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The Big Least

The Big East is no longer the powerhouse conference it was during the 1980s

Back in the late 1950s, during Dave Gavitt's fraternity days at Dartmouth, the brothers of Beta Theta Pi never threw a party. Everyone on campus knew: At Beta, Big Daddy threw the parties. Big Daddy didn't really exist; he had sprung whole from Gavitt's imagination. Yet the posters always read BIG DADDY PRESENTS, and the myth grew so formidable that the parties at no other fraternity measured up. Years later, when Gavitt went on to midwife the college basketball beast called the Big East, it was as if that old North Woods impresario had been resurrected to put on another good time, this one in big cities under bright TV lights.

It has now been 2½ seasons since Gavitt left the Big East's Providence headquarters for a spot up the road in the Boston Celtics' front office, and Big Daddy has been missed. Gaudy perceptions about the league, once validated by astonishing achievements, have given way to a relatively ordinary reality. Consider: The conference that placed three of its members in the Final Four in 1985 has sent only three teams there in the seven seasons since; the league that boasted six different schools that reached the national semifinals in its first 10 seasons hasn't had a single representative in the past three Final Fours; the outfit that in 1988 assembled the nation's best recruiting class—anchored by Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown, Billy Owens of Syracuse and Malik Scaly of St. John's—is now getting whupped in the player-procurement game by the ACC, the Big Ten, even the SEC; and the league that was predicated on building telegenic programs in major media markets has seen three of its most charismatic coaches, the paisan patrol of Rick Pitino, Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, leave Providence, St. John's and Villanova, respectively. For most of the 1980s the basketball gods smiled on Providence. But providence hasn't smiled on the Big East of late.

"You don't exist in the media markets we do and not get hammered if you don't win," says Mike Tranghese, who replaced Gavitt as Big East commissioner in June 1990. "But if you go to the Big Ten or the ACC, and you give them truth serum and ask them which conference they fear most, they're still going to say us. When we put three teams in the Final Four, people were all worried about Connecticut, Providence and Seton Hall not measuring up. Now those three schools have all had success too—but people say, 'Oh, the Big East isn't as good at the top.' "

Well, the Big East isn't particularly good at the top, nor is it all that formidable in the middle or at the bottom. Jeff Sagarin, whose nationally recognized computer power ratings place heavy emphasis on the strength of a team's schedule, judged the Big East only the sixth-best conference last season, and he didn't include one of the league's teams in his final Top 20. This season Sagarin had only one Big East team, Seton Hall at No. 16, among his Top 20 at week's end.

December's nonleague season highlighted the Big East's weaknesses in graphic fashion. Miami needed nine games before it could beat a Division I opponent. Villanova lost to a sub-.500 St. Mary's team that UC Santa Barbara later beat 79-37. Even when the conference's teams won, they often did so narrowly. Pittsburgh trailed Cornell by 13 at home in the second half before winning 80-72. Georgetown defeated the mighty Anteaters of UC Irvine by four. St. John's subdued Niagara by four and Hofstra by two. When Pitt defeated UCLA and Providence beat Arizona, there was such rejoicing that one had to wonder: Has it come to this? The once omnipotent Big East gets delirious about a couple of wins at home over Pac-10 schools?

Even early returns from the conference race have brought cause for worry. It's not a welcome development when Miami beats Georgetown if the Hurricanes can't defeat Southwest Texas State and Florida International. Nor do you particularly want Villanova knocking off Syracuse by 18 in the Carrier Dome if the Wildcats can't get within single digits of Penn in the Spectrum. Parity may make for a season of unpredictable charm, but it does nothing for your national profile. And a high national profile wins, in order, the hearts of blue-chip recruits and places in the Final Four.

When St. John's lost to Fordham for the first time in 21 years, 60-55, on Dec. 10, apologists cited mitigating circumstances. It seems the Johnnies miscalculated the time it would take to get from Queens to the Bronx and didn't arrive at Fordham until shortly before tip-off. But that only begs the question: What other miscalculations has the Big East made along the way?

•Yellow-Bellied Scheduling. The league's coaches never much minded getting ripped for playing crème-filled opponents in December, because they knew no criticism could be as brutal as the conference round-robin to come. But now the league sometimes looks as if it's running scared. Opposition from the Big East's coaches, not the ACC's, ended the three-year-old ACC-Big East Challenge last season. St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova all have backed out of long-standing home-and-home arrangements with those trust-fund terrors at Princeton. Georgetown coach John Thompson, whose insistence on playing St. Leo and Maryland-Eastern Shore is only the most extreme example of the feed-me-cannon-fodder attitude prevailing around the league, might take note: Duke schedules stout nonconference foes each fall and winter. Duke winds up in the Final Four each spring. There's probably a connection.

•Nightly Bloodletting. The Big East called the misbegotten six-foul rule, which it adopted for three seasons and abandoned this year, an "experiment." So were Dr. Jekyll's tinkerings in the lab. The rule was sold as a favor to fans, as a way to keep marquee players in the game for the public's entertainment. More likely, the league's coaches wanted to curtail the referees' power to banish their stars. The conference still hasn't shaken off the notoriety resulting from the endless, foul-plagued games that ensued, and the sanguinary style of play seems to have taken permanent root. On Jan. 4 Seton Hall forward Jerry Walker, following a 72-69 victory over Connecticut, bemoaned how he had emerged from the Pirates' nonleague schedule relatively unscathed. "I was coming out of preseason games with no bruises," he said. Then he pointed to a fresh cut on his knee, made by a collision with Husky Donyell Marshall's mouth. "I love it," crowed Walker. Few others do. The next night, during Providence's 86-76 defeat at St. John's, officials whistled so many fouls—48—that fed-up Redmen fans actually booed calls benefiting the home team. So sue us, the Big East might say. As it happens, James Madison guard Kent Culuko just may. Culuko needed three stitches to close a split lip caused by a flagrant elbow from Seton Hall's Terry Dehere on Dec. 30, and he and his father, Cliff, have hired a lawyer.

•Uglyball. Beyond the bashing, beyond the plodding presence of such big men as St. John's Shawnelle Scott, Miami's Constantin Popa and Seton Hall's Luther Wright, the league has one insuperable aesthetic problem: few good point guards. Without someone to start an offense correctly, few plays get finished the right way. And fans are apparently growing weary of watching this kind of basketball. Not once from 1984 to 1991 did Georgetown fail to draw at least 18,000 for a game with Syracuse at the Capital Centre, but last week only 12,185 people showed up. Those who stayed away may have decided to spare themselves the spectacle of 46 turnovers by the Hoyas and Orangemen. In nearby College Park, Maryland drew 14,500 for its ACC meeting that night with Georgia Tech. "They should put a warning on the screen during Big East games," says Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs. " 'Do not operate heavy equipment after this game. It could make you drowsy.' "

•The Camera Never Lies. The Big East and ESPN, which were born at essentially the same time, have acted almost as god-parents for each other. The league provided tidy and compelling two-hour blocks of programming; in return, the cable network drew huge audiences with its Monday and Wednesday night broadcasts, which in turn served the Big East as a nationwide recruiting tool. But as ESPN began carpeting every winter week with what it calls "wall-to-wall basketball," the Big East began to look like just another throw rug. And as the league's games became more and more unseemly—as the six-foul rule caused some Big East games to spill 15 or 20 minutes into a hard-nosed but somehow cleaner Big Ten game or a more wide-open Big Eight encounter or an ACC game conducted by maestros like Duke's Bobby Hurley, Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson and North Carolina's Derrick Phelps—what should have been a recruiting infomercial suddenly began to look like the kind of thing a Prime Time camera crew comes back with after a visit to a Food Lion supermarket.

•What Would a Nice Guy Like Me Do in a Place Like That? Current college stars Hurley, Phelps, Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn and Rodrick Rhodes, Georgia Tech's Travis Best, Arizona's Khalid Reeves and North Carolina's Brian Reese are all from New England or Greater New York. Put three or four of them in the Big East, and you wouldn't be reading this story. But because they've gone elsewhere, the league has suffered. A measure of how desperate the conference has become manifested itself in this fall's early-signing period, when the Big East actually fared pretty well—but only by resorting to the stopgap measure of signing junior college players.

•Senioritis. Seton Hall's Dehere is a solid, jump-shooting guard. He is not, alas, what a league of media markets wants in a senior headliner. "At our preseason media day in New York, we were going around asking, 'Do you want to interview so-and-so?' " says a publicist at one Big East school. "Whereas in past years a line would have formed."

•The Breakup of the Gang of Four. Carnesecca, Massimino, Thompson and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim were in on the league from the start and had outsized influence on every decision Gavitt made. But after reaching the Final Four in 1985, the first three started coasting. Then Syracuse got caught cheating and wound up on a two-year NCAA probation. The Big East is still trying to recover.

The day he took over in June 1990, Tranghese wrote a four-page memo to his athletic directors. The subject: The conference was about to enter the most critical phase of its existence, when its charter coaches would start leaving. Tranghese knew that if Steve Fisher were to leave Michigan or even if Bobby Knight were to leave Indiana, those schools' traditions would keep them solid. But the Big East's success, he warned, was based on its coaches, and thus the league couldn't afford a mistake when it hired replacements for its big names.

Yet when St. John's and Villanova faced vacancies last spring, none of the prestigious coaches that cities like New York and Philadelphia would seem to require—not Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, not Xavier's Pete Gillen, not Florida State's Pat Kennedy—could be enticed into the league. Gavitt liked to say that while the Big East's great strength was its media markets, its great albatross was those markets too, for a league of major markets must always compete with pro sports. "Let's say for the sake of argument that these new guys [Brian Mahoney at St. John's and Steve Lappas at Villanova] can coach," says Bill Reynolds, the Providence Journal-Bulletin columnist who chronicled the league's rise in his book, Big Hoops. "Perceptionwise they're no-names. And the Big East has always been a cult of coaches."

Tranghese sees some of these criticisms as contradictory. "For the past two years everybody said that Looie and Rollie were slipping, that they weren't getting the players," he says. "Now people talk about how their leaving is the end of the world. Well, you can't have it both ways."

If Mahoney and Lappas can restock their talent-poor programs, the world will of course not come to an end. Tranghese concedes that those are the stakes. And while the league's coaches would probably prefer he play the perception game at which Gavitt was so adept and vigorously take on the prophets of Big East doom, that's not Tranghese's way. When the Big East started up, as Gavitt spun visions on the order of Big Daddy, Tranghese, his assistant, was holed up in the back of a Providence ad agency, booking the room and paying the band. In that sense the league is lucky to be in the hands of someone who has always trafficked in reality—a man who knows the only useful riposte to all the carping about slippage can come from the coaches themselves. With player signings. Nonconference wins. And Final Four appearances.

The Big East watched one of its own in New Orleans on New Year's night, when Miami and Alabama played a football game for a national championship. What the league would give to find itself back in the same city on April 5, with another national title at stake, only this time in the sport it once owned. Then all would again be right with its world.