In less than 40 years, the Big East Conference has had a profound impact in allowing certain universities to achieve athletic success that frankly seemed out of reach. The greatest example of that is Virginia Tech and now there are three largely forgotten basketball schools that are reaping the same benefits.
The Big East was formed in 1979 by Providence College Basketball Coach Dave Gavitt, who became the first commissioner of the conference. It was primarily meant to be a Northeastern based basketball conference.
Gavitt pieced together his school Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, and Syracuse who were all playing basketball as independents at the time, and invited New Jersey’s Seton Hall, Connecticut, Holy Cross, Rutgers and Boston College to join in the league. Holy Cross and Rutgers passed. I imagine Holy Cross is still kicking itself for that decision. The Big East was born with seven institutions. Just one year later in 1980, Villanova joined and Pittsburgh followed in 1982. Penn State applied to join the Big East in 1982 but was “black balled” and refused membership. I think it worked out okay since they Nittany Lions now reap the benefits of the Big-10’s substantial television contract.
What the Big East did was play some of the baddest basketball on the planet. The compilation of schools attracted some of the best talent in the nation like Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and St. John’s Chris Mullin. The conference had its own television package and became the impetus for “Big Monday” on ESPN. Under the Big East banner, Georgetown won an NCAA Title in 1984, after playing for it in 1982. St. John’s went to the Final 4 in 1985 when three Big East schools made the Final 4, including Villanova which won its first NCAA Championship beating Georgetown in the Championship game.
For what the Big East did for its original schools, it did more for some other institutions when in 1991 it decided to start playing football. Most of the original Big East schools were non-football playing schools or if they did play, they played at a lower level. The only real football schools among the bunch were Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh. So, the Big East extended an invitation to Rutgers, Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia to join and formed an 8-team football conference that in the 1990s played some of the baddest football on the planet. The most successful was of course, Miami, but make no mistake the impact the Big East had on others like West Virginia and in particular Virginia Tech cannot be underestimated.
Prior to joining the Big East, Virginia Tech played as a football independent. It was a nice little program that played in about a 40,000 seat stadium with wooden bleachers in the South End Zone, played most of their games on Saturday afternoon, had little television exposure, and was certainly not getting the best players in the Commonwealth of Virginia to play football in Blacksburg, much less the best in the nation. The Big East changed all that, giving Virginia Tech much needed exposure (particularly on Thursday nights) and a conference to recruit to. The program is in the midst of 25 straight bowl appearances, the longest in the nation and that would not have been possible without an invitation from the Big East to play football.
Under the Big East banner, Virginia Tech was able to get some of the best players in the Commonwealth to stay home. It all began with a high school All-American from Lynchburg named Cornell Brown. Brown, the younger brother of Reuben Brown who played at Pitt and then in the NFL, could have gone anywhere. But, Virginia Tech convinced him to stay home and others soon followed. Big East football was born in 1991, but the conference didn’t start crowning an official champion until 1993. From 1995 to 1999, Virginia Tech won 3 of 5 conference titles, played in two Sugar Bowls, one Orange Bowl and with another native son, Newport News’ quarterback Michael Vick pulling the trigger in 1999, went 11-0 and played Florida State for the BCS Title.
Working off that success, Virginia Tech seriously upgraded its football facilities, expanded the stadium to 65,000 including a new South End Zone, New Press Box and Luxury Suites. Last year, the school opened a brand new indoor practice facility. College sports is all about facilities and Virginia Tech, which once had to practice indoors in a glorified barn known as the “Rector Field House” can compete with anyone in that department. In the early 2000s, Virginia Tech finally achieved its athletic goal. For virtually all of its athletic existence, Virginia Tech coveted a spot with its in-state neighbor Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC threw an offer in Virginia Tech’s lap in 2003 and they’ve never looked back. And while they’ve never looked back, the school had better realize that without the push from a Northeastern “basketball” league, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
Where the Big East is today is back to its roots as a basketball conference. The Football version of the Big East essentially imploded when the ACC grabbed not only Virginia Tech, but also Miami, Boston College and Pittsburgh, and West Virginia left for the Big 12. The Big East tried to hold football together by adding the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida from Conference USA, but by 2012, the handwriting was on the wall. The seven so-called catholic schools DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova voted to break away from the football schools and form a “basketball” league. Villanova and Georgetown do field football teams, but only at the FCS level. They convinced the other schools – who would form the core of the American Conference – to let them keep the Big East name, $10 million from the conference treasury and the right to continue holding their annual basketball tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They signed a lucrative television deal with Fox Sports, which means that literally every Big East home game is on Fox or Fox Sports 1.
The 7 schools, then invited Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley to form the “new” Big East. So what the old Big East did for schools like Virginia Tech and to a lesser extent West Virginia, the new Big East is doing for Butler, Xavier and Creighton. Understand that none of those three schools has ever been bad at basketball, and they in their own right have made their mark in March particularly Butler which as a member of the Horizon League played for the NCAA Title in 2010 and 2011.
The impact is greater however, on Xavier and Creighton. Xavier lives in the shadow of in-city neighbor the University of Cincinnati., but is not frankly in a better conference that Cincinnati. Xavier is a small private catholic school which has the dubious distinction of having the most NCAA Tournament victories (24) without having ever made the Final 4. They’ve been to the Sweet 16 seven times and the Elite 8 twice and the likes of Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, and Sean Miller have all served as the school’s head coach. They’ve played basketball in leagues like the Midwestern City Conference, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and the Atlantic-10, but the Big East is already elevating the program’s stature. Xaiver has made the NCAA Tournament 26 times, but in 11 of those appearances they’ve been seeded 10th or lower. Last year with the Big East power behind them they were a two seed.
The impact on Creighton may be greater. Creighton came to the Big East from the Midwestern based Missouri Valley Conference. To say they were a dominant program in the Missouri Valley is a bit of an understatement with a record 15 regular season championships, and a record 12 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament titles. Likewise well respected coaches like Eddie Sutton and Dana Altman have coached at Creighton and it’s considered such a “good” basketball job that current coach Doug McDermott left Power-5 school Iowa State in the Big-12 to coach there. The school, based in Omaha, Nebraska is a huge hit in a state where football is obviously king. Creighton fills the 18,000 seat Century Link Center in Downtown Omaha for most, if not all of its games.
Of course, the Big East has the Defending National Champion in Villanova, who appears headed to another Number 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when the field is announced on March 12th, but just behind the Wildcats in the standings are Xavier, Creighton and Butler. In the NCAA’s RPI index (which measures who you beat and where you beat them), that the Tournament committee weighs heavily, Villanova is second, Butler 13th, Xavier 18th and Creighton 22nd. That’s four schools in the top 25, behind only the ACC which has 5 in the top 25 including suddenly floundering Virginia.
The Big East is making its name by staying true to the original mission of its founder Dave Gavitt. Along with the Atlantic-10 it’s the only true “basketball league” not overshadowed by football. It is no longer based solely in the Northeast, but as we’ve learned in conference expansion geography is not that important anymore. What about West Virginia screams Big 12 and I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how Notre Dame is on the Atlantic coast. The Big East seems comfortable at 10 teams, but I have to think that the conference is thinking of expansion (and does every conference) to at least 12 teams which would add more schools and more money to the conference. If so, there are two prime “basketball” targets out there in Wichita State and Dayton because as history as shown, the Big East can be a big boost to your school’s profile and success.