Here's why collapse of Big East shouldn't define John Marinatto's legacy

John Marinatto loved Cher, got bottles of skim milk delivered to his home daily and bought multiple oversized, old-school Cadillac convertibles. He preferred his music on 8-track, ate many of his meals at a well-known Providence, Rhode Island, supper club and once studied to be a priest.

He worked a gilded life in college athletics, rising all the way to one of the most powerful chairs in college athletics — commissioner of the Big East in 2009 when there were six power conferences. Marinatto also worked as a manager for legendary coach Dave Gavitt at Providence College, served as the sports information director for Rick Pitino there and in his late 20s replaced Lou Lamoriello as the athletic director. Marinatto hired Rick Barnes, Pete Gillen and Tim Welsh as the PC basketball coach during his 14 years as AD.

A life in college athletics that thrust him alongside legends and saw him rise to the highest levels of power ended in messy fashion. Marinatto took over the Big East in 2009, led it through three tumultuous years and the league of far-flung football and basketball programs ultimately ended up falling apart. Suddenly, one of the quirkiest characters and improbable rises in college athletics’ leadership just disappeared.

When Marinatto died over the weekend of heart issues at age 64, his passing barely made a blip in the news cycle. There were a few polite statements and press releases, but it hardly registered in the world where Marinatto once sat across the table from leaders like Mike Slive of the SEC and Jim Delany of the Big Ten.

Marinatto stayed in contact with only a few old colleagues, but could never shake the feeling that he let down the institutions that helped define him.

“Providence College and the Big East Conference were his life,” said Nick Carparelli Jr., the former Big East associate commissioner who was close to Marinatto. “And I feel most sad for him because when he lost those things, he lost a big part of himself. I think the last 10 years, he was always searching for a new identity. I don’t think he ever found it.”

Former Big East commissioner John Marinatto, right, died Saturday at the age of 64. (Photo by Tom Maguire/BIG EAST Conference/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)
Former Big East commissioner John Marinatto, right, died Saturday at the age of 64. (Photo by Tom Maguire/BIG EAST Conference/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

Marinatto remembered for a life of kindness

Via phone on Sunday, tributes poured in about Marinatto:

“One of the most honest and kind people that I’ve ever met, in or out of sports,” said Tim Welsh.

“He’s one of the sweeter and kinder people I’ve ever known. He missed his calling, he should have been in the ministry,” said Rick Barnes

“He may be the kindest and most caring person I knew in my lifetime,” said Mike Tranghese, a former Big East commissioner.

After Marinatto’s departure from the Big East, he was increasingly hard to reach. He wouldn’t return dozens of calls that would check in on him, but he’d respond immediately if he could help out someone else. In the wake of the Big East’s implosion, he confided that he was too embarrassed to go to the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru for his beloved iced coffee.

Marinatto never married, with his work serving as his identity for decades. And without that anchor of time and energy, he was adrift.

“John was a little bit reclusive,” Tranghese said in a phone interview. “He really held himself responsible for the breakup of the Big East, and he was dead wrong about that. I had so many conversations about this with him. I could never convince him. The cards were stacked against him.”

Along his way up through college athletics, Marinatto developed a reputation as a selfless, quirky and endearing workaholic. He was the trusty do-anything lieutenant whose babysitting chores included watching Dan Gavitt, now the NCAA vice president for men’s basketball championships, and Richard Pitino, the head basketball coach at New Mexico.

Marinatto was so close to his staff that he’s remembered for his generous and thoughtful gifts. Dan Gavitt recalls a microwave for a Christmas present when he was a graduate assistant for Barnes at PC. Gillen recalls an all-expenses paid family trip to Disney. “He was a nice, humble man,” Gillen said. “He loved Providence College more than anything.”

Marinatto thrived working behind the scenes

Marinatto grew up on Federal Hill, a predominantly Italian section of Providence, and fulfilled his dream by becoming PC’s athletic director. Multiple friends said his gentle demeanor would have made him an ideal priest, a path he said back in a 2009 interview that he once pursued.

“He’s different than a lot of other people in our business,” Dan Gavitt said. “I don’t think he ever aspired to be anything more than the athletic director at Providence. When that happened, he figured this was as good as it gets.”

Marinatto became close to the Pitino family during Rick’s two years in Providence. When Marinatto got removed from his job as Providence athletic director in 2000, Richard Pitino recalled the family seriously considering switching his college choice from PC to Boston College because they were so disappointed with the decision. (Richard ended up at Providence, eating dinner with Marinatto monthly during his time as an undergrad.)

Richard Pitino said that Marinatto remained in close contact with his family, especially his mother, Joanne Minardi. Rick and Joanne lost a child, Daniel, while coaching at Providence in 1987. He was 6 months old. Every year, Marinatto would visit Daniel’s grave on the anniversary of his death.

“He was that thoughtful of a guy,” Richard Pitino said.

After his departure from Providence in 2000, Marinatto re-connected with Tranghese at the Big East. Tranghese recalled some grumblings around the league when he wanted to hire Marinatto as associate commissioner, as many figured he was bailing out his friend. The reality was that Marinatto thrived behind the scenes. He loved to work weekends, dive into endless details and was so thorough that the same folks grumbling initially called him back within a few months to rave about the hire.

Those seven years Marinatto worked behind the scenes in the Big East may have been some of the best of his career. He’s credited with helping reconstruct the league after the departures of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2003.

“In a lot of ways, he was the architect of that re-configuration that helped the Big East have some of its best days,” said Carparelli, now the executive director of Bowl Season.

A close-up view of the Big East Conference logo during the semifinals of the 2012 men's basketball tournament. (Photo by Tom Maguire/BIG EAST Conference/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)
A close-up view of the Big East Conference logo during the semifinals of the 2012 men's basketball tournament. (Photo by Tom Maguire/BIG EAST Conference/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

End of Big East as they knew it

Of course, Marinatto is best remembered for being the commissioner during the darkest days. He took over in 2009 after Tranghese retired, and things were doomed the moment that league's presidents turned down a $1.4 billion dollar television deal in the spring of 2011. (At that point, things were so unwieldy that the Big East had added TCU as a full-time member.)

Everything began to fall apart in September of 2011 when news broke on a Friday night that Pitt and Syracuse were in discussions to join the ACC. The next day, after they finalized their intentions, Big East founder Dave Gavitt died. Marinatto idolized Dave Gavitt from their time at PC, and the coincidence of the league unwinding and Gavitt passing away remains a chilling cosmic coincidence.

Marinatto was forced to resign in May of 2012, and the sting of the league falling apart on his watch stuck with him. The league's basketball schools eventually broke away.

“It’s something that hit him very hard,” said Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Joe D’Antonio, who worked under Marinatto at PC and in the Big East. “And unfortunately, it stayed with him right until his last day.”

Dan Gavitt last saw Marinatto in December, a few days after Christmas. Gavitt and his mother, Julie, were visiting his father’s grave at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence when Marinatto pulled up in an SUV. Despite knowing the Gavitts for decades, they hadn’t seen him in years. But Marinatto faithfully visited Dave Gavitt’s grave on Gavitt’s birthday or the anniversary of his passing.

They chatted in the cold from a social distance, delighted by the serendipity. “We were happy to see him,” Dan Gavitt said. “It was a very nice conversation that I’ll always hold dear.”

Gavitt added about Marinatto’s devotion to visiting his father’s grave: “He was always very thoughtful in that way.”

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