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"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 loved That 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."