The ACC, which had added Florida State in 1991, took a pass. Yet for a while the Big East skated by, launching football play with five teams in '91 and reveling in Miami's national championship that same year. Even after the Hurricanes left for the ACC, in 2004, taking Virginia Tech with them; BC followed the next year. The Big East recovered by adding such schools as Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia to maintain its football respectability and become even deeper in basketball with Marquette and Notre Dame. But the league had to keep reconstituting itself, and all the patching and fixing tarnished the brand. The announcement in '11 that schools like San Diego State and Boise State would be added made a mockery of geographic coherence. It took two decades, but all four of the Big East football schools that Tranghese had once offered to Corrigan wound up in the ACC anyway, in football and basketball. Former BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo had seen it coming. "Build a house on a fault line," he would say, "and that house is going to fall."
Yet no one could have imagined the seismic event that marked the end. In early 2011, ESPN had offered the Big East $1.2 billion over nine years for the rights to both sports—a sum short of what the ACC had just signed with the same network, but approximately twice what the Big East's basketball schools had been getting, and three times the most recent TV take of its football schools. John Marinatto, who in '09 had replaced Tranghese as commissioner, urged his presidents to accept the deal. But former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the ex-Georgetown basketball captain whom the Big East had brought in as a consultant, counseled the conference to wait, and with the presidents of Georgetown, Notre Dame and Pitt siding with him, Tagliabue's position won the day.
Tagliabue pointed out that ESPN's exclusive negotiating window wouldn't expire for another 18 months, and that the Pac-12 would soon sign a new TV contract, which would likely reset the marketplace. Meanwhile, Tagliabue says ESPN was insisting on clauses that would dock payments if any school were to leave before the end of the deal—and at that point no Big East football school would pledge to stick around for more than a year. "It didn't solve the issues we were trying to solve," Tagliabue says. "It didn't give us [ACC-level] money, and it didn't bind everyone to the conference. Other than that, it was a hell of a deal." Turning the network down, he adds, "was intended to induce ESPN to make another offer and wait for the Pac-12 to come into the picture. They said take it or leave it, and we now know what happened."
Even after ESPN and Fox Sports announced a contract with the Pac-12 for $100 million more per year than the ACC's package, nothing better materialized for the Big East. Syracuse and Pitt bolted a few months later. Marinatto resigned under pressure, and the presidents brought in Aresco, who despite 28 years as a TV executive found the league trapped: no deal until stability sets in; no stability until a deal gets done. Last month, after ESPN matched an offer from NBC of approximately $18.6 million a year for seven years, the TV future of the league formerly known as the Big East finally became clear, but at nearly 15% of what the conference could have collected.
This isn't to say that greed began with football or never existed within the Big East during its hoops-only salad days. Back in the 1980s, at a league meeting in Bermuda, MacGregor offered to pay each coach $5,000 if the league agreed to use its basketball. Massimino and Thompson objected: They had just won national titles and believed they should get a bigger share. At that, Gavitt stood up. He announced that he would be riding a motorbike around the island, and when he got back in an hour he expected the issue to be settled. It was.
In fact, the Big East killed the Big East. Neither Pitt nor Syracuse gave the conference office the courtesy of a heads-up about its plans. Both left as Gavitt lay dying of congestive heart failure. In the hours after the founder's death, having just heard the news about Syracuse and Pitt, Chris Plonsky and Tranghese spoke on the phone. "Please just tell me he didn't know," she said. "If he had seen that news, it would have killed him."
No, Tranghese assured her. Gavitt hadn't known.
"If Dave were alive, he'd somehow put the whole thing into perspective," Tranghese says today. "He'd find the right words. He's just not here to say them."
Even by his standards Boeheim has been unusually cranky lately. He openly disagrees with Syracuse's abandonment of the Big East, but it's a decision over which he and his sport had little control. He seems to be working out his feelings in public. "Where would you want to go to a tournament for five days?" Boeheim said last September. "Let's see: Greensboro, North Carolina, or New York City? Jeez. Let me think about that one and get back to you."
During a rant last month after a loss at Marquette, Boeheim added, "If [the Big East] signed the TV deal last year, it was $17 million per school. I guess they're signing one now for about 2.5.... They brought it on themselves. Sign the [original] TV deal and nothing would have happened. People [thought they] were going to get more money. Didn't work out that way."