Yes, Virginia, There Was a Big East

Brian KinelCorrespondent IIIDecember 17, 2012

Remember when Boeheim ruled the Big East?
Remember when Boeheim ruled the Big East?Nate Shron/Getty Images

Had Virginia O’Hanlon been eight years old in 2016 instead of 1897, it’s not hard to see her writing the following letter instead of the one asking about the existence of Santa Claus.

Come on, squint a little harder.

Dear Editor:

I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there never was a Big East.  Papa says, ‘If you see it in the sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; was there a Big East?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Yes, Virginia, there was a Big East. It was once the greatest basketball conference in all the land.

Oh, it was glorious. Its founder, the great Dave Gavitt, had a vision of his league dominating the basketball-loving, big television markets of the Northeast.  The original 1979 conference appealed to New York City with St. John’s, Seton Hall, Syracuse and Connecticut. Boston was excited about Boston College, Providence and Connecticut. Georgetown brought in Washington, D.C. And a year later, Philadelphia got involved with Villanova’s entrance into the league.

Virginia, six short years later, the 1985 Final Four was almost exclusively a Big East affair. In the semifinals, Georgetown beat St. John’s and Villanova beat interloper Memphis State. No other Final Four has seen three teams from one conference.

And, oh, the gifts we were given by the Big East.

Unforgettable figures:

Massive Georgetown coach John Thompson II with the always-present towel hung over his shoulder.

St. John’s diminutive fireball, Louie Carneseca, who made outrageous sweaters cool years before Cliff Huxtable

Villanova’s dancing Rollie Massimino, known for hoping up and down on the sidelines, sometimes on chairs. Rollie is even better known for leading his Wildcats to an amazing upset of Georgetown in that 1985 championship game.

Surly, irascible Jim Calhoun, who took Connecticut from the basement to three national championships on his way to the Hall of Fame.

The Dean of Big East coaches, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who arrived on campus as a skinny walk-on and stayed more than 50 years. He’d leave as the second-winningest coach in the history of Division I college basketball. Boeheim’s first hire? A young Rick Pitino, who interrupted his honeymoon to meet with Boeheim and accept the job. Pitino would later take two other Big East schools, Providence and Louisville, to Final Fours.

Virginia, life is nothing if not for moments. The Big East provided us some of the most memorable in college basketball history:

Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing took the Hoyas to three NCAA Championship Games in four years. It was surprising they only won one.

Villanova’s win over Georgetown in that 1985 final was made possible by the Wildcats only missing one shot in the second half and shooting 78 percent from the floor.

Boeheim broke all convention in 2003 by riding young players to the NCAA title. Everyone remembers freshman Carmelo Anthony’s 20 points against Kansas and his Most Outstanding Player award, as well as sophomore Hakim Warrick’s block of the potential game-tying shot at the buzzer as Syracuse prevailed 81-78. But does anyone remember that freshman Gerry McNamara hit six three-pointers in the first half of that game?

Three years later, McNamara would hit a running one-handed three at the buzzer to beat Cincinnati in the first round of the Big East Tournament. He then had 17 points and 13 assists, including a late three to send the game into overtime, in Syracuse's second-round win over Connecticut. Round 3 saw him make five three-pointers in the second half of a win over Georgetown. In the final against Pittsburgh, McNamara scored 14 points with six assists as the Orange won four games in four days to win the tournament.

That remarkable feat would be outdone just five years later when Kemba Walker scored 130 points in leading Connecticut to five wins in five days to capture the Big East Tournament. Kemba wasn’t done. The Huskies then reeled off six more wins to win the 2011 NCAA championship in a remarkable run likely never to be matched.

You’re probably wondering what happened to this fabulous conference, Virginia.  Greed. Lots and lots of greed, Virginia. Oh, and football.

You see, a few years back schools started moving from conference to conference to chase the bigger money brought in by football. About five years ago, each school in the nice, little Atlantic-10 conference earned $400,000 annually from television contracts. Sounds like a lot of money, Virginia?

Please. The Big-12 wouldn’t get out of bed for that money. Big-12 schools earned $20 million annually from their television contracts. Why? Helmets and shoulder pads, Virginia, helmets and shoulder pads.

I know it’s confusing to you. What with schools from far-reaching ends of the country all together in the same conference, forcing teams to fly over multiple states for that Wednesday afternoon volleyball game. No, it certainly doesn’t make any sense.

But it makes lots and lots of dollars.

So, Virginia, even though you can’t see it today, the Big East was very real. And it’s missed, Virginia, sorely missed.


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