There will be much lament and discussion on what was an end of an era after the finishing touches of what use to be known as the Big East is broken into pieces. It’s nostalgic like a phonograph, the original Kodak camera, your childhood dog...all warm memories, but your life has moved on just fine without them and it will the same way without the Big East Conference, where a powerful Syracuse, Georgetown and St John’s use to roam. In addition to your life, college basketball as a whole will be just fine.
St. John's is one of the original members of the Big East. The Red Storm now are part of a group that wants out of the league.
The concept of conference was to college sports as the concept of union was to American labor. It was essential in the beginning to get the machine up and running and now everyone scratches their head to wonder if it’s worth the dues.
In 1979, college basketball got a pulse when Indiana State faced Michigan State in the NCAA championship game. A national audience of 24.1 million people tuned in to see Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird and what became known as “the game that shaped the sport”. It that same year that catholic institutions Boston College, Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Syracuse, UConn and Providence formed the Big East conference. A year later they were joined by Villanova and then in 1982 by Pittsburgh. The conference quickly became a power in college basketball. In it’s first ten years, the conference saw Georgetown make the Final Four in 1982 and win the title in 1984. In 1985, St John’s, Georgetown and Villanova all made the Final Four. In 1987 Providence and Syracuse advanced to the Final Four and in 1989, Seton Hall lost an overtime thriller to Michigan in the championship game. A lot has changed since 1979. Back then, a gallon of gas cost 86 cents and the cost of a new home was under $72,000. This isn’t your father’s Big East, either. Quite frankly, a Big East that features SMU, Houston and Tulane, isn’t... well, very “East” to stay the least.
The game has changed, the dollars around it have certainly changed and the need for conference affiliation has changed as well. In college basketball, schools with success that have national followings have alumni all over the world and they, quite frankly, financially support the conferences and in some cases feel as if they no longer should have to.
Every night, you could find a college basketball game on close to a dozen sports channels. There is now a month of pre-conference schedule, which has invitational tournaments that range from Alaska to the Virgin Islands and everywhere between. That means there is opportunity for quality opponents to play quality opponents in any venue in the America with a willing media partner. College has changed as well, with online degrees and advanced education certificates, it’s no longer about everyone between Guadalupe and I-35. Remember when the only way to get the school’s gear was in the college bookstore? That’s old school. Today, the college, the brand is so much stronger.
There was a time in which the conference was the identity and had the power. Now, the schools no longer need the affiliation. In decades past, recruits needed the right conference affiliation to play televised games, to play in great arenas and in certain regions. Today’s recruit cares about his place in the school and program he’s joining. It is all school-specific. Practice facility, course selections and coaching staff have nothing to do with the conference in the revenue-producing sports. Success is the name of the game and for it to perpetuate it’s about the dollars the school can get - dollars that buy tickets, build buildings, hire and pay coaching staffs- alumni dollars.
This is the fundamental reason why the Big East has crumbled. That and an effort to save a conference by boasting television revenue through football-relevant programs that basketball powers such as Georgetown, St John’s, Villanova, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall and Providence can’t sell it to their alumni. That being said, even if it’s not in football, these programs certainly have a place in the landscape of college sports and will continue to as long as they are successful enough for their alumni to feel proud and eager to dish out the dollars to make success happen.
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to 247Sports' coverage of college basketball. Klein can be followed at @LeighAlanKlein