[The Brazil Times nameplate] Fair ~ 73°F  
High: 80°F ~ Low: 64°F
Friday, July 25, 2014

After near destruction, Big East king of the court

Thursday, April 2, 2009

By EDDIE PELLS

AP National Writer

DETROIT -- OK, so maybe it wasn't the end of college sports as we know it.

Six years after commissioner Mike Tranghese predicted doom if his conference lost schools to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East is doing just fine, thank you.

Exhibit A: Take a look at the Final Four, where Big East teams UConn and Villanova make up half the bracket.

"I sat there and basically took a look at what we'd been and what we were about to become, and it wasn't very encouraging," Tranghese said Thursday. "A lot of little things happened along the way to hold things together."

That the Big East exists, let alone thrives, seems like something of a sports miracle given where this league was back in 2003.

Facing the destruction of his conference at league meetings, Tranghese famously said the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech, and later Boston College, would trigger "the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime."

He will not touch the subject of who ended up better in that deal. Suffice it to say that when Tranghese sits down Saturday night to watch his last Final Four as commissioner, he'll be the only one with a team in both games.

Connecticut plays Michigan State, and Villanova plays North Carolina.

"They've been tremendous basketball leagues since the Big East was started," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "These were two of the best basketball leagues then, and they are now. That hasn't changed."

The Big East, in fact, has never been in better shape.

Not as many are saying that about the ACC, which is closing out what many experts said was a weak NCAA tournament, even with the Tar Heels in the Final Four. They sent seven teams to the tourney and have seven wins -- a whopping three by the six teams not called North Carolina.

"I don't necessarily think the postseason was reflective of overall play in the league throughout the year, and that's unfortunate," Swofford said.

But football is where the money's at in college sports, and the ACC has yet to produce the show-stopping results it was hoping for.

Since the expansion, no ACC football team has been in serious contention for the national title, and its only BCS berths have been the automatic ones. As for that revenue-rich title game that was behind the ACC's push to add Miami, Virginia Tech and one more school (which turned out to be Boston College), well, let's just say it's a work in progress. The idea was Florida State-Miami in the winner-take-BCS game, not so much the back-to-back Boston College-Virginia Tech matchups of 2007-08.

Last year's game drew 27,360 to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. There are spring games in the SEC with bigger draws.

But Swofford, who was looking for long-term stability for a conference that only had nine teams then, still sees the move as an overall success. And Tranghese insists he doesn't spend a moment tallying the ACC's wins and losses.

"He's never come to me and said 'How are you guys doing?' I've never gone to him and said, 'How's it working out for you?"' Tranghese said. "I honestly don't know."

All Tranghese needs to know is the Big East is on solid footing and not alongside the Southwestern Conference in the trash bin of history, as many originally feared.

"I've never dealt with anything even close to it," Tranghese said. "Very, very difficult. It's a heck of a burden when you're sitting there and you're going to be the one who's going to usher in the demise of schools and programs."

The Big East was, of course, founded in 1979 on the backbone of basketball, a collection of East Coast schools looking for others to play.

As Tranghese tells it, the 11 schools that were left after Miami and Virginia Tech defected seriously considered splitting apart, with the football schools (West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, etc.) leaving the basketball-only schools (Georgetown, St. Johns, Villanova ...) to fend for themselves.

After a few months of negotiations, they decided to stay together, which spawned a 16-team superleague after Tranghese went looking for programs in Conference USA. (The difference in his move and the ACC's, he says, was that he gave Conference USA plenty of warning but didn't hear a thing about the ACC's plans until the last second -- and through a third party.)

"There were times when I worried about how we were going to make this mixture fit together," UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun said. "And in football, it fit together exceptionally well. It's been kind of a natural."

Not only did the Big East retain the BCS bid it was in serious jeopardy of losing, but football started to thrive.

In 2006, the Big East showcased back-to-back Thursday night games with undefeated teams (Louisville and Rutgers). The next year, West Virginia was positioned for the national title game until a final-week loss to Pittsburgh. The commissioner expects the Big East to sign a better TV contract on the football side when the current deal expires.

As for hoops, the addition of Louisville and four others from Conference USA helped turn the Big East into the best conference in the country. At least this year. Seven teams in the tournament. Three top seeds. Seventeen wins.

"I think this is what we all dreamed about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Much better than the alternative.

"By the grace of God, we were able to stay together and rebuild," Tranghese said. "We've had a very, very special basketball year. We thought we'd be good. We had no idea we'd be this good."


AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.



Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration. If you already have an account on this site, enter your username and password below. Otherwise, click here to register.

Username:

Password:  (Forgot your password?)

Your comments:
Please be respectful of others and try to stay on topic.