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Huge, secular and gaudy—it's impossible to imagine the Orangemen in any other color—Syracuse gave the Big East's Catholic schools competitive license to dabble in the worldly. If the Orangemen could deputize Bill Rapp Jr., a local car dealer, and Rob Johnson, a New York City street agent, as virtual members of their staff, and build in so much margin for error that it never really mattered if they missed their free throws, surely Villanova could indulge Massimino's playing by his own rules, whether chasing officials at halftime, or seating Mario Andretti and Tommy Lasorda on his bench. Surely Georgetown could just this once ignore the counsel of academic coordinator Mary Fenlon, the former nun whom Thompson called "the conscience of the program," and ride to its 1984 NCAA title with an incorrigibly undisciplined talent, Michael Graham, of whom the coach would later say, "Mary told me not to recruit the m-----------." And surely the Friars could suit up the point guard from the New York City playgrounds who, introducing himself in a freshman theology class, announced in front of a mortified Dominican priest, "My name is God Shammgod, and I'm here to take Providence to the promised land."
"The Carrier Dome, the crowd, playing in front of 30,000 people—that was unbelievable," says former Orangemen swingman Stevie Thompson, who as a kid in Los Angeles would flip on Big East games upon getting home from school. "I can remember games when [teammate] Sherman Douglas would be 10 feet away from me and I couldn't even hear what he was saying."
"You had the green light," adds Washington, who embodied the Syracuse spirit during the early years of the league. "You played hard, made the right decisions, and if you had to stretch out the 2--3 zone, you stretched it out. It was like the Showtime Lakers. I felt like I was a pro in college. No pro arena seated 30,000."
That's why Syracuse's departure essentially finished the league. "O.K., BC left," Raftery says. "Virginia Tech, Miami—we can live without 'em. But 'Cuse leaving, that's the one that pierced everybody. Syracuse won the Oscar every year for interest, for reputation, and they always had a chance to win it all."
Tranghese is even blunter. The Orange's decision, he says, "ripped the heart out of the Catholic schools. Syracuse was part of the fabric of the Big East."
In 1981, Penn State football coach and athletic director Joe Paterno, eager to find a home for sports other than football, approached Dave Gavitt about joining the Big East. Gavitt supported Paterno's bid, figuring that the addition of Penn State, then a football independent, would reduce the Nittany Lions' incentive to go in on a football conference with other Eastern schools like Big East basketball members Syracuse and Boston College. But with Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova all opposed to adding a school with which they felt nothing in common, the move to admit Penn State fell one vote short. Tranghese made sure the minutes of that meeting included this notation: "We will regret the day we made this decision."
Paterno responded to the snub aggressively. He tried to form an Eastern all-sports league with football at its core. In addition to Syracuse and BC, he eyed Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers. But Syracuse and BC balked at Penn State's unwillingness to share bowl revenue, and Gavitt ultimately outwitted Paterno by adding Pitt, the linchpin to Penn State's plans.
Landing the Panthers was a coup, for they represented another urban market and a solid hoops tradition. And so the Big East continued its rise through the 1980s: NCAA titles for Georgetown and Villanova in '84 and '85, respectively; in '85, three teams in a Final Four, including both finalists, a feat yet to be duplicated; and unforgettable, last-second losses by Georgetown ('82), Syracuse ('87) and Seton Hall ('89) in NCAA title games. Just when it looked as if programs led by personalities like Thompson, Boeheim, Massimino and Carnesecca would permanently eclipse them, Providence, Connecticut and Seton Hall brought in Pitino, Calhoun and Carlesimo, respectively, and made their runs too. "We basically took leaps and bounds as we went along," recalls Gary Williams, who took Boston College to the Sweet 16 in '83 and '85. "There was no gradual period. It was just, here we are on a national stage."
But all the basketball exploits masked a deeper problem. "Candidly," Tranghese put it in one interoffice memo, "we were too giddy over our success." The Big East had fumbled a chance to bring the biggest of big-time football schools into its fold. Then came 1990, a year as ominous as '79 was auspicious. Penn State joined the Big Ten, touching off more than two decades of football-driven realignment. The year before the NCAA had moved to increase the role of presidents in college athletics, which would eventually disrupt the culture of a league founded and run by coaches and ADs. Then Gavitt left to become senior executive V.P. of the Celtics. "Dave knew instinctively that football was about to rear its head," Tranghese says, "and he didn't want to be a part of that."
Tranghese took over, haunted by the football issue. "Not one day did I not worry about keeping the conference together," he says. In the mid-1990s he went to ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan with an offer: Take our football schools, for football only—BC, Syracuse and Pitt, plus Miami, which had begun Big East play in '91—and we'll hunker down and tend to our original mission as a basketball-only conference.