Big East Week: The day the Big East really died

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The Big East finally sponsored football in 1990, and Penn State would have certainly given the young conference a huge boost as a charter member, having won the national title in the sport twice in the 1980s. (Caitlin Regan/Flickr Creative Commons)

This week, Daily Campus Sports remembers the nostalgic highs of the old BIG EAST Conference, while also asking ‘where did it all go wrong?’ This is Big East Week.

The old Big East officially ceased to exist on July 1, 2013, as the seven Catholic schools in the league – Villanova, St. John’s, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence and Seton Hall – all fled the doomed conference. But that wasn’t when the old Big East’s death knell first rung.

It wasn’t in November of the previous year, when Rutgers took off for the Big Ten, nor was it on Sept. 18, 2011, when Pittsburgh and Syracuse took off for the ACC, or when Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami left for that same conference in the mid-2000s.

Nope, the beginning of the end for the Big East was decided by a single vote by a school president in 1982.

In the early 80s, football independence was starting to become less viable for traditional powers like Florida State, Georgia Tech and Miami, as teams started to see the writing on the wall that conferences would soon be able to negotiate their own TV contracts, instead of being forced to go through the NCAA.

Among those schools that started to look for a place to park their school was Penn State, the football goliath helmed by Joe Paterno.

Paterno’s grand idea was for an eastern football conference, including future Big East football schools such as West Virginia, Boston College, Syracuse and Pitt, among others, but he was convinced to apply instead to the newly-formed Big East as a place to park Penn State’s non-football sports.

The Big East was eight members at the time, and needed six votes to admit Penn State. Even in the early days of the conference, there was a basketball/football split, and the eight schools voted almost perfectly across “party” lines, as three basketball schools – Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s – voted against Penn State’s admission.

The Big East’s dynamic throughout its history was always football vs. basketball, and the addition of Penn State would have gone a long way towards football winning out in the end, but the Penn State vote was a great symbol of how shortsighted the basketball schools in the conference were at the time.

The Big East finally sponsored football in 1990, and Penn State would have certainly given the young conference a huge boost as a charter member, having won the national title in the sport twice in the 1980s.

The Big East’s football lineup would have been even more formidable in the 90s, anchored by Penn State and newcomer Miami, who joined the conference in 1991 and won the national title twice in a decade, and bolstered by other football schools, like Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Notre Dame was an intriguing addition to the conference in the 1995, and would have certainly chosen to stay independent even if the Big East included Penn State, but would have likely entered into an agreement in the 2000s similar to the one they now have with the ACC now, where they would play a fixed number of Big East teams per year.

Even when most other conferences were also expanding to 12 teams, the Big East’s moves to get larger would likely have been Cincinnati, Louisville and USF, all good football schools within the eastern footprint.

Although the basketball schools would have still been alienated by the heavy swing towards football, a conference with Penn State, Miami, ties to Notre Dame and a stranglehold on the New York market could have commanded absurd TV money, and that goes a long way towards alleviating any concerns.

It’s a nice pipe dream, but in real life the Big East was doomed from the very start. They waited too long to commit to football, and that was always where the money was.

However, the addition of Penn State in 1982 would have all but guaranteed the football side landed on its feet.


Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at luke.swanson@uconn.edu.

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