ESPN's latest 30 for 30 documentary Requiem For The Big East showed us the best and worst of both The Big East and ESPN. It was at the same time beautiful and disingenuous. Insightful and tone deaf. Brilliant and ignorant.
Let me start off by saying that I loved the Big East. I loved the rivalries and the outsized personalities and the games and the fact that the Big East is gone is a crime. It was such a thrill for WVU to join the basketball ranks of those teams in 1995 and the Mountaineer's run through the 2010 Big East Tournament was every bit as significant as its Final Four run - maybe more.
ESPN deserves all the credit in the world for telling the story of the league's genesis and mission statement perfectly. It's easy for people my age (mid 30s) to take for granted that the east's preeminent basketball conference had always existed. It was enlightening to see the way the conference's creation shifted the college sports landscape forever and the personalities - specifically Dave Gavitt - that made it happen.
That was an important story to tell and nobody could have done it better.
Unfortunately just like the league itself, ESPN was so enamored with telling the story of BASKETBALL IN THE NORTHEAST that it completely missed the opportunity to paint the full picture of the rise and fall of what might have been the greatest league ever. Even with the dissolution of the league in the rear-view mirror, the arrogance and self-absorption of a northeast media outlet telling the story of a northeast conference blinds them to what really ended it all.
You want the most ironic quote of the entire thing? "Get a television contract was Dave's first order to me." - Mike Tranghese, Commissioner of the Big East from 1990-2009 speaking of the league's earliest years. The same commissioner who was presiding over it all in 2003 when the ACC poached Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College and signaled the beginning of the end for the onetime powerhouse. The same commissioner who would handpick his successor, John Marinatto. It was under Marinatto's leadership that the league became the only one of the BCS conferences unable to ink a big time television deal and thus survive.
The same Tranghese who was smart enough to tell everybody in the room "we will rue the day" when the league voted down adding Penn State in 1986 by a single vote (with all dissenters being basketball-only schools), but wasn't smart enough to see trouble coming when the ACC came calling.
But that wouldn't have fit ESPN's Northeast Narrative. The narrative where the fast-talking brilliant basketball coaches and their visionary leader Gavitt were the smartest guys in the room who created a hardwood and television behemoth. The narrative where the rest of the country wasn't as smart and wasn't as tough and wasn't as savvy as those northeastern titans. The narrative where the only thing that ended hardwood Camelot was the invasion of the football-loving rubes to the south with their 60,000 seat stadiums and their tailgating and MY GOD THEY DON'T EVEN WEAR SUITS!!
The Big East didn't die because a bunch of evil football-centric schools fed it cyanide. The Big East is gone because its leaders were so in love with themselves and the northeast that they refused to adapt and evolve to the changing landscape of college sports. The Big East is dead because the same leadership that revolutionized the way television deals are done in college sports (something I didn't fully grasp until the documentary) sat and watched as conferences all around America - even in *gasp* THE SOUTH - beat them to the punch and signed deals that provided the lifeblood for long-term viability.
The Big East is gone because as happens so often, the smartest guys in the room found out that they weren't as smart as they thought they were and by the time they realized it the world had passed them by.
So, they can play their snarky banjo music when it comes time to talk about WVU and they can look down their noses at the team that provided what Tranghese called "the seminal moment" of his tenure with a 2006 Sugar Bowl win that gave the league legitimacy to survive for a few more years. They can ignore a program that won the 2010 conference tournament just like I'm sure they rolled their eyes when "Country Roads" rolled through Madison Square Garden.
They can tell themselves they're better than us because that's what they always do and that's what they always will do. But the fact remains that we're still here and they're not. WVU has left the former ill-fitting confederacy of city schools behind and joined a league that is a surefire cultural fit even if its not the perfect regional match.
Do I miss playing Pitt and Syracuse and Boston College and maybe even Rutgers (OK I'm kidding, not Rutgers)? Damn right I do. I loved those games. But next time I'm feeling nostalgic maybe I'll just pop in the last 30 minutes of that documentary and remember how the league that WVU spent most of the last decade holding together never wanted anything to do with them anyway. Is it a pain in the ass to drive or fly to Iowa, Texas and Oklahoma? Yes it is, but they're worth the trip and more fun to drink with anyway.
Enjoy your red wine and memories Big East, but always remember that it was your smartest guys in the room that killed you. $3,000 dollar suits and all.
Rest in peace, Big East.