After 21 years of being stuck in a corner and marginalized, the Big East basketball schools are standing up for themselves.
At long last, they're ready to say it.
Nobody puts basketball in a corner.
At least not for two decades.
The Catholic Seven – Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul – are putting down their rosaries and putting on their walking shoes. They are ready to leave the Big East's football-first mentality that has robbed them of their voice. Their silence was bought with league shares of football revenue, but at great cost to their identity, autonomy and dignity.
Pushed to the brink by the panic-induced inventory grab of football schools that are basketball bottom feeders – Tulane, SMU, Houston and Central Florida all qualify, to one degree or another – they're finally ready to find their own way amid the smoking rubble of the current Big East. (Interesting that Tulane's woeful basketball program is universally being scapegoated as the last straw, while chronically inept DePaul gets the privilege of riding the other programs' coattails out the door. The Chicago TV market apparently makes up for a multitude of basketball sins.)
The formal announcement could come Friday, sources have told Yahoo! Sports. The decision already has been made, according to USA Today.
[Related: Winners and losers in Big East breakaway]
It's sad and maddening to see what's happened to the Big East – just as it's disgusting to see the craven money grabs and shameless ego trips that have powered realignment as a whole. But this was set in motion a long time ago; the Catholic schools just proved to be very slow to reach their boiling point.
In 1991, the Big East debuted as a football conference. Then commissioner Mike Tranghese extended the conference banner to include football independents Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Boston College, Temple, Rutgers, Miami and Virginia Tech – with Miami the crown jewel for its football prowess. From that point on, football-based decisions began to rule the league. The schools without a full investment in helmets and shoulder pads became second-class citizens.
Since then, everything has changed in college sports.
There were 104 schools playing FBS (then I-A) football in 1991. Today there are 120 full-time members, with four more having started this season as provisional members. The new members have largely added nothing but bloat, but they're here chasing the dollar and the dream.
In 1991 there were no divisions in any conference. No conference championship games. No league had more than 10 teams. There were 18 football independents. There were 18 bowl games. There were not dozens of games on TV from noon 'til midnight every Saturday.
And men's basketball was considered close to a full partner with football in the hierarchy in most leagues and most individual athletic departments.
In 1992, the year after Big East football came into being, the Southeastern Conference let the genie out of the bottle. It expanded to 12 teams, went to a divisional format, established a football championship game and started raking in money.
A year later, Penn State fractured the math of the Big Ten, while adding to its football cachet. Three years after that, the Big Eight opened wide and devoured half the Southwest Conference to became the Big 12.
Nothing has been the same since. And aside from the SWC, which ceased to exist, nothing has taken a more fearful beating than the Big East.
Dave Gavitt's original Big East turned into a league at war with itself. As far back as the mid-90s, there was talk about a split between the schools that were basketball-first and those that weren't. Tranghese kept the thing together, but it was at times an uneasy alliance.
He led the league through the Atlantic Coast Conference raid a few years ago that took Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, in large part by raiding Conference USA for Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul. That actually worked well in both football and basketball, stabilizing the football side and turning basketball into a true monster; but Tranghese acknowledged how difficult it was to govern.
As the latest spasm of realignment hit in 2010, it coincided with a massive leadership void in the Big East. John Marinatto, Tranghese's replacement, could not form a consensus in the fractured league and blew a critical media-rights bargaining opportunity.
During this time, basketball's already timid voice fell on outright deaf ears. Coaching giants like Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Rick Pitino couldn't believe one of the great hoops leagues ever had no use for them when it came to making major decisions. The wishes of Catholic schools that made Final Four trips in the last decade – Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova – were ignored.
You don't want SMU in the league? Too bad. We're adding them anyway.
Don't like Houston? Sorry. They're coming in.
Tulane? Yeah, we're taking Tulane.
They were all football decisions.
And now basketball schools have had enough of football decisions. They're making one of their own, seven schools breaking away and likely adding from three to five other hoops-first programs from the Northeast and/or Midwest to form what probably will be a new league with a new name.
It's a risky venture. Chances are good that the Catholic Seven will lose money in the process, because their new TV rights fee will not be what it would be while sucking from the football-enhanced Big East teat. For schools trying to fund non-revenue sports and remain in Title IX compliance, that's a stressful byproduct of new-found freedom.
But in a mercenary college athletics world drunk on dollars and disdainful of both common sense and the common fan, it's nice to see one group declare that something else matters more.
Identity matters more. Equality matters more.
By breaking away from the Big East, the Catholic Seven will reclaim both.
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