•The Camera Never Lies. The Big East and ESPN, which were born at essentially the same time, have acted almost as god-parents for each other. The league provided tidy and compelling two-hour blocks of programming; in return, the cable network drew huge audiences with its Monday and Wednesday night broadcasts, which in turn served the Big East as a nationwide recruiting tool. But as ESPN began carpeting every winter week with what it calls "wall-to-wall basketball," the Big East began to look like just another throw rug. And as the league's games became more and more unseemly—as the six-foul rule caused some Big East games to spill 15 or 20 minutes into a hard-nosed but somehow cleaner Big Ten game or a more wide-open Big Eight encounter or an ACC game conducted by maestros like Duke's Bobby Hurley, Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson and North Carolina's Derrick Phelps—what should have been a recruiting infomercial suddenly began to look like the kind of thing a Prime Time camera crew comes back with after a visit to a Food Lion supermarket.
•What Would a Nice Guy Like Me Do in a Place Like That? Current college stars Hurley, Phelps, Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn and Rodrick Rhodes, Georgia Tech's Travis Best, Arizona's Khalid Reeves and North Carolina's Brian Reese are all from New England or Greater New York. Put three or four of them in the Big East, and you wouldn't be reading this story. But because they've gone elsewhere, the league has suffered. A measure of how desperate the conference has become manifested itself in this fall's early-signing period, when the Big East actually fared pretty well—but only by resorting to the stopgap measure of signing junior college players.
•Senioritis. Seton Hall's Dehere is a solid, jump-shooting guard. He is not, alas, what a league of media markets wants in a senior headliner. "At our preseason media day in New York, we were going around asking, 'Do you want to interview so-and-so?' " says a publicist at one Big East school. "Whereas in past years a line would have formed."
•The Breakup of the Gang of Four. Carnesecca, Massimino, Thompson and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim were in on the league from the start and had outsized influence on every decision Gavitt made. But after reaching the Final Four in 1985, the first three started coasting. Then Syracuse got caught cheating and wound up on a two-year NCAA probation. The Big East is still trying to recover.
The day he took over in June 1990, Tranghese wrote a four-page memo to his athletic directors. The subject: The conference was about to enter the most critical phase of its existence, when its charter coaches would start leaving. Tranghese knew that if Steve Fisher were to leave Michigan or even if Bobby Knight were to leave Indiana, those schools' traditions would keep them solid. But the Big East's success, he warned, was based on its coaches, and thus the league couldn't afford a mistake when it hired replacements for its big names.
Yet when St. John's and Villanova faced vacancies last spring, none of the prestigious coaches that cities like New York and Philadelphia would seem to require—not Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, not Xavier's Pete Gillen, not Florida State's Pat Kennedy—could be enticed into the league. Gavitt liked to say that while the Big East's great strength was its media markets, its great albatross was those markets too, for a league of major markets must always compete with pro sports. "Let's say for the sake of argument that these new guys [Brian Mahoney at St. John's and Steve Lappas at Villanova] can coach," says Bill Reynolds, the Providence Journal-Bulletin columnist who chronicled the league's rise in his book, Big Hoops. "Perceptionwise they're no-names. And the Big East has always been a cult of coaches."
Tranghese sees some of these criticisms as contradictory. "For the past two years everybody said that Looie and Rollie were slipping, that they weren't getting the players," he says. "Now people talk about how their leaving is the end of the world. Well, you can't have it both ways."
If Mahoney and Lappas can restock their talent-poor programs, the world will of course not come to an end. Tranghese concedes that those are the stakes. And while the league's coaches would probably prefer he play the perception game at which Gavitt was so adept and vigorously take on the prophets of Big East doom, that's not Tranghese's way. When the Big East started up, as Gavitt spun visions on the order of Big Daddy, Tranghese, his assistant, was holed up in the back of a Providence ad agency, booking the room and paying the band. In that sense the league is lucky to be in the hands of someone who has always trafficked in reality—a man who knows the only useful riposte to all the carping about slippage can come from the coaches themselves. With player signings. Nonconference wins. And Final Four appearances.
The Big East watched one of its own in New Orleans on New Year's night, when Miami and Alabama played a football game for a national championship. What the league would give to find itself back in the same city on April 5, with another national title at stake, only this time in the sport it once owned. Then all would again be right with its world.
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