SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Scoop Jardine sat on a couch in the Syracuse locker room. In one of the best games of the college basketball season, his Syracuse team had just beaten Georgetown 64-61 in overtime and Jardine had changed into a shirt that may be a collector's item someday. Like, in three months.
It said: RIVALRY WEEK. The dates of Syracuse's games with Georgetown (Wednesday night) and Connecticut (Saturday) were on it.
Syracuse is leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, a move that feels both smart and depressing. Syracuse gets what every athletic director wants: a financial windfall, long-term security and a chance to play Duke in football. Pittsburgh is leaving for the same reasons. Truth is, almost every school would leave for the same reasons. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are just dominoes in a bigger movement -- not the first and not the last. This week, the Big East plucked Memphis out of Conference USA in a blatant attempt to have a team, any team, in all 50 states. And I don't think anybody in the Big East feels bad for Conference USA.
We're supposed to call this progress, in the way that we're supposed to think exhaust clouds are delicious. But something wonderful is being lost here. Syracuse-Georgetown is one of the great rivalries in college sports. It was the heartbeat of the old Big East, a league built on basketball (for many years, there was no such thing as Big East football, another reason the past was better), and Northeast cities that were natural rivals, and players who knew each other seemingly from birth.
"I think they're still going to find a way to schedule games, because that's a great rivalry," Jardine said.
He looked up at the television, at the game being played in Chapel Hill.
"It's like the Duke-North Carolina rivalry," he said.
Nobody knows when Syracuse and Pittsburgh will leave the Big East, but you will not be surprised to hear that there are lawyers are involved. It is at least possible that this was the last Georgetown-Syracuse Big East game.
Georgetown basketball will survive. Syracuse will play great games against Duke and North Carolina and Maryland. But it won't be the same. You can't sign a contract to loathe somebody. And even if Syracuse and Georgetown keep the playing, the rivalry will be a shell of itself. One nonconference game a year -- presumably in December when the country is still thinking about its two biggest passions, football and football -- can't compare to league games and conference tournament games.
College sports have been a corrupt and hypocrisy-filled mess for almost as long as they have existed, and it would be silly for me to pretend otherwise. But there has always been a tradeoff that made it all seem worthwhile: College sports gave you a sense of place. It had the best rivalries, by far. (Yankees and Red Sox fans: please don't argue the point.)
Big East basketball used to mean something beyond seeding for the NCAA tournament. It was St. John's providing magic in Madison Square Garden, Providence rising up to compete with its neighbors, Georgetown visiting the Carrier Dome in a rivalry game between the two league teams that were hated the most, because they won the most.
Jerry Seinfeld famously joked that when he cheers for his favorite teams, he is cheering for laundry -- the players and coaches switch cities, and owners from other towns buy teams. But that has never applied to college sports. This is why they are so popular, even though the skill level can't compare to the pros. It's not because of guaranteed bowl payouts.
Georgetown lost a great basketball game Wednesday, but Syracuse lost something too. It lost a connection to the days when college sports were not so corporate, and so oblivious to geography or fans' wishes. After the Big East added Memphis, commissioner John Marinatto said he won't hold a conference title game until Boise State and Navy join the league. Some jokes don't need a punchline.
I hope everybody realizes what is being lost. It was obvious Wednesday, long before the first basket was scored.
An hour before tipoff, the student section was filling up. Forty-five minutes before tip, students serenaded the Hoyas with a chant that would have made M.I.A. proud. This was not normal for Syracuse, but it was normal for Syracuse-Georgetown. An hour before the big game, the atmosphere felt big-game, in the way that NBA regular-season games almost never do. Will Georgetown-Memphis ever feel like this in my lifetime? I'm 37. I had better eat right and exercise.