In a March New York Times profile about John Marinatto, longtime friend Rick Pitino described the Big East's new commissioner and self-avowed workaholic as "the most boring person he's ever met." It should come as no surprise, then, that Marinatto, who began his new job last Wednesday, spent most of the July 4th holiday weekend in his office.
"I had to stay true to Rick's quote," he said.
After spending 14 years as athletic director at Providence and the past seven years as the Big East's senior associate commissioner, Marinatto, 51, was tapped last fall to succeed Mike Tranghese, who retired last week after 19 years as commissioner. I caught up with Marinatto shortly into his first week on the job to discuss his plans for the conference, the BCS (which he will now help administer) and other issues facing college athletics.
SI.com: You moved up to commissioner last Wednesday. What's changed so far?
Marinatto: I don't think anything's changed except the responsibilities. I'm in the same office, I haven't moved down the hall or anything. Michael was here up through last week and was even in over the weekend and left me some notes. I left Saturday around 4 o'clock to go to mass, and when I came back Sunday morning he'd snuck a note under my door.
SI.com: Is the conference's new bowl lineup (starting in 2010) your first priority as commissioner?
Marinatto: It's been an ongoing priority for the past year. It's not like it became a priority on July 1. We've been communicating with [bowl] people for over a year, so that come July 1, 2009, we'd be a little ahead of the curve. Earlier this year, as we created a checklist of things we wanted to accomplish, this was certainly one of them.
SI.com: At the conference meetings in May, reports indicated the league was pushing the Gator Bowl to end its shared partnership between the Big East and the Big 12 (each league goes two out of four years), but the Gator Bowl wants to stick with that type of arrangement. Has there been any movement between the two sides?
Marinatto: We're still committed to not doing a hybrid situation. Our mindset 12 months ago and continues to be now is we want to do something for our membership that is not a shared situation. Wherever it ends up, whether with the Gator or somewhere else, the goal is to not do the hybrid.
SI.com:Does that mean you're in discussions with other New Year's games?
Marinatto: We're in discussions with other potential bowl partners, and it's not necessarily just New Year's Day games we're talking to.
SI.com: Do you anticipate any change in your bowl relationship with Notre Dame?
Marinatto: No. Notre Dame has been a good partner with us for the last 14 years. There's no doubt that throughout that time we've come to rely on them and they've come to rely on us, and the opportunities that have been created for postseason football have been beneficial for both of us. We've talked to [Notre Dame AD] Jack [Swarbrick] over the last several months, and we're both on the same page.
SI.com: Back in 2006, when the league boasted three undefeated teams (Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers) late into the season and stars like Ray Rice and Brian Brohm, the Big East was sort of the toast of college football for seemingly rebuilding so quickly. But by last year, we were back to hearing a lot of the criticism and questions that perhaps the Mountain West should be higher in the BCS pecking order. What does the league need to do to quiet those doubters?
Marinatto: I'm not sure I heard people criticize the Big East's position with regards to the BCS, but I heard people ask whether the Mountain West should [receive an automatic bid]. I think we've done what we needed to do over the four years to solidify whether we should be a BCS conference. People out there are debating whether the Mountain West should be one as well. If they do what they need to do over the next four years, they can put themselves into that position.
SI.com: When I asked fans over Twitter whether there were any specific subjects they wanted me to address with you, the No. 1 response by far was potential expansion plans. Is it on the horizon?
Marinatto: It's not in the immediate future. I don't think our membership has an appetite for it at this point, unless [going to 17 teams] happens to be something that brings value to football. If Penn State was interested in moving back to the East, we'd be interested in that because they bring value. We are only eight [in football], but I think it's an attractive situation because when our coaches are out there recruiting, they can sell players that their chance of earning a berth in a major bowl is more favorable. If you look over the last five years, almost every school has been in position to win our conference at some point.
What I'm hearing from people, interestingly, is they're looking at the [16-team league] model we created [in 2004], which we heard at the time was too big, and they're saying that the size has become a positive. People are talking about expanding to our size. It would be interesting if something we did out of necessity does become a model.
SI.com: Interestingly, the one football team that hasn't contended for the title during that time is arguably your most prestigious program, Syracuse.
Marinatto: Syracuse is getting it together again. I'm confident in their success moving forward, but the good news is we didn't rely on Syracuse alone [to maintain BCS status]. West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati have been able to pick up the slack. But obviously, we look forward to them turning the corner, because as a conference we really need Syracuse to be successful.
SI.com: In your new role, you now become one of the stewards of the BCS. Mike was always outspoken about his support of the system and his opposition to a playoff. What are your opinions about the BCS?
Marinatto: From a conference standpoint, we understand that the system is flawed, but until a better system comes along, we support the system that is in place. Its primary objective is to have the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country play on an annual basis. Because of the way [the bowl system] is structured, for the high number of student athletes across the country to gain a postseason experience, does it work? Yes, it works. Is it perfect? No, it's not perfect, but there is no quote-unquote "better" system we can implement that would accomplish what we across college football want to accomplish.
SI.com: What about a playoff?
Marinatto: We've talked about it a lot every year, and it's been discussed and regurgitated a lot lately because of the Mountain West [proposal]. If we ever go to a playoff, we lose what is probably the most valuable regular season in all of sports, and the opportunities we have in bowls across the country would lose the interest and value they currently have.
SI.com: Did Mike give you any advice for handling the hate mail and playoff proposals that will inevitably come your way now?
Marinatto: It's funny you should say that. I got about 30 or 40 e-mails just since July 1 suggesting playoff proposals. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to take note on July 1 that I was a point of contact. We've talked about them all since [the BCS] was created, all the different models, but when you apply them, none of them achieve the current benefits without sacrificing something.
SI.com: At this point, the Big East is pretty widely regarded as the nation's strongest basketball conference. Are there any hoops issues to deal with, or do you just try to maintain status quo?
Marinatto: We want to look at it every year and tweak it when we can. On the men's side, we talked at our annual meeting about reformatting the tournament [which this year included double-byes for the top four teams] and figuring out a better way of doing it if all 16 teams participate. The coaches have made several suggestions, and we're analyzing how that would affect a number of issues such as missed classes, RPI and positioning for [NCAA] tournament berths. When we expanded to 16, we had all these models on the table. Once you go through it and experience it, you wonder whether one of the other models was better.
On the women's side, we talked about how we can get the women's tournament [in Hartford, Conn.] to where the men's tournament is in terms of attendance and enthusiasm like we have at the Garden. Even though it is the No. 1-attended women's tournament, we want to sell it out completely.
SI.com: Finally, as a commissioner of one of the nation's major conferences, you now hold a prominent voice in college athletics. Is there any particular issue in college sports you feel most passionate about that you plan to devote attention to?
Marinatto: One of the things we talked about when I went through the interview process is that I believe we can become a leader in issues of sportsmanship and ethical conduct in intercollegiate athletics. This year we approved a charge where, initially, we're going to have the 16 senior women's administrators on our campuses implement a set of best practices. I just think it's so important to what the essence and core of intercollegiate athletics should be about. We need to formalize it across the board so everyone is on the same page.
Note: New Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott also started his job July 1. SI.com has submitted an interview request with the conference.