[The Big East basketball season is about to begin, and so I finally reprint my brief history of the Big East. This was originally posted on College Basketball Blog back in mid-December. I'll post Part 2 later in the day.]
How did it come to this? The Big East will become a 16 team lumbering behemoth in basketball next year, and a 8 team weakling in football. Both seem ill-fitting. How did it get here? Where is it going? Arguably, the seeds for the present situation were sewn in the first 5 years of the Big East’s existence. This is, disturbingly enough, Part 1 of something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It covers the time period of 1979 to 1991.
The Big East was founded on 3 basic principles: self-preservation, money and basketball. Today you can still argue that the BE is maintaining the principles of self-preservation and money. Basketball is just along for the ride.
Dave Gavitt was the main force to founding the BE. He was Providence College’s head basketball coach and athletic director. Gavitt deserves credit for forward thinking. He recognized several items: the money to be made in a new basketball conference, not to mention keeping Providence College relevant in college basketball, and the growing dominance of football conferences and the money involved. With assistance from Boston College and Syracuse, an East Coast basketball league was formed along with Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall and UConn. Villanova was invited to join the following year to make it an 8 team league. With the exception of BC and Syracuse, these were all schools that did not play Division 1-A football. BC and Syracuse were football “independents” along with the majority of schools in the Northeast.
Shortly after the Big East was launched the landscape of college football changed with the lawsuit filed by the Universities of Oklahoma and Georgia against the NCAA in 1981. The NCAA had controlled all college football on TV for decades. The last attempt to avoid the control of the NCAA for airing games on TV by a school was Penn, yes the University of Pennsylvania, in the early ’50s. They were quickly put down for such rebelliousness. The NCAA rules limited teams to TV appearances (regional or national) to no more than 6 times in a 2 year period, and everyone received the same money. No matter whether it was Temple or Notre Dame being aired on TV.
In 1977, 62 college football programs formed the College Football Association (PDF).
The CFA included the universities who were members of the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Western Athletic Conference, Big Eight Conference, and the Southwest Athletic Conference, as well as many independents. The group thus included Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A & M, Arkansas, Louisiana State, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Florida State and Clemson. Because Big Ten and Pac Ten Conferences did not join, Ohio State, Michigan, Southern California, and UCLA were not in the CFA.
The CFA hoped to increase the demand for college football and to insure that the most popular programs received a larger share of the revenues. It developed an academic eligibility standard that was later adopted as the NCAA’s Proposition 48 concerning playing eligibility of freshmen athletes and it produced annual graduation rate surveys. Although the CFA enjoyed some small victories in terms of a modest relaxation in appearance limitations, the NCAA’s democratic voting rules frustrated the group’s efforts to divert more of the exploding football broadcast revenues to the major programs.
In 1979, the CFA had begun exploring its own TV package deals, but the NCAA maintained its control by threatening CFA members with sanctions — not just in football, but in all sports programs. This kept the CFA in line, until 1981.
By 1981, the CFA reached its own deal with NBC for a TV contract while the NCAA had a deal signed with ABC and CBS. The NBC deal did not have the same limitations and a different fee sharing schedule. The NCAA once again threatened the CFA teams with sanctions. This time a couple of the CFA schools (Oklahoma and Georgia) filed a lawsuit against the NCAA for antitrust violations.
The case made it to the Supreme Court and in a 7-2 verdict in 1984 found for the CFA schools. What this did was allow the conferences to cut their own deals with networks and, of course, cable stations — ESPN and what at the time were the various local sports channels that would later become Fox Sports Net. This drove prices down at first, so a contract negotiated by the CFA for all members was negotiated. The Big 10 and PAC 10, not members of the CFA, negotiated their own deals.
That’s getting ahead of things a few years. The Big East was at 8 teams and decided it needed a 9th member. After the case was brought, the CFA member schools in the Big East (Syracuse and BC) began to realize they would need ties to other CFA programs in the Big East. Joe Paterno at Penn State was starting to make noise once more about a football-centric Eastern Conference. A definite threat to the Big East which did not want to lose Syracuse and BC. So Pitt was invited to join, and accepted. Pitt left the Atlantic 8 and became a member in 1982, and suddenly had money coming from the basketball program. Something they never had before.
The Big East had taken off because Gavitt was one of the first Conference commissioners to recognize the money to be made from a Conference Tournament — both in terms of tickets and TV rights. It also allowed the league to showcase itself across the East and garner more attention and help its member institutions increase their profile and recruiting. Gavitt also recognized the potential of ESPN and made deals to get BE games on the new cable network early in its existence. The Big East quickly battled the ACC for b-ball supremacy on the East Coast.
After the Supreme Court decision, Joe Paterno really began pushing his idea for an Eastern conference where football was the focus. He wanted Pitt, Syracuse, BC, Rutgers, Temple Virginia Tech and WVU and I think Maryland and Miami in the conference. Maryland was in the ACC, of course, and really didn’t have any interest in leaving. Syracuse was a power in the Big East and was doing fine as a football independent. BC was doing well in the BE (though not a power) and also fine as a football independent. Neither saw a reason to join a conference that would clearly lower the profile of the basketball programs while merely formalizing the football relationships already in place. Especially when the Big East was proving to be a financial bonanza.
Even a Pitt fan must give appropriate credit. Joe Paterno clearly saw where things were heading with regards to football and conferences, in light of the lawsuit filed against the NCAA. He recognized that without the NCAA controlling the TV access, that conferences would fill the void as a negotiating partner. With multiple schools, they could offer a better product line than individual schools. Independent programs would either suffer or join a conference. His timing for pushing the plan, though, could not have been worse.
The year the Supreme Court decided in favor of the CFA schools, 1984, was the same year that Paterno formally tried to create an Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for him, the 1984-85 season was the most successful season for the Big East. You had Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s in the Final Four. Boston College made the Sweet 16. Syracuse and Pitt both made the NCAA Tournament. For Pitt, it was their first trip in almost 20 years. Paterno and Penn State wanted Pitt, Syracuse and BC to leave the Big East? The timing could not have been worse.
That plan defeated, Paterno went to Plan B and began inquiring about joining the Big East. That plan met with defeat, as Syracuse actively campaigned against it. The Basketball schools weren’t that interested in bringing Penn St. into the fold since PSU didn’t bring anything to the sport they played. Pitt did nothing one way or another. Plan C, of course was finding another conference to join, which PSU did officially in 1991 by going into the Big 11.
By the time PSU announced its plans to join the Big 10 in 1990, independent football programs were sucking wind. All the money and interest was going to the conferences. At the same time, Florida State surprised people by announcing plans to join the ACC rather than the SEC. Clearly, the money from football was too great to ignore, even for the basketball-centric ACC.
This was Mike Tranghese’s baptism by fire. Tranghese was Gavitt’s right-hand man, and his chosen successor as Big East Commissioner when Gavitt stepped down in 1990. Hastily the Big East created their own football conference where Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and WVU teamed with Pitt, Syracuse and BC. Temple chose to remain in what is now the Atlantic 10 for basketball. Miami became a full member right away. WVU and Rutgers came into the basketball portion in 1995. Virginia Tech, not until 2000. Notre Dame also joined the BE in 1995 in everything but football.
It was not a perfect solution, but it seemed to work and kept the Big East intact.