Last Big East Tournament at the Garden before the breakup
After watching his son coach Georgetown to a win over Syracuse on Saturday that secured a share of the final Big East regular-season basketball title before the football-basketball breakup of the conference, John Thompson II couldn't suppress his old passion toward a traditional rival. "Kiss Syracuse goodbye," said one of the great coaches who turned the Big East into the most powerful basketball conference in the nation.
The elder Thompson's comment evoked the scene from "Godfather II" in which Michael Corleone kisses his older brother and says, "I know it was you, Fredo." But in this case, it was Syracuse and all the other football schools who betrayed Big East family tradition for greater television riches.
As Thompson told The Washington Post, "I think it's a damn disgrace. We established something in the Northeast that we all could be proud of, and then a bunch of knuckleheads sat at the table -- didn't know a thing about basketball -- and, without any concern for the fans, geographical boundaries, tore it apart."
That, in a nutshell, is how the Big East got here from there. The funeral for the traditional Big East founded in 1979 begins Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, which is hosting the conference tournament for the 31st straight year. Syracuse and Pitt move to the ACC next season; Notre Dame is trying to negotiate its exit, and in 2014, Louisville joins the ACC and Rutgers heads to the Big Ten.
At the same time, the Big East name and, if all works out as planned, the spirit of the original Big East is not really dead at all. Seven Catholic schools -- including founding members St. John's, Seton Hall, Georgetown and Providence plus Villanova (a member since 1980), DePaul and Marquette -- last week announced they have reached a separation agreement. It hasn't been ratified yet, but industry sources confirmed the basketball schools will retain the Big East name and continue to hold the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
It might not be the same without longtime powers Syracuse and Connecticut, but the so-called "Catholic 7" harks back to the roots of the original Big East in terms of their commonality and focus on basketball.
In what now seems a prescient comment, Rev. Donald J. Harrington, president of St. John's, said in December, "Finances didn't drive this decision, but we are confident this decision will not hurt us financially."
Clearly, a move that had to happen was based on research indicating the basketball schools would be better off by themselves than accepting TV crumbs from the football schools. The basketball schools currently receive $1.6 million annually, but industry sources say the contract the new Big East is expected to sign with Fox Sports Network will be worth upward of $4 million per school annually.
St. John's officials have declined to comment until the ink is dry on the official documents, but in December, Harrington acknowledged plans for a league of 10 to 12 teams. Multiple sources indicate Butler, Xavier, Creighton, Dayton and St. Louis are the leading candidates.
Although Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim work for football schools moving to the ACC, both showed where their affections lie when the basketball-football split took place in December. "For those of us in basketball, we're all fed up," Pitino said. "We're all tired of tradition being killed around the country."
Boeheim, the only remaining coach from the Big East's inception in 1979, told USA Today, "It has been a privilege to be in this conference. Anyone who thinks I am not disappointed, that I am not sad that the Big East did not survive, they don't know me."
Maybe the question now is which group has the best chance to rekindle the spirit that made the Big East great. It just might be the ones who valued the Big East name enough to fight for it.