There has always been something romantic about the Big East Conference, an ideal that stemmed from its origins as a small East Coast basketball league. Even as the conference shifted away from its basketball roots, embraced football and expanded over the past 26 seasons, its core identity remained the same.
But now what? The Big East endured a tumultuous two-year period in which three schools, including a founding member in Boston College, departed for the ACC and five schools — Louisville, DePaul, Marquette, Cincinnati and South Florida — joined its ranks. The conference has swelled from its original seven to 16 schools, making it the largest in Division I.
"If you start a business with only one or two stores, it's going to be different when you franchise it with 20. It's a lot trickier," said Dave Gavitt, one of the Big East's founding fathers as well as its first commissioner.
Still, "I don't think the overall identity of the conference has changed. We've been a good conference, and we are a good conference," said Jim Boeheim, who is entering his 30th season as Syracuse's head coach. "There's more teams, I guess that's the change. The only thing that people really think about conferences is who the best teams are. We're going to have a lot of the best teams, like we always do."
But the conference is no longer based on geography, as its borders stretch from Syracuse, N.Y., to Tampa to Milwaukee.
"There was so much stability that people were partners for long periods of time. In the true sense of the word, they were conferences," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "I don't know what the word means anymore. My biggest challenge is making certain that this large gathering that we now have can adopt a family atmosphere that we've always had here."
That was one of the trademarks of the early Big East, which began play in 1979 with seven schools: Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John's, Syracuse and Providence. But the initial discussions regarding the creation of the conference had begun three years earlier, among Gavitt, who was then the athletic director at Providence, and Frank Rienzo and John Thompson Jr., then the athletic director and coach, respectively, at Georgetown. They soon expanded the talks to St. John's and Syracuse.
"If we were going to form into a conference, we should create a conference of schools that have some similarities," said Rienzo, who is now retired. "A historical position about basketball. A commonality of background, of institutional commitment. We wanted to form a conference with good basketball schools and good people."
The relationships were already well established: Jake Crouthamel, then Syracuse's athletic director, and Gavitt were fraternity brothers at Dartmouth; Gavitt and Rienzo sat on the same ECAC basketball committee; and Rienzo and then-St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca taught at the same time at the same school in New York City. The ties were cemented once the Big East began playing games.
"We gave birth to the conference," Rienzo said. "We all felt a responsibility to nurture it."
Said Gavitt: "The Big East was special because we've gotten along well, and we've worked very hard at that. That kind of atmosphere, it's a lot trickier with 16 teams. You might become an association instead of a conference, which by definition is not as close-knit. You have to work hard at that."
The Big East is trying to do just that. The conference has had an associate commissioner for football, but this year it added one for men's basketball, and Tranghese hired Dan Gavitt, Dave's son, to fill the position. His job, Tranghese said, is to make sure that the conference thinks about basketball every day. Gavitt, a former Providence assistant and small-college athletic director, will visit all 16 member schools during the preseason, and he will see each team play three or four times during the regular season.
"He learned at the feet of the master," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said. "To have someone full-time for basketball issues is a great, great situation."
What isn't so great, for now at least, is the conference schedule. Teams will play 16 games, facing 10 schools once, three schools twice and two schools not at all. As a result, Georgetown won't play Louisville, the most glamorous of the new additions, in the regular season. Providence will play all five newcomers, but it won't face Syracuse or Villanova -- its fellow founding members of the conference.
The foundation of conference play is double round robin, in which each team plays every other team at home and on the road. But the Big East has not used that format since the 1994-95 season. And there have been years in which teams have not faced every other team in the conference. When the league used a two-division format from 2000 to 2003, Georgetown played only one regular season game against Connecticut and Boston College during the entire stretch.
The Big East is stuck with its current schedule, which even Tranghese calls "dysfunctional," until its television contracts expire in two years; after that, it will be adjusted to allow for every team to play everyone else at least once. Said Gavitt, "You have to look at it as a five-year view and not a one-year view."
As for establishing rivalries, "The top teams are always going to have a rivalry," Boeheim said. "Connecticut is more of a big rivalry for us now because they've been so good. Now Georgetown's coming back, they'll be good again and that'll be a big rivalry game. It's the good teams that are rivals."
Marquette Coach Tom Crean said last month that the Golden Eagles have had more ticket requests for their Jan. 11 game at Seton Hall, which finished 10th in the conference last year and has no nationally recognized star, than any other road game. The reason? Fans can combine a visit to New York City with a trip to the Meadowlands for the game.
"It's phenomenal for our fans to be able to do that," Crean said. "In our time [in Conference USA], we never lost at Southern Miss, so that was a good trip for us. But we'll have a thousand fans at Seton Hall, while we might've had 10 at Southern Miss."