton manning the floor. By the decade’s end, UConn had won its first national title.

UConn's Ray Allen

Syracuse's John Wallace

Players like Kerry Kittles, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and John Wallace thrived in the 90’s Big East

UConn won the Big East its only national title in basketball in the 1990s - beating Duke in 1999

UConn won the Big East its only national title in basketball in the 1990s – beating Duke in 1999

UConn’s dominance continued into the 2000s and the 2010s – where the Huskies took the 2004 and 2011 national titles as members of the conference under Calhoun.

Syracuse also won its first national title in 2003 with freshman Carmelo Anthony, while Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, West Virginia, and Louisville made the Final Four. 

But while the Big East Tournament remained must-watch and as entertaining as ever, the conference began to crumble under its own weight. By 2005, the conference added Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, South Florida, Louisville to the fold.

Just a year prior, Miami and Virginia Tech had bolted for the ACC. Boston College departed for the same destination a year later – a grave sign of things to come as football became more attractive to athletic directors. 

Syracuse won its first national title in 2003 at a time where the Big East had seismic shifts

Syracuse won its first national title in 2003 at a time where the Big East had seismic shifts

By 2010, a massive wave of conference re-alignment began to sweep over the college sports landscape. The Big East was the biggest victim. 

John Fanta is a Seton Hall graduate who commentates on Big East basketball for Fox Sports. He took some time to speak to the a few weeks before the tournament got underway. 

‘I have heard stories that when the ADs who have their meetings down in Florida in the offseason, once basketball season ended, the Big East Conference would have their meetings in the spring, to talk about football, basketball, and all kinds of issues,’ Fanta recalled. 

‘And at certain points during the conference meetings, the football schools would separate in their own room. And the basketball schools are separating their own room. In other words, we’re talking about one conference that was playing two different games. 

‘So you have a conference that was in one room dedicated to all basketball, the other room dedicated to all football. And those football schools, they don’t all care as much about basketball. So I think they didn’t care if they weren’t in the meeting room. 

‘But that really led to the risks that led to the breakup, because you had one side of the conference speaking one language and the other speaking another.’

At the end of 2013, the original Big East was no more. Syracuse was the first Benedict Arnold when it convinced Pittsburgh to join them in a dash for the ACC. Incidentally, the day their defection was revealed was the same day that Gavitt passed away at the age of 73. What is dead may never die. 

In 2012, West Virginia had left for the Big 12. Louisville and Rutgers had plans in place to join the ACC and the Big Ten respectively by 2014. 

Seeing the writing on the wall, a group of Big East schools known collectively as the ‘Catholic Seven’ decided to try and hang on to what they had. They forfeited some of the money that was owed them in the conference’s breakup in exchange for two things: 1) the rights to the Big East name, and 2) the rights to host their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. 

UConn – which at that time was embarking on an ill-fated experiment at becoming a football school – joined Cincinnati and South Florida in the afterbirth known as the American Athletic Conference. Louisville and Rutgers played in the AAC for a single season in the AAC before eventually continuing on to make their previously-agreed-upon moves. 

Louisville won the Big East’s final national title in its last season: 2013.

UConn's 2011 national championship team

Louisville's 2013 national championship team

The last two teams in the ‘old’ Big East to win national titles were UConn and Louisville

The new journey embarked on by the Catholic Seven (Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Villanova, DePaul, & Marquette) didn’t have the clearest path. To this day, only one head coach from the ‘old’ Big East has remained into the ‘new’ Big East: Providence’s Ed Cooley. 

The goal of the ‘new’ Big East is what should have been the ‘old’ Big East’s goal: focus on being a basketball conference first and foremost.

‘The [old] Big East was just an absolute gauntlet of a conference in which you’re sending at one point, if you remember they had 11 teams make the NCAA Tournament in 2011,’ Fanta said. ‘Eleven Big East teams receive bids to the NCAA tournament that is absurd. Absolutely absurd…

‘The new Big East, it plays with the same intensity. It’s doubled down on how big in the basketball it is. Because basketball is the bread and butter.’

They brought on basketball schools like Xavier, Creighton, and most notably Butler – who had made consecutive national championship games in 2010 and 2011. For years, this ‘new’ Big East didn’t quite produce the same excitement or fear on a national stage. But, the Big East Tournament still provided entertainment.

‘The first year in the new Big East, Providence faced Creighton in the Big East Tournament championship game,’ Fanta recalls. ‘At Madison Square Garden people were wondering “Providence-Creighton? Will the Garden be filled?.” It was a sea of bright blue on one side, a sea of Providence black on the other end.

‘And it made you say, “Hey, this league may look different, it may have different schools. But man, it’s so fun inside the Garden.” The Garden brings the best out of these fan bases.’

It sure brought out the best in the Friars of Providence, who were the first school to win a title in the ‘new’ Big East. 

Providence coach Ed Cooley remained in the Big East - and won his school a conference title

Providence coach Ed Cooley remained in the Big East – and won his school a conference title

The 2014 NCAA Tournament saw four Big East schools participate. They all lost within the first weekend – with Villanova falling to rivals and eventual national champions Connecticut. 2015’s NCAA Tournament saw marginal improvement – with six teams in the fray and Xavier becoming the first team in the ‘new’ conference to reach the Sweet 16.

But fear still remained. Top recruits weren’t exactly flocking to join the conference, and while teams like Villanova retained their national relevance, and Xavier, Butler, and Creighton all thrived in their step up to the Big East, others like St. John’s and Georgetown struggled.

Schools like Seton Hall, Providence, and Marquette – all consistently middle-of-the-road colleges in the ‘old’ Big East were still stuck in limbo. Providence won the Big East Championship in 2014 for the first time in two decades, but kept failing to make it past the first weekend. 

Questions remained about whether or not the Big East should just fade away – to become part of the annals of college sports history.

Then, in 2016, Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer beater to win the national title for Villanova.

Villanova's national title in 2016 proved to doubters that the Big East was still relevant

Villanova’s national title in 2016 proved to doubters that the Big East was still relevant

Donte DiVincenzo won the 2018 national title with Villanova - the Big East's most recent crown

Donte DiVincenzo won the 2018 national title with Villanova – the Big East’s most recent crown

The conference began to really get its feet back under them in that 2016 season. Only five teams made the tournament, and four of them fell, but Villanova – under head coach Jay Wright – clinched the title for the first time since that miracle run in 1985.

In 2017, they had seven teams go to the dance – the second most of any conference that year. Butler made a run to the Sweet 16. Xavier made a run to the Sweet 16. Villanova was the No. 1 overall seed. The Big East was building momentum.

They continued to put up results, even as the group struggled to establish a true No. 2 power. From 2014 to 2019, three schools won Big East titles: Villanova, Providence, and Seton Hall. Those three schools – along with Xavier and Creighton all finished runners-up as well.

It was clearly ‘Nova’s conference by 2018 – when a team led by Donte DiVincenzo won yet another national championship, the third crown in school history. Xavier was a one seed that season as well, proving they could run with the big boys.

‘Villanova is the biggest reason why the Big East Conference has been able to stand as strong as it has in its current iteration. There’s no question about it,’ Fanta says.

That dominance still continues today – with only a few Big East teams projected to make the NCAA tournament, but almost all of them picked to be top-seven seeds.

‘The fact that people had the Big East as a dying conference, and then right now as I talk to you the Big East ranks third [currently fourth] according to [college basketball analytics site] among all conferences in college basketball tells you that the new Big East has been able to thrive,’ Fanta says. 

But the conference was missing a final puzzle piece. By 2019, Georgetown had become an afterthought, St. John’s hadn’t been nationally relevant in decades, and while Providence and the three new schools all made tournament appearances, they never were truly considered contenders.

The Big East needed to pull in a big name, and they needed it fast. And it was in the summer of 2019 – June 21 to be exact – that the prodigal son returned.

Kevin Ollie helped his alma mater win a national title in 2014 - then he was ingloriously fired

Kevin Ollie helped his alma mater win a national title in 2014 – then he was ingloriously fired

UConn had been suffering in the American Athletic Conference. Under the tutelage of head coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies had won a conference title, but watched as their recruiting base diminished.

After falling in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the Huskies began to have an identity crisis. They didn’t make a single March Madness appearance after that under Ollie – who began to face heat. Eventually, he was fired for the stated reason of an NCAA violation but he also put up the school’s first consecutive losing seasons since the mid-1980s.

Its football experiment – the one that brought them to the AAC in the first place – was failing. Not only was the product on the field not good, but off the field, it became a money pit that the State of Connecticut (which sets the school’s budget) didn’t have a solution for. 

‘You know, why sacrifice what’s been great to ya?,’ Cooley said about UConn to in January. ‘That you win national championships, National Coach of the Year, top level recruiting, to appease what?  

‘To appease what? Something that, first of all, you weren’t really good and historically, you know, and I don’t want to speak out of turn about somebody else’s organization with respect to success. But what gave you your identity as a college? Men’s and women’s basketball gave you that identity.’ 

In Ollie's place came Dan Hurley, a New Jersey-born son of a coaching legend to right the ship

In Ollie’s place came Dan Hurley, a New Jersey-born son of a coaching legend to right the ship

Recruits began departing for new pastures under Ollie via the transfer portal and UConn went from being a rags-to-riches story, to that of a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story. 

They needed a solution for basketball. By that time, the alumni and fan base had given up on football as a whole – realizing what they should have what many knew at the time: UConn was, is, and always has been a basketball school.

So, the rebuild began. They hired Dan Hurley away from the University of Rhode Island. Hurley, the son of one of New Jersey’s most famed high school basketball coaches – Bob Hurley Sr. – and the brother of Bobby Hurley, who won national titles as a player with Duke, fit their old blueprint. Feisty, bombastic, and colorful, Hurley was the perfect ‘Big East’ coach for a Big East school in spirit, but not reality.

They had their man, now they needed to complete their story arc and return to where they belonged. 

On June 21, 2019, rumors began swirling rapidly that UConn was going back to the Big East Conference. Just four days later, those rumors became true.

Since then, the Big East has only grown in popularity, poise, and prowess with the addition of UConn. As the team slowly rebuilds from the AAC days, they’ve re-established national relevance and seem set for a deep NCAA Tournament run.

‘Did the Big East need Connecticut to keep functioning? No. Could the Big East use Connecticut? Yeah. And Connecticut needs the Big East, frankly,’ Fanta said, adding, ‘For me, they’ve added a great deal. But the Big East has also added a great deal for Connecticut, and for the university, by being in that conference.’

Even now, after falling in the Big East semifinals to Marquette, rival coaches have been singing their praises.

Cooley, who just lost to UConn on Thursday’s Big East Quarterfinal, called them ‘the best team in America’. As Villanova undergoes a rebuilding year after the sudden retirement of Wright, UConn has at times struggled, but taken up that mantle of ‘Big East powerhouse’ for the time being. 

‘I would call UConn “Lazarus”‘, Cooley told ‘In that brand was the Big East, you know, a football decision that cost them their identity. In my opinion, you know, they belong in the Big East and we’re grateful that they’re in the Big East.’ 

UConn's return to glory isn't yet complete, but they're poised for bigger and better things

UConn’s return to glory isn’t yet complete, but they’re poised for bigger and better things

So, has the Big East returned to what it had before? No. It likely never will. Some of the rivalries that defined it – Syracuse-Georgetown chief among them all, but also Villanova-Pittsburgh and Syracuse-UConn – will only be played sparingly, and never with exactly the same vitriol as before.

But in an era of the ‘death of the rivalry’, the Big East has taken on that mantle of having games against its top teams be important occasions. ESPN gave up on the Big East, leaving Fox to take them on and doing so with pride. Its presentation of the conference has spawned a new generation of fans to take over from the old.

ESPN’s gamble hasn’t exactly worked out. The ACC Tournament, for example, has moved from location to location and failed to draw crowds anywhere close to the Big East Tournament in size. As Fanta notes, the biggest gambler at the old Big East table, Syracuse, has not exactly reaped its rewards, per se – as the Orange continue wandering the desert, looking for themselves.

‘We know that Syracuse University is a basketball school,’ Fanta said. ‘The basketball team is outstanding, and the football team is also really really good, [that’s] great. Which team is going to end up still getting more attention? The basketball team. 

‘But that’s not the way that the dollar sides work in this climate of college athletics finance both 10 years ago and now.’

Fanta later added: ‘You can’t tell Syracuse University’s story, athletically, without the Big East Conference, they fit more in the Big East than they do the the ACC. But because of football, that’s where the problem lies. And that’s what led to the breakup.’

So, yes, the Big East won’t exactly have the days of ‘Manley Field House is officially closed’, or Big John versus Loveable Louie, or the 1985 Final Four, or the days of Boeheim, Massimino, or Calhoun, or 6 OT in the Garden, or Kemba Walker’s step-back buzzer-beater.

Fans of the new Big East will grow to love the conference as much as these two did

Fans of the new Big East will grow to love the conference as much as these two did

Eric Devendorf in 2009

Joe Girard III in 2021

Syracuse’s days of miracles in six overtimes (L) have given way to struggles in the ACC (R)

But it doesn’t need it. The conference is strong enough to grow new memories from here. 

Some of those new memories will be made Saturday night in the first all-Midwest championship game in tournament history. Just look at the crowds at Madison Square Garden this whole week. That’s not a dead conference. That’s a conference experiencing a re-birth more glorious than any other predecessor.

‘I don’t look at it as the Big East got greatly hurt, and then had to go through years of therapy to get back to where it was,’ Fanta stated. 

‘I think the Big East as a startup… it’s [like] a great restaurant, they’ve changed ownership hands… how would the new owners be able to manage them? What we’ve seen from those new owners is they put their own spin on it, and they’ve made the restaurant raised in its own way.’

But the days of 'old' Big East still thrive and stories like Kemba Walker's shot remain legendary

But the days of ‘old’ Big East still thrive and stories like Kemba Walker’s shot remain legendary

Marquette's Kam Jones

Xavier's Adam Kunkel

But the ‘new’ Big East has its own intense, exciting stories to write – including the one taking place this Saturday when Marquette takes on Xavier in the championship deciding game

So long as the Big East retains its core identity, it can never truly be dead. Yes, the names like Syracuse and Boston College and Louisville are not likely to return. 

But while the conference may pine for the days of the rivalries they used to have, the ones they have now are sustaining it for the future.

‘Dave Gavitt right now is still smiling. Because what he envisioned is now back into play,’ Cooley said.

Sure, in the immediate years following its departure, the ‘new’ Big East could very easily be characterized as a zombie: a somewhat lifeless, directionless conference trudging through the mire of college basketball on the search for something to sustain its hunger for glory.

But these days, that would be inaccurate. The Big East is a phoenix: rising from the ashes to illuminate the darkness. Ten years on from the last original Big East Tournament, that heat and fire can still be felt through the passion of its players and fans which keep its flame glowing bright.

Sure, the road was rough, but it was worth traveling and the Big East will prosper by staying true to itself for years to come. 

And when the nets are cut and the banners are hung, the members of the Big East Conference can look back on what they accomplished, smile, then strive on toward the glorious shining future of what is surely to come.