The wake took place on a clear day in September 2011, at a funeral home on the East Side of Providence. Dave Gavitt's body lay in the closest thing to state that sports can offer as mourners filed through— Rhode Island pols, media figures and athletic royalty, including two stars who had once carried Gavitt to the Final Four during his days as coach at Providence, Marvin Barnes and Ernie DiGregorio, who sat in the room for hours comforting each other.
This is an article from the March 18, 2013 issue
People came as much to pay their respects to Gavitt's great creation as to the man himself. More than three decades earlier, in 1979, he had seen the future: The NCAA was about to herd basketball schools in the Northeast into regional conferences, obliging them to play a double-round-robin league schedule if they expected an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. For Providence, St. John's and Georgetown, all independents with national ambitions, that would mean playing home-and-home with New Hampshire or Wagner or Towson State. If the NCAA is going to force conference play on us, Gavitt reasoned, why not control our own destiny? Gavitt, who doubled as Providence's athletic director, began meeting discreetly with two of his counterparts, Jack Kaiser of St. John's and Frank Rienzo of Georgetown. Soon they roped in Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel, an old fraternity brother of Gavitt's at Dartmouth.
As the lone coach at those meetings, Gavitt could credibly articulate the benefits of a league of their own. An ACC of the Northeast would keep a school like Connecticut from losing in-state prospects like Calvin Murphy (who had gone to Niagara) and Mike Gminski (Duke). And with cable TV about to take off, Eastern schools might even be able to turn the tables, using the increased exposure to make recruiting incursions elsewhere. "It was a reaction to the NCAA rule," Kaiser recalls, "but in our discussions we also saw how good a conference could be for us. It was mind-boggling how ESPN was founded right at the same time"—the network made its first broadcast on Sept. 7, 1979—"and developed as we did."
Soon the fledgling league had a couple of employees working out of the back of a Providence advertising agency, where one of the partners, Jim Duffy, had stumbled upon a name: "It's going to be big, right? And it's going to be in the East."
And so Gavitt's league planted the flags of eight schools along the eastern seaboard, from Boston to D.C. "No one could get [Georgetown coach] John Thompson to sit in the same room with anybody, let alone with other coaches," says Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds, who as a young writer pounded out copy for the conference. "No one was going to tell [St. John's coach] Looie [Carnesecca] that he couldn't pick his schedule. And no one expected the power of ESPN. Dave could see it all and brought it all together. He knew how to get along with anybody, and he could get people to buy into his vision."
Even Gavitt couldn't have foreseen all that the Big East would deliver: the tastemaking power of Hoya Paranoia and "Manley [Field House in Syracuse] is officially closed!" and Thompson's white towel draped over an empty chair; the gym-rat pallor of St. John's swingman Chris Mullin and the batteries-not-included sweaters of his coach, Carnesecca; Providence's Mother-in-Law defense ("constant pressure and harassment"), Jake Nevin in a wheelchair at the end of the Villanova bench, and the guards who could have been Disney characters—Scoonie of Boston College and Bootsy of St. John's and Pookey of Seton Hall; and the 1986 conference title game in Madison Square Garden, where 6' 8" Walter Berry of St. John's blocked the dying-seconds drive of Syracuse guard Dwayne (Pearl) Washington in a New York City schoolyard moment delivered whole to the big house.
The league was loud and contentious and, if you somehow missed the modifier at the front of the name, BIG (all caps in the conference stylebook, rigorously enforced). But it was also unapologetically parochial. Nothing better captured that than the response of coach Jim Boeheim when asked why his Orangemen didn't more often avail themselves of the chance to play in Hawaii. "Syracuse in July," he said dismissively.
But vigorous youth gave way eventually to the palsies of modern college sports. The Big East died in a cascade of broken promises, unreturned phone calls and simple avarice, as schools that also played big-time football chased the TV and bowl money that sport made possible. Since 2004, 19 members have left, including 16 over the past two years, three without ever playing a conference game.
Two Septembers ago, hours after Gavitt's death, word leaked that Syracuse and Pitt were leaving for the ACC. Syracuse's departure would result in nothing less than a mutation in the conference's DNA, the equivalent of North Carolina or Duke joining the Big Ten or the SEC. The league office scrambled to respond, but its moves only further revealed the divide between members that played big-time football and those that didn't. A rump of seven basketball-first Catholic schools will now do unto others as was done unto them, poaching to round out its membership. They'll continue to call themselves the Big East as part of an agreement that includes nearly $70 million in entry and exit fees that have accrued over the past few years. The Catholic 7 & Co. will begin play next season because their likely TV partner, Fox, needs the programming, and the newly constituted league will hold its postseason tournament where Gavitt's Big East did, in the Garden. "It'll be a good league," Reynolds says, "but it won't be what it was. The week Gavitt died, that was the symbolic end of the Big East right there."
The funeral took place downtown, at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, not 100 yards from the ad agency where the conference began.
"What ran through all of our blood was Dave," says Jim Calhoun, who retired last year after 26 seasons coaching at Connecticut, a school that was left without a chair when the music stopped. "He took us and allowed us to have a piece of him and made us feel that we were the best. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was a Camelot moment, when all the great things a coach aspires to have happen actually happened. During the midst of it, we had no idea. We were fighting each other, and ourselves, and maybe our own institutions.
"We needed him. And you know what? We really need him now."
Calhoun lovedThat Championship Season—not the NCAA reality show, which he won three times, but the Broadway hit. And if his retirement yields to any vocational temptation, it's likely to be the writing of a play that would be set in the springtime, at some tropical resort, in the late 1980s.
The curtain rises on a board room populated by nine starkly different basketball coaches, four of them now in the Hall of Fame. Thompson detonates f-bombs and m-f-bombs. Boeheim, dolefully realistic as only the son of an undertaker can be, challenges colleagues who want to blackball some referee: "So, who you going to get who's better?" Villanova's Rollie Massimino and Pittsburgh's Paul Evans trade charges over recruiting tactics, while Rick Pitino of Providence leads the haggling over some endorsement deal. "There wasn't enough space for the egos and testosterone," Calhoun recalls. "And then there was Looie [Carnesecca], warning everyone not to get too greedy, saying, 'Leave the chandeliers!'"
Yet even one of the tensest meetings, in which Carnesecca accused a Pitt assistant named John Calipari of spreading false recruiting-trail rumors that the St. John's coach was suffering from cancer, ended in laughter. "It was a family," says Dan Gavitt, Dave's son, who now runs the NCAA's men's basketball championships. "Dysfunctional at times, like most families are." Then Dave and his wife, Julie, the conference's unofficial chief of protocol, would make sure that the coaches who were feuding most fiercely found themselves seated next to each other at dinner and assigned to the same golfing foursome.
"Dave would sit and let them go at it," says Mike Tranghese, Gavitt's No. 2. "He'd say, 'Remember, this is here. Out there, we're in this together.'"
Gavitt the executive was much like Gavitt the coach: not a "system guy," but a pragmatist who weighed the needs of the moment and understood people's differences. The same style that had served him well as a coach during the tumult of the 1960s and early '70s helped Gavitt shepherd the Big East's outsized egos. "The world's greatest huddler," Thompson has called him.
Gavitt had the ear of each of the Big East coaches. They knew him and didn't resent his knack for persuading them to do what they didn't really want to do. "I was completely wrong," Carnesecca says of his resistance to playing a more challenging schedule. "That move catapulted us." Eventually he came to understand: Without the Big East, Mullin goes to Duke. Gavitt's genius, Calhoun says, was that "he made us think everything was our idea."
And for all the verbal violence at the league meetings each spring, Gavitt would so reliably wait out a consensus that he once mused that he must have been meant to be a Quaker. "He was brilliant and gentle and funny and clever," says Chris Plonsky, a former Big East associate commissioner. "But in the end he was a coach, and they trusted him implicitly."
It's staggering to consider, given all the pressure and attention, that for the Big East's first eight seasons, not a single coach was fired. In 1987, five years after he had been hired at Seton Hall as the lowest-paid coach in the league, P.J. Carlesimo almost was. But the school had no weight room, no training table, not even side baskets in Walsh Gym. If it's possible to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with a monsignor, Gavitt convened one with Seton Hall president Monsignor John Petillo—and two years later, after the Pirates reached the '89 NCAA title game, shared a tearful moment with commentator Bill Raftery, the school's former coach, at the improbability of it all. "P.J. got there [two years] after Providence [reached the Final Four]," Raftery says. "Dave always felt everybody was going to get a chance, and darned if he wasn't right."
Or as Dan Gavitt put it at the dedication of Dave Gavitt Way in downtown Providence in January 2012: "A lot of people say my dad was always going to get his way."
Dave Gavitt had a broader field of vision than the typical college coach. He had been one of the first in New England with a portfolio of summer camp, TV show and endorsement deals. He had urged the city to build the Providence Civic Center, which his Friars regularly sold out with intersectional matchups and a holiday tournament. As the Big East ramped up, he understood the importance of three factors: television, Madison Square Garden and Syracuse.
In 1979, Gavitt and Tranghese paid a visit to an all-sports cable network in Bristol, Conn., so new that the meeting with ESPN executives took place in a trailer. They cut deals with the regional sports networks then cropping up around the Northeast, which regarded the Celtics or Knicks or Sixers as marquee programming but on off-nights happily took Big East inventory. CBS, seeing the league as a logical companion to its freshly acquired rights to the NCAA tournament, jumped in before the 1981--82 season. And Gavitt persuaded his reluctant coaches in '89 to agree to a made-for-ESPN series called the ACC--Big East Challenge, which broke the tedium of December blowouts. The conference produced many of its own games, sold its own commercial time and even had the commish do color. One day, when a blizzard in Philadelphia stranded his partner, Gavitt broadcast a Villanova game by himself. Even critics who howled at the conflict of interest had to admit it was a tour de force.
Eventually ESPN used the league to anchor Monday nights during the winter, and in 1986--87, the first season in which the Big Ten piggybacked on the Big East for Big Monday, lo and behold, Syracuse and Indiana met in the NCAA final. The cameras might have lingered too much on the coaches, but the broadcasts gave the players a stage, with Raftery delivering his Jersey-inflected odes as if he were their own laureate—from fragments of playground haiku like Pearl/in the lane/with the kiss, to the uninhibited "Send it in, Jerome!" after 6' 6" Pitt forward Jerome Lane, on January 25, 1988, shattered the backboard with a fast-break dunk. Let the tape of that Big Monday moment unspool a little bit longer and Raftery lets slip a comment that underscores the spirit of the league in its first decade: "No reason for a technical foul ... just inferior equipment!"
College sports are notoriously resistant to change, and the hidebound thinking that prevailed back then gave Gavitt all sorts of running room. "He recognized they were in media markets that were being underserved, and college basketball was being underserved," says Len DeLuca, the CBS executive who dealt with the Big East. "There was great basketball tradition in the Northeast, but it wasn't being harnessed and aggregated in any specific way. That decade was the best startup in college sports history."
The league's first three seasons had ended with conference tournaments in Providence, Syracuse and Hartford. Tranghese remembers the day in 1981 when Thompson called to tell Gavitt that the Hoyas had just signed Patrick Ewing, the 7-foot prize of that season's recruiting class. Gavitt already knew of Mullin's commitment to St. John's, and that Villanova was closing in on forward Ed Pinckney. In all, the league would land 10 of the top 13 high school seniors in the East that year. "I think," Gavitt told Tranghese, "it's time to call Mr. Werblin"—Sonny Werblin, chairman of Madison Square Garden—"and see about going to the Garden."
As Calhoun puts it, the Big East regular season was "off Broadway." Come March you were "on Broadway," and few Big East coaches, after a loss in the conference tournament, took refuge in a phony dodge like "the real tournament starts next week."
"The best fights you have are with someone you love, like your brother," says Calhoun, whose 2011 Big East tournament run, in which Kemba Walker led the team to five straight victories, slingshot the Huskies to another six wins and an NCAA title. "To be crowned champion of your neighborhood, how much better does it get than that?"
To spectators like Donald Trump, Spike Lee and Bill Clinton, the Big East tournament became the place to be. For most of a week it would capture the back pages of the New York tabloids, inspiring headlines like the Post's MCNAMARA-CLE, as point guard Gerry McNamara led Syracuse to four victories in four days by a total of eight points to win the 2006 tournament title.
Gavitt had a rule that you had to play in a building that seated at least 6,000. Syracuse's Carrier Dome sat 30,000 or more. But the Orangemen didn't just get the "big" part. They were essential to the Tao of the league, delivering yin to so much of the Big East's ambient yang. Their exuberant style stood out next to the dour countenance of their coach. And while St. John's fussed over every possession on offense, and Georgetown wanted to drag opponents into an alley on defense, Syracuse opened the throttle at one end, then sat back in its 2--3 zone at the other. Nike played off and amplified the contrast, outfitting the Orangemen in its sleek, unitard Flight line of apparel and Georgetown in its denim Force label.
Huge, secular and gaudy—it's impossible to imagine the Orangemen in any other color—Syracuse gave the Big East's Catholic schools competitive license to dabble in the worldly. If the Orangemen could deputize Bill Rapp Jr., a local car dealer, and Rob Johnson, a New York City street agent, as virtual members of their staff, and build in so much margin for error that it never really mattered if they missed their free throws, surely Villanova could indulge Massimino's playing by his own rules, whether chasing officials at halftime, or seating Mario Andretti and Tommy Lasorda on his bench. Surely Georgetown could just this once ignore the counsel of academic coordinator Mary Fenlon, the former nun whom Thompson called "the conscience of the program," and ride to its 1984 NCAA title with an incorrigibly undisciplined talent, Michael Graham, of whom the coach would later say, "Mary told me not to recruit the m-----------." And surely the Friars could suit up the point guard from the New York City playgrounds who, introducing himself in a freshman theology class, announced in front of a mortified Dominican priest, "My name is God Shammgod, and I'm here to take Providence to the promised land."
"The Carrier Dome, the crowd, playing in front of 30,000 people—that was unbelievable," says former Orangemen swingman Stevie Thompson, who as a kid in Los Angeles would flip on Big East games upon getting home from school. "I can remember games when [teammate] Sherman Douglas would be 10 feet away from me and I couldn't even hear what he was saying."
"You had the green light," adds Washington, who embodied the Syracuse spirit during the early years of the league. "You played hard, made the right decisions, and if you had to stretch out the 2--3 zone, you stretched it out. It was like the Showtime Lakers. I felt like I was a pro in college. No pro arena seated 30,000."
That's why Syracuse's departure essentially finished the league. "O.K., BC left," Raftery says. "Virginia Tech, Miami—we can live without 'em. But 'Cuse leaving, that's the one that pierced everybody. Syracuse won the Oscar every year for interest, for reputation, and they always had a chance to win it all."
Tranghese is even blunter. The Orange's decision, he says, "ripped the heart out of the Catholic schools. Syracuse was part of the fabric of the Big East."
In 1981, Penn State football coach and athletic director Joe Paterno, eager to find a home for sports other than football, approached Dave Gavitt about joining the Big East. Gavitt supported Paterno's bid, figuring that the addition of Penn State, then a football independent, would reduce the Nittany Lions' incentive to go in on a football conference with other Eastern schools like Big East basketball members Syracuse and Boston College. But with Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova all opposed to adding a school with which they felt nothing in common, the move to admit Penn State fell one vote short. Tranghese made sure the minutes of that meeting included this notation: "We will regret the day we made this decision."
Paterno responded to the snub aggressively. He tried to form an Eastern all-sports league with football at its core. In addition to Syracuse and BC, he eyed Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers. But Syracuse and BC balked at Penn State's unwillingness to share bowl revenue, and Gavitt ultimately outwitted Paterno by adding Pitt, the linchpin to Penn State's plans.
Landing the Panthers was a coup, for they represented another urban market and a solid hoops tradition. And so the Big East continued its rise through the 1980s: NCAA titles for Georgetown and Villanova in '84 and '85, respectively; in '85, three teams in a Final Four, including both finalists, a feat yet to be duplicated; and unforgettable, last-second losses by Georgetown ('82), Syracuse ('87) and Seton Hall ('89) in NCAA title games. Just when it looked as if programs led by personalities like Thompson, Boeheim, Massimino and Carnesecca would permanently eclipse them, Providence, Connecticut and Seton Hall brought in Pitino, Calhoun and Carlesimo, respectively, and made their runs too. "We basically took leaps and bounds as we went along," recalls Gary Williams, who took Boston College to the Sweet 16 in '83 and '85. "There was no gradual period. It was just, here we are on a national stage."
But all the basketball exploits masked a deeper problem. "Candidly," Tranghese put it in one interoffice memo, "we were too giddy over our success." The Big East had fumbled a chance to bring the biggest of big-time football schools into its fold. Then came 1990, a year as ominous as '79 was auspicious. Penn State joined the Big Ten, touching off more than two decades of football-driven realignment. The year before the NCAA had moved to increase the role of presidents in college athletics, which would eventually disrupt the culture of a league founded and run by coaches and ADs. Then Gavitt left to become senior executive V.P. of the Celtics. "Dave knew instinctively that football was about to rear its head," Tranghese says, "and he didn't want to be a part of that."
Tranghese took over, haunted by the football issue. "Not one day did I not worry about keeping the conference together," he says. In the mid-1990s he went to ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan with an offer: Take our football schools, for football only—BC, Syracuse and Pitt, plus Miami, which had begun Big East play in '91—and we'll hunker down and tend to our original mission as a basketball-only conference.
The ACC, which had added Florida State in 1991, took a pass. Yet for a while the Big East skated by, launching football play with five teams in '91 and reveling in Miami's national championship that same year. Even after the Hurricanes left for the ACC, in 2004, taking Virginia Tech with them; BC followed the next year. The Big East recovered by adding such schools as Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia to maintain its football respectability and become even deeper in basketball with Marquette and Notre Dame. But the league had to keep reconstituting itself, and all the patching and fixing tarnished the brand. The announcement in '11 that schools like San Diego State and Boise State would be added made a mockery of geographic coherence. It took two decades, but all four of the Big East football schools that Tranghese had once offered to Corrigan wound up in the ACC anyway, in football and basketball. Former BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo had seen it coming. "Build a house on a fault line," he would say, "and that house is going to fall."
Yet no one could have imagined the seismic event that marked the end. In early 2011, ESPN had offered the Big East $1.2 billion over nine years for the rights to both sports—a sum short of what the ACC had just signed with the same network, but approximately twice what the Big East's basketball schools had been getting, and three times the most recent TV take of its football schools. John Marinatto, who in '09 had replaced Tranghese as commissioner, urged his presidents to accept the deal. But former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the ex-Georgetown basketball captain whom the Big East had brought in as a consultant, counseled the conference to wait, and with the presidents of Georgetown, Notre Dame and Pitt siding with him, Tagliabue's position won the day.
Tagliabue pointed out that ESPN's exclusive negotiating window wouldn't expire for another 18 months, and that the Pac-12 would soon sign a new TV contract, which would likely reset the marketplace. Meanwhile, Tagliabue says ESPN was insisting on clauses that would dock payments if any school were to leave before the end of the deal—and at that point no Big East football school would pledge to stick around for more than a year. "It didn't solve the issues we were trying to solve," Tagliabue says. "It didn't give us [ACC-level] money, and it didn't bind everyone to the conference. Other than that, it was a hell of a deal." Turning the network down, he adds, "was intended to induce ESPN to make another offer and wait for the Pac-12 to come into the picture. They said take it or leave it, and we now know what happened."
Even after ESPN and Fox Sports announced a contract with the Pac-12 for $100 million more per year than the ACC's package, nothing better materialized for the Big East. Syracuse and Pitt bolted a few months later. Marinatto resigned under pressure, and the presidents brought in Aresco, who despite 28 years as a TV executive found the league trapped: no deal until stability sets in; no stability until a deal gets done. Last month, after ESPN matched an offer from NBC of approximately $18.6 million a year for seven years, the TV future of the league formerly known as the Big East finally became clear, but at nearly 15% of what the conference could have collected.
This isn't to say that greed began with football or never existed within the Big East during its hoops-only salad days. Back in the 1980s, at a league meeting in Bermuda, MacGregor offered to pay each coach $5,000 if the league agreed to use its basketball. Massimino and Thompson objected: They had just won national titles and believed they should get a bigger share. At that, Gavitt stood up. He announced that he would be riding a motorbike around the island, and when he got back in an hour he expected the issue to be settled. It was.
In fact, the Big East killed the Big East. Neither Pitt nor Syracuse gave the conference office the courtesy of a heads-up about its plans. Both left as Gavitt lay dying of congestive heart failure. In the hours after the founder's death, having just heard the news about Syracuse and Pitt, Chris Plonsky and Tranghese spoke on the phone. "Please just tell me he didn't know," she said. "If he had seen that news, it would have killed him."
No, Tranghese assured her. Gavitt hadn't known.
"If Dave were alive, he'd somehow put the whole thing into perspective," Tranghese says today. "He'd find the right words. He's just not here to say them."
Even by his standards Boeheim has been unusually cranky lately. He openly disagrees with Syracuse's abandonment of the Big East, but it's a decision over which he and his sport had little control. He seems to be working out his feelings in public. "Where would you want to go to a tournament for five days?" Boeheim said last September. "Let's see: Greensboro, North Carolina, or New York City? Jeez. Let me think about that one and get back to you."
During a rant last month after a loss at Marquette, Boeheim added, "If [the Big East] signed the TV deal last year, it was $17 million per school. I guess they're signing one now for about 2.5.... They brought it on themselves. Sign the [original] TV deal and nothing would have happened. People [thought they] were going to get more money. Didn't work out that way."
Boeheim might as well have been at the coaches' meetings in his usual role, talking about a lousy referee: Who you going to get who's better?
Perhaps more Boeheimian realism would have saved the Big East. Or a few Thompson m-f-bombs in a boardroom full of presidents. Or a little more Looie. As Mullin says, "Coach had a lot of sayings. Like, 'Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow.'"
Maybe the wrong people were in the room. Dave Gavitt's guys—the coaches—would have at least left the chandeliers.
ONE AND ONE
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