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The wake took place on a clear day in September 2011, at a funeral home on the East Side of Providence. Dave Gavitt's body lay in the closest thing to state that sports can offer as mourners filed through— Rhode Island pols, media figures and athletic royalty, including two stars who had once carried Gavitt to the Final Four during his days as coach at Providence, Marvin Barnes and Ernie DiGregorio, who sat in the room for hours comforting each other.
People came as much to pay their respects to Gavitt's great creation as to the man himself. More than three decades earlier, in 1979, he had seen the future: The NCAA was about to herd basketball schools in the Northeast into regional conferences, obliging them to play a double-round-robin league schedule if they expected an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. For Providence, St. John's and Georgetown, all independents with national ambitions, that would mean playing home-and-home with New Hampshire or Wagner or Towson State. If the NCAA is going to force conference play on us, Gavitt reasoned, why not control our own destiny? Gavitt, who doubled as Providence's athletic director, began meeting discreetly with two of his counterparts, Jack Kaiser of St. John's and Frank Rienzo of Georgetown. Soon they roped in Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel, an old fraternity brother of Gavitt's at Dartmouth.
As the lone coach at those meetings, Gavitt could credibly articulate the benefits of a league of their own. An ACC of the Northeast would keep a school like Connecticut from losing in-state prospects like Calvin Murphy (who had gone to Niagara) and Mike Gminski (Duke). And with cable TV about to take off, Eastern schools might even be able to turn the tables, using the increased exposure to make recruiting incursions elsewhere. "It was a reaction to the NCAA rule," Kaiser recalls, "but in our discussions we also saw how good a conference could be for us. It was mind-boggling how ESPN was founded right at the same time"—the network made its first broadcast on Sept. 7, 1979—"and developed as we did."
Soon the fledgling league had a couple of employees working out of the back of a Providence advertising agency, where one of the partners, Jim Duffy, had stumbled upon a name: "It's going to be big, right? And it's going to be in the East."
And so Gavitt's league planted the flags of eight schools along the eastern seaboard, from Boston to D.C. "No one could get [Georgetown coach] John Thompson to sit in the same room with anybody, let alone with other coaches," says Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds, who as a young writer pounded out copy for the conference. "No one was going to tell [St. John's coach] Looie [Carnesecca] that he couldn't pick his schedule. And no one expected the power of ESPN. Dave could see it all and brought it all together. He knew how to get along with anybody, and he could get people to buy into his vision."
Even Gavitt couldn't have foreseen all that the Big East would deliver: the tastemaking power of Hoya Paranoia and "Manley [Field House in Syracuse] is officially closed!" and Thompson's white towel draped over an empty chair; the gym-rat pallor of St. John's swingman Chris Mullin and the batteries-not-included sweaters of his coach, Carnesecca; Providence's Mother-in-Law defense ("constant pressure and harassment"), Jake Nevin in a wheelchair at the end of the Villanova bench, and the guards who could have been Disney characters—Scoonie of Boston College and Bootsy of St. John's and Pookey of Seton Hall; and the 1986 conference title game in Madison Square Garden, where 6' 8" Walter Berry of St. John's blocked the dying-seconds drive of Syracuse guard Dwayne (Pearl) Washington in a New York City schoolyard moment delivered whole to the big house.
The league was loud and contentious and, if you somehow missed the modifier at the front of the name, BIG (all caps in the conference stylebook, rigorously enforced). But it was also unapologetically parochial. Nothing better captured that than the response of coach Jim Boeheim when asked why his Orangemen didn't more often avail themselves of the chance to play in Hawaii. "Syracuse in July," he said dismissively.
But vigorous youth gave way eventually to the palsies of modern college sports. The Big East died in a cascade of broken promises, unreturned phone calls and simple avarice, as schools that also played big-time football chased the TV and bowl money that sport made possible. Since 2004, 19 members have left, including 16 over the past two years, three without ever playing a conference game.
Two Septembers ago, hours after Gavitt's death, word leaked that Syracuse and Pitt were leaving for the ACC. Syracuse's departure would result in nothing less than a mutation in the conference's DNA, the equivalent of North Carolina or Duke joining the Big Ten or the SEC. The league office scrambled to respond, but its moves only further revealed the divide between members that played big-time football and those that didn't. A rump of seven basketball-first Catholic schools will now do unto others as was done unto them, poaching to round out its membership. They'll continue to call themselves the Big East as part of an agreement that includes nearly $70 million in entry and exit fees that have accrued over the past few years. The Catholic 7 & Co. will begin play next season because their likely TV partner, Fox, needs the programming, and the newly constituted league will hold its postseason tournament where Gavitt's Big East did, in the Garden. "It'll be a good league," Reynolds says, "but it won't be what it was. The week Gavitt died, that was the symbolic end of the Big East right there."
The funeral took place downtown, at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, not 100 yards from the ad agency where the conference began.