A “MUST SEE” PASSION PLAY
Now it’s gets fast and furious and yesterday I previewed an upcoming ESPN special that’s perfectly positioned to set the tone for the madness. At 9:00 Sunday night the all sports network debuts “Requiem for the Big East”, an emotional trip through the history of Dave Gavitt’s dream come true, that, in the end, turned into a nightmare for the teams left behind as the whole thing finally came apart.
For those of us who watched the history unfold from the inside it’s an emotional two hour trip through three and a half decades of unbridled passion. Through the eyes of Big East officials, coaches, even the media who were there at the beginning, it’s a journey from the moment in 1977 when the NCAA stripped the ECAC of automatic tournament bids, setting in motion Gavitt’s quest to turn the wasteland that was eastern basketball into the measure of the leagues that dominated the landscape of the 70’s, the ACC, the PAC 10, the Big Ten and the SEC, until that moment when, as former Boston Herald sportswriter Charlie Pierce so eloquently put it, “The barbarians were at the gate.”
Using the independent regional team at Providence that he coached to the final four as a starting point, Gavitt targeted schools that would stretch through the northeast corridor, from Boston to Washington. From that first year, with seven charter members, the league worked through growing pains that included a partnership with a fledgling cable television network that had very little money and was in need of product. Learning the process as it went, the Big East produced and packaged the games for ESPN itself. “A marriage made in heaven”, Gavitt’s successor as commissioner, Mike Tranghese, would recall of that vortex in time when the Big East and ESPN found each other, and made each other the powers they would become, “A league that had more T-V eyes than any in the country”, Tranghese would say.
The journey is also seen through the eyes of the three players who’s arrival three years into the league’s infancy made the Big East a legitimate contender for all blue chippers to come, Chris Mullin at St. John’s, Ed Pinkney at Villanova, and Patrick Ewing, who centered a Georgetown team that would eventually take a back seat to none in the nation. When Madison Square Garden was secured as the annual home for it’s league tournament the Big East had no equal and the stars of northeast high school basketball had all the reasons they needed to stay home. Gavitt forced a bond between programs, and between coaches, many of whom genuinely did not like each other, and they matched their league against any in the nation.
The history of the Big East cannot ignore the juncture when it all began to come apart, and the part Penn State football coach Joe Paterno played in it when he took his Nittany Lions to the Big Ten and made college football the driving force in a party that the Big East would arrive for too late. As the football schools in the Big East sought refuge elsewhere while the league continued to put most of it’s eggs in the basketball basket, even Tranghese couldn’t ignore the handwriting.
“I was tired of trying to hold things together at the end”, he said, acknowledging that while Big East officials were telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about when, in the latter part of the last century, I began warning of the demise too much emphasis on basketball would bring about, their boss knew I was right, saying, “I saw it coming”, and so he left.
Much of the special centers on the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry. It opens with tickets on the streets of Manhattan going for a thousand dollars apiece for the last Big East tournament meeting between the two a year ago, the end of a 35 year morality play in which the Big East is eventually killed by the monster it created.
For anyone who loves college basketball, anyone who savored it at a level played nowhere else, “Requiem for the Big East”, Sunday night at nine on ESPN, is must see T-V.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.