Ten years ago, the Big East was at a crossroads. The once proud basketball conference had been torn asunder due to football realignment. That’s when the “Catholic Seven” stepped up and split the conference in a way no one saw coming. Since then, we’ve seen the football schools go their separate ways and form what’s viewed as the best of the Group of Five Conferences. Meanwhile, the basketball schools kept the name, added some new schools and won a few championships along the way. But what really led to the collapse and rebirth of the Big East?
BIG EAST FORMATION
The Big East was formed in 1979 after the athletic directors at Providence College, St. John’s, Georgetown and Syracuse saw value in forming a basketball conference in the Northeastern United States. The four schools were independent at the time, but changes to the NCAA scheduling requirement led the schools to band together. Providence AD Dave Gavitt served as the conference’s first commissioner and the conference headquarters would be located in Providence. The conference expanded to add Villanova and Pittsburgh, but eventually lost its way.
BIG EAST EXPANSION
About a decade after forming, the Big East began looking to expand in sports other than basketball, primarily football. Rutgers, Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia would all join. Eventually when college football added the Bowl Championship Series, these schools helped make the Big East one of the six “power” conferences.
This worked in the Big East’s favor with Miami winning a football National Championship in 2001 and playing for another in 2002. Virginia Tech also reached the BCS National Championship Game in 1999. Meanwhile, Connecticut won two basketball National Championships in 1999 and 2004. The Big East was a power conference in two sports, but something was looming large in the distance.
Prior to the 2004 football season, Miami and Virginia Tech jumped from the Big East to the ACC. Boston College followed suit the next year putting the Big East’s football prospects in danger. The BCS required its “power” conferences to have 8 football schools, but, at this point, only five played in the conference. The Big East raided Conference USA acquiring five schools, including Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida for football, and DePaul and Marquette for basketball. While the football product declined slightly, the basketball product was now a 16 team superconference that was widely recognized as the best in the NCAA.
Another realignment was on the horizon, and this one would change the landscape of both college football and college basketball. It started with TCU looking to make the jump from the Mountain West to the Big East to be in a “power” conference. Lawsuits followed and other teams jumped around. The Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, then-Pac Ten and ACC all saw movement, but it allowed them to keep their “power” conference standings. The Big East became the odd conference out and every effort made to stay a “power” football conference led to the death of the Big East as we knew it and the formation of a second conference.
CATHOLIC SEVEN VOTE
It was December 15, 2012 when the basketball schools announced they had had enough. The “Catholic 7;” Providence, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, Depaul, Marquette and Seton Hall; unanimously voted to leave the football schools and to pursue their own interests. This worked because of football defections to the ACC, the basketball schools had the voting advantage and exercised it perfectly. They wanted to get back to the original vision of the Big East and it was the smartest thing they could’ve done.
This led to some lawsuits, but in the end, the football schools and basketball schools parted ways. The Catholic 7 kept the Big East name and the rights to hold the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden while moving the conference headquarters from Providence to New York City. The football schools formed the American Athletic Conference. Since the separation, Villanova has cashed in two basketball National Championships for the Big East while Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 school to reach the College Football Playoff.
I work in Providence, Rhode Island and remember how wild it was ten years ago following college basketball in the region. The schools that didn’t have Division 1 football programs were tired of playing second fiddle to those chasing football glory. They bided their time and struck at the exact right time to help the Big East reclaim its spot as a basketball conference. But seven teams is not enough to make a viable conference.
BIG EAST EXPANDS AGAIN
The Big East added three more schools to bring their number to 10: Xavier, Butler and Creighton. While adding schools from Ohio, Indiana and Nebraska doesn’t exactly scream “Big East,” they make as much sense as adding schools from Texas and Missouri to the SEC, a school from Indiana to the ACC, or having 14 schools in a conference called the Big 10. Eventually, the Big East jumped to 11 teams when a former conference member decided to come home.
Connecticut got the shaft when the Big East split up. Rutgers jumped to the Big 10. Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville made their way to the ACC to join former conference mates Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. TCU, who never actually played in the Big East but had agreed to join, found its way to the Big 12. The rest of the football schools formed the American. While Connecticut joined the American, they were an odd case of a basketball school with a D1 football program. Eventually, in 2020, Connecticut became independent in football while rejoining the Big East in basketball. The move brings in a school with four National Championships, including one as part of the American in 2014, to add to the Big East’s already impressive basketball pedigree.
The Big East formed with the idea of making a powerful basketball conference from schools that either didn’t have football teams or weren’t that competitive at football. It was once easily recognized as the best basketball conference in the country. But a lust for football glory led to the conference becoming one of the biggest victims of conference realignment. It has rebounded to become a solid basketball conference again. It may not be the best in the country anymore, but Big East basketball is some of the most fun to watch. And I don’t know if that would be the case if the Catholic Seven hadn’t taken a stand ten years ago. I, for one, am glad they did.
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