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How Penn State Could've Saved Big East Football

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How Penn State Could've Saved Big East Football
Joe Giblin/Associated Press
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese

Imagine the College Football Playoff beginning next season not with five, but six major conferences.

The Big East is still at the table, but not splintered into a basketball version of mostly Catholic schools and a watered-down, rebranded football version that's no longer among the big boys but has to fight for scraps.

Imagine a healthy Big East football roster with these teams: Syracuse, Rutgers, Boston College, UConn, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Penn State. Oh yeah, and possibly even Notre Dame.

This conference—with or without Notre Dame—would not be relegated to the "Group of Five" as the Big East successor American Athletic Conference will be in the CFP. It would've had one of the biggest TV contracts and among the best bowl lineups. It very well might have been even bigger, having raided the northern ACC schools such as Maryland and Virginia.

All this could've happened with the change of just a single vote back in 1982.

With the NCAA tournament in full flight, ESPN touched on the demise of the once-mighty basketball conference in the excellent "Requiem for the Big East." The 30-for-30 series film touched on how football ruined the conference, that its drive to get the lucrative football TV money inevitably destroyed what was the best basketball conference in history.

But what if I told you football could've minted the Big East instead of ruined it? It came down to one vote.

In 1982, the independent football powers started to see the handwriting on the wall after the major conferences freed themselves from the bonds of the NCAA and were able to negotiate their own television deals. Penn State's Joe Paterno was contemplating the formation a new eastern football conference, but was persuaded to apply to join the nascent Big East.

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By a single vote, the Big East athletic directors turned down Penn State's membership request. Needing six votes to pass, Penn State got five. Three basketball schools—Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova—voted against JoePa's Nittany Lions.

Villanova actually had played Division I football and produced NFL players including Hall of Famer Howie Long. But it shut down the football program in 1980, citing lack of support, only to bring it back four years later under pressure from the alumni. Had the vote not taken place during the 'Cats' football hiatus, Villanova would've cast the deciding vote in favor of Penn State and thus changed history.

Mike Tranghese, who was then-commissioner Dave Gavitt's right-hand man, said he told Gavitt the Big East would "rue the day" when it rejected Penn State. Tranghese would later succeed Gavitt and tried vainly to make the Big East football-relevant, but by then it was too late.

Penn State joined the Big Ten instead in 1990 and that officially began the football-and-TV-driven realignment frenzy that's still not quite finished. The Big East was raided by the Big 12, Big Ten and the ACC until it was no more.

What Big East Could've Looked Like
Team Big East Member Current Membership
Boston College 1979-2005 ACC
Cincinnati 2005-2013 American
Connecticut 1979-2013 American
Louisville 2005-2013 ACC
Maryland Never a member Big Ten
Notre Dame 1995-2013 (non-football) ACC (Independent football)
Penn State Rejected for membership in 1982 Big Ten
Pittsburgh 1982-2013 ACC
Rutgers 1991-2013 Big Ten
Syracuse 1979-2013 ACC
Temple 1991-2005, 2012-2013 American
Villanova* 1980-2013 Big East (FCS football)
Virginia Never a member ACC
Virginia Tech 1991-2004 ACC
West Virginia 1991-2012 Big 12

*Villanova reactivated football as an FCS team in 1988

A Big East with Penn State as the kingpin in football, however, would've thrived in this age. It would've monopolized all the big media markets on the eastern seaboard and gotten a huge windfall of television dollars. (And remember, the Big East was actually the first conference to have its own network.) Even as late as 2011, before the Big East's final collapse, it was offered a $1.1 billion TV deal, which of course it foolishly turned down.

With Penn State in the fold, Notre Dame might've joined the Big East in the '80s as well, as its fanbase has always been more eastern oriented than around its midwest-based campus. And in that case the Irish would've been a full member instead of staying independent in football when they did join the Big East in 1995.

Gavitt's vision had always been making the Big East the premier basketball conference, which was achieved to an astonishing degree in the 1980s, with the crowning moment in 1985 when three conference teams made the Final Four. But by failing to tame the beast that is football, Gavitt's beloved creation ended up being eaten alive by it 30 years later.

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