Will Greed Kill the Big East?

Talk radio is going 24/7 with speculation about how conference realignment will change the face of college sports. Here’s Billy Reed’s take on how we got here, why college presidents are to blame, and how sports needs more guys like Dave Gavitt.

by Billy Reed

In 2006, Gavitt was inducted into the Hall of Fame. PHOTO: NY Times

It was on the afternoon of Dec. 23, 1978, that I met Dave Gavitt for a cheeseburger at the Executive Inn near Freedom Hall. In a few hours, his 10th and last Providence College basketball team would play the University of Louisville. At the time, U of L belonged to the Metro Conference and Providence to the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

I was curious about why Gavitt, at the peak of a splendid career that had earned him the privilege of coaching the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, had decided to leave coaching so he could concentrate all his energy on being Providence’s athletics director.

He gave pretty much the stock answers I had expected. Both jobs had grown to the point that he couldn’t do both satisfactorily. Scheduling and recruiting were growing problems for a tiny Catholic college in Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state. He had scratched the Final Four off his bucket list by going there with his 1972-’73 team, built around Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes.

But then he said something that didn’t grab my attention as much as it should have.

“I’ll probably spend a lot of time the next couple of years studying the possibilities of whether we should think of joining a new conference or fulfilling our traditional role as a national independent, like a Notre Dame or Marquette.”

Less than a year later, Gavitt left Providence to become the first commissioner of the new Big East Conference. Providence, naturally, was a charter member, along with Georgetown, Boston College, Connecticut, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Syracuse.

The Big East was Gavitt’s baby, pure and simple, and under his leadership it grew into the nation’s most formidable basketball conference, a 16-team conglomerate that stretched from Providence to Philadelphia to Louisville. When it got to eight football-playing members, it was able to grab an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the cartel that controlled the major leagues and bowls.

But last weekend, in a sad and cruel twist of fate, Gavitt died and the Big East suffered a near-fatal assault from two of its oldest members. Gavitt, 73, died of congestive heart failure. The Big East, 32, was on life-support after it was learned that Syracuse and Pittsburgh had betrayed the league by secretly negotiating moves to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

What will happen now is anybody’s guess, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see most of the Big East’s Catholic members – Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaui, and Notre Dame (which will remain independent in football) break away to form a new basketball league.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see UConn join the ACC and TCU, the league’s newest member, back out before it plays a game, making the justifiable argument that the Big East is no longer a viable option. That leaves the remaining six Big East football schools – U of L, Cincinnati, South Florida, Rutgers, West Virginia, and Villanova – looking for a new home.

One scenario would be forming a new league with those six programs as the East Division. The West Division would consist of the remnants of the rapidly-decomposing Big 12 – Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri, Oklahoma State and maybe TCU.

Whatever the outcome, however, the naked greed of big-time college football has been exposed more clearly than ever. No longer can pious university presidents say things like, “The student-athlete comes first.” What a joke. The presidents care about the players about as much as they care about the ticket-buying public.

I’m waiting, no doubt in vain, for alumni, faculty, and students to form an alliance to restore integrity to big-time college sports. Shouldn’t they be outraged when a sports scandal sullies a university’s good name? Shouldn’t they rise in protest when coaches are paid $4 million a year while student tuition continues to rise? Shouldn’t they rebel over ticket prices and surcharges that price a lot of fans out of the market?

At the least they should demand that some heads roll. Not the heads of coaches and athletics directors, who are guilty mainly of exploiting the system instead of trying to change it, but of the university presidents who could control the mess if only they would uphold the oaths they took when they went into office?

The president of Pittsburgh is a classic example of the hypocrisy that defines his ilk. Many years ago, when Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami were leaving the Big East for the ACC, he talked loftily about the importance of loyalty, integrity, and commitment. But now, when reminded of those remarks, he pleads amnesia. Or something. When he moves his lips, you know he’s lying.

Universities should not be teaching situational ethics. They should be teaching the importance of keeping your word, honoring your commitments, and dealing fairly all with whom you do business. What are students in the law school or business school to make of these craven “leaders?”

When you look across the college landscape, you no longer see leaders like Dave Gavitt. The founder of the Big East believed in progress and growth. But he believed more strongly in integrity and decency. When Dave Gavitt gave you his word, you could take it to the bank.

He understood that universities and colleges should conduct their business, athletic as well as academic, in ways that would teach values to all their students. Instead, far too many of today’s university presidents are no better than the shysters who brought us Enron and Halliburton. They have sold out their academic integrity for sake of sports dollars. They are a disgrace to higher education.

When Gavitt was a coach, he probably never made six figures a year. But that was okay because he saw himself as an educator, not a CEO. He believed college sports should be for amateurs, not semi-pros. He thought conferences should be built on logic, economics, mutual interests, and geography instead of who can make the most money.

Whenever I’d run into Gavitt at the Final Four or a media hospitality room somewhere, we would discuss these issues. He liked to hang around with writers, especially those who cared about college basketball as much as he did. Listening to him, you knew that college sports was in good hands as long as men and women like him were calling the shots.

But now he’s gone and so, almost, is the Big East.  I’m at the point where I think it’s time for the U.S. Congress to exercise its legitimate right to get involved with how publicly-funded schools spend their money on athletics. Maybe it’s time for tax exemptions to be revoked. For sure, it’s time for university presidents to be forced to appear publicly, under oath, and explain why taxpayers should underwrite the greed and corruption that drive today’s college sports culture.

I don’t know what Dave Gavitt would say about that. But I do know that the founder of the Big East would stand up for anything that would return sanity and integrity to big-time college sports.