Big East, R.I.P.
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, in the 1970s, you learned to love basketball, then hate it, then love it again, depending on whether the Orangemen won or lost. Syracuse Football had happened in some previous epoch (before my time), such that I couldn’t fathom that it was ever feared, despite what they said about Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. The Orange football coach, Frank Maloney, was like a bad sitcom character, marching back and forth along the sidelines in blue high-water pants that revealed is white sweat socks, and concocting nutty running schemes dubbed “The Belly Series.” His teams never won much. In this era, we excelled in basketball, and my parents started taking me to games when I was just a kid. “There were only 4 channels of TV” (as you’ve heard over and over), so if you wanted to catch a game, you either had to be there in person in Manley Field House, or listen to the radio play-by-play of Joel Marinas, which I did for the 1975 NCAA Tournament, when Jimmy “Bug” Williams sprinted up the court and fed Rudy Hackett for a lay up (no dunk) to tie Kansas State in the quarterfinal game, paving the way for SU to win in overtime. The Big East had yet to be born, but this deep tournament run generated lots of excitement around the idea of taxpayer dollars underwriting the construction of a domed venue in Central New York. The Carrier Dome became a huge draw for both fans and high school prospects, especially ones from New York City, who wanted to play games in front of 30,000 people. I credit the dome, in part, for the meteoric rise of the Big East Conference.
Now, after thirty-three years, the Big East is a thing of the past. Yes, a sort of “Rump Big East” remains, also known as (I think) “The Catholic Seven” or something, but this will not resemble the Big East of the Patrick Ewing or Derrick Coleman eras. Many people have pointed out that in 1985, the Big East produced 3 of the final 4 teams in the NCAA tournament (Villanova, Georgetown, and St. John’s), but what many don’t know is that a 4th Big East team – Boston College – lost in the Sweet Sixteen when a BC player bounced the ball off his own foot in the waning seconds, turning the ball – and lead – over to Memphis State, which would go on to become the lone non-Big East final four team. Would BC have made the final four had not an extra-large sneaker intruded in the game? Being a BC student at the time, I firmly believed they would have.
When BC bolted for the ACC years ago, I cared just a little bit, and hoped, in a strangely deep way, that they would come to regret it. Now that Syracuse has signed on with the ACC, I have no choice but start watching a different conference than the one I grew up riveted to. Perhaps I’ll one day feel some sort of connection to the ACC the way I have felt connected to Big East, but only, I imagine, if I live well into my eighties.